The broadcast industry faced another challenging year head-on as 2009 mercifully draws to a close. And while the past 12 months have witnessed a few truly momentous events in the history of the medium, few local broadcasters will be sorry to see the year fade into history.
John Eck “That the economy’s been bad is the understatement of the year,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB executive vice president, media relations. “But near the end of the year now we’re seeing a new sense of optimism that you weren’t seeing a year ago. The good news is that we’re cycling out of it.” For John Abel, a former NAB executive vice president instrumental in the initial push for broadcast DTV, the economy in 2009 could signal a seachange in the way local stations raise revenue. “In the past, broadcasters would frequently tell me their major competitor in the local economy was the local newspaper,” he said. “Well, it appears newspapers are going away and still broadcasters are having ad revenue issues. This is not going to be an easy fix.” Abel heads Lightbulb Communications in Vienna, Va.
Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, said the industry is responding to new challenges. “Broadcasters are investing in innovations that will provide new revenue streams. Thus, by investing in new innovative services such as mobile TV when times are hard, they’re prepared for any growth opportunities that an improved economy will bring.”
A TRANSITION, TWICE DELAYED
Following a couple of postponements along the way, finally on June 12, 2009, the American standard of broadcasting officially switched to DTV. John Eck, president of NBC Network & Media Works, believes “broadcasters did an amazing job of preparing for it, and they couldn’t have done a better job of promoting the end of analog. There’s no question there were plenty of challenges to overcome, but in the end it was a job truly well done.”
Gordon Smith Wharton said “we were faced with that unexpected delay in the transition [from February to June] in order to work with the new Obama administration. They asked for a delay to ensure everyone who needed converter boxes would have them. Did we have some glitches? Of course. And we’re still having some reception issues we’re all dealing with.”
David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, calls June 12, 2009 “the most significant date in the history of over-the-air television.” And the president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, Mark Richer, said “now the real fun starts. No one should underestimate the power of a wireless one-to-many application distribution system. That system is ‘broadcasting.’”
MR. SMITH GOES TO NAB
Last spring, in a move that took much of the industry by surprise, NAB announced that David Rehr would step down as its chief executive less than four years after filling the post that Eddie Fritts held for more than two decades. Rehr, a former beer industry lobbyist, had prompted displeasure among some board leaders and others over alleged strategic missteps on some industry priorities. He was replaced by fellow Republican Gordon Smith, a former U.S. senator from Oregon—described by NAB��s Wharton as having been “one of the last of the moderates on Capitol Hill.” Smith devoted part of his second official day on the job in October by meeting with new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, where he pled his new industry’s case for relaxation of local broadcast ownership rules, among other issues.
ENTER MOBILE DTV
Mark Richer Climaxing a time frame of less than four years from concept to reality, the ATSC gave its October approval to the ATSC M/H Mobile DTV standard. An industry-wide effort to push the standard fell under the auspices of the OMVC, a consortium of more than 800 stations.
“This was an example of the collaborative process at its best,” said the OMVC’s Schelle. “The new ATSC-approved standard now offers manufacturers, content providers and broadcasters the assurance that new products and services can be… brought to market.” Consequently, added NBCU’s Eck, “We’re now at a pivotal moment that’s not too different from the mid-1990s when we were all trying to figure out the ‘World Wide Web.’ But this time as broadcast opportunities go mobile, the ‘old guard’ of broadcasters also happens to be the ‘new guard,’ so they’ve got a significant head start.” Yet while a few dozen broadcasters in nearly 30 markets have announced plans to roll out some mobile DTV services in 2010, media analyst Charles Golvin at Forrester Research is cautious. He believes it’s good to now have a standard in place, but he said, “Very few broadcasters have control over the content that consumers will want most… As a result, we [still] have an unclear business model.”
No emerging technology in 2009 has captured the attention (and pocketbook) of the motion picture industry as much as 3D—and television is hoping to follow suit.
“3D has been a major buzzword lately, but mostly in terms of expectations for next year,” said media analyst Paul Gagnon of DisplaySearch. “Next year we should see a Blu-ray 3D standard emerge that will make it easier for the content industry to produce 3D material. I would anticipate that CES 2010 could bring a slew of 3D announcements.”
But one big question looms, according to ATSC Chief Richer: “To determine whether it’s practical and desirable to develop standards that support delivery of 3D content over terrestrial broadcasting.”
Julius Genachowski NEW (UNTESTED) FCC
Julius Genachowski is not your grandfather’s federal bureaucrat. Tapped by President Obama and confirmed as FCC Chairman in mid-2009, the 46 year-old Democrat was a successful venture capitalist who worked with such media-savvy entrepreneurs as Barry Diller. Perhaps echoing the sentiments of his former Harvard Law School classmate (Obama himself), an oft-used phrase associated with the new chairman’s view of technology is “all-inclusive.”
Rounding out the 2009 commission are incumbent Michael Copps (Democrat), Mignon Clyburn (new, a Democrat), incumbent Robert McDowell (Republican), and Meredith Attwell Baker (new, a Republican).
For much of 2009, the FCC’s spotlight has been focused on non-broadcast issues such as expanding broadband accessibility. In October, the FCC voted unanimously to begin a rulemaking to expand network neutrality principles and is hearing a growing number of demands that broadcasters “give back” chunks of their newly bestowed DTV spectrum.
“It’s something that gives a lot of our members grave pause because we’ve spent 15 years and $15 billion getting to the point where we now have tremendous new opportunities with DTV,” said Wharton.