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Down From the Mountain


You might not have noticed, but sitting at the top of the mountain ain't what it used to be.

'Twas a time, not too long ago, when my ol' buddy Engineer Hank sat at the top of the mountain, because that's where the transmitter was. Like a varicose vestal virgin, he kept the RF flame alive, and the transmitter's glow warmed the surrounding community, bathing it in television programming. (Nellie the Neuron tells me that's what we used to call it—before "content," we called it "programming.")

Today, Hank's in the basement. He pilots an asset management server, a real-time H.264 encoder, multiple outbound IP streams and, oh-by-the-way, glances at the transmitter remote readout every so often, just to keep it legal.

Mountaintop to basement—ain't that just the way it goes.

FAREWELL, MCLUHAN

Sorry, Marshall… the medium is no longer the message. These days, the message arrives in spite of the medium; the transmitter's spittin' out bits, not pictures. And rather than standing at the summit of the content purveyors' mountain, the broadcaster now stands down on the plateau, shoulder-to-shoulder with Cousin Twitter and Sister Hulu. And pervy ol' Uncle Torrent.

Point is, people pick and choose content from a bazillion sources every day… news online, weather from the smartphone, a TV series from its website. Funny how all our ranting about impeccable quality has vanished like the fluff off a dandelion; unverified online encyclopedias, blogs masquerading as reportage, even "glorious" 3D delivered in compressed half-bandwidth streams. But the marketplace speaks louder than a vuvuzela, and this is what consumers want… varying degrees of quality, based on delivery medium, subject, and immediacy. So quit yer jawbonin' over 100 Mbps streams, lossless codecs and 5.1 surround—it can't all be champagne and caviar.

TO EACH HIS OWN

Many decades ago, when yours truly used to carry a little green screwdriver in his pocket (to tweak the analog cameras), there emerged an annoying practice of newspapers buying up TV stations, trying to corral all the various routes of media delivery for a given market. Foreshadowing, you say, of today's content-delivery culture? Not so, says I. Except for the advertising department, content wasn't purposefully shared among the outlets; it was more likely that they competed to become the apple of their media mogul's eye.

Today, down on the plateau, our shoulder-to-shoulder neighbors are likely to be ourselves. We're distributing multiple content streams over the air, multiplexing a network feed with a bunch of over-compressed, down-market secondary feeds; and the viewers love it. We've got our live stream on the station website, plus an archive of every news story we ever did, no matter how trivial; and they love it. We've got a station-branded smartphone "app" where Dr. Morty reads you the weather; and they love it. And we've got an RSS feed with the exact same headlines as everybody else has; but because it's got our station's name on it… they love it.

Sounds to me like we're about half-way to becoming indispensible again—remind me exactly what's wrong with that?

FOSSIL OR FACILE?

And so, students, tell me what you've learned from all this, no matter how distasteful the message has been. Don't make me trot out that ol' railroad-barons-would-own-the-airlines fable… you get the point. Stop bowing to the lesser god of TV, and become an evangelist for content delivery—pictures, music, movies, text, 3D, 2D, 1D, whatever.

Is it revolting? Mmm… more like a revolt. A revolt against the tyranny of being told what to watch and when. And the dastardly, subversive element that enables this revolution is your former best friend, technology. Ask the audience why they insist on watching absolutely anything, anywhere, at any time—"Because we can," they say. Because technology enabled it.

But wait—technology! That's your thing, isn't it? You've been using technology to deliver content since Zworykin wore short pants. You rule this content-delivery thing, dude!

So you're not on top of the mountain any more. So you're down on the plateau with everybody else. Big deal. Remember—you're the enabler… you're the content-delivery technologist, and you've got a technology stepladder that lets you stand a little taller than everybody else. Climb on up!

Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a well-known television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. E-mail him atmorazio@nbmedia.com.