McAdams On: TV Stations With No Signal

HERE, AFTER—Can a TV station exist as a local news operation without a signal?

I’ve been casting this question lately and haven’t had a lot of bites. It likely is out of the question in terms of current business models, so why spend the cognitive energy? Another, somewhat larger factor I sense among TV station personnel is that they are focused on what’s in front of them.

Media staffs in general have been so stripped of any perceived redundancy, there is nothing left to scrape but bone. They haven’t the time or energy to keep track of the hijinks at the Federal Communications Commission. Who can go to work day after day and invest their personal best into an operation that may go on the auction block and disappear? We all toil under such auspices to some degree, but it’s easier to ignore a specter that’s not in our face every day.

Yet the specter—in this case, the spectrum auction— is coming, whether next year, the year after, the one after that or maybe all three. Wireless providers will get as much TV spectrum as they want. The upcoming incentive auction is their second dip in the well since 2008, when they took 108 MHz in the 700 MHz band. Those frequencies are still being developed—something conveniently omitted from all the spectrum “crunch” caterwauling during the Julius Genachowski FCC. You don’t hear it so much anymore because A) the propaganda achieved the intended goal of securing Congressional authorization for the incentive auction, B) sometimes, even journalists will question something after repeating it over and over again for a few years, and C) it was horse leavings.

The spectrum-transfer campaign has now morphed into a numbers game where the potential value of a TV station license on auction approaches $1 billion. It already may exceed that. I haven’t looked at the latest estimates because virtually all that I’ve seen so far are arbitrary and backed entirely by agenda-fueled rhetoric. I.e., more horse leavings with a specific intention—bringing broadcast licensees to the table.

One cannot argue with a successful strategy.

Interest in the auction has exploded compared to two years ago. The $45 billion AWS-3 auction at the end of 2014 didn’t hurt: Incentive auction estimates have gone nuts. Whether or not they’re realistic no longer matters. The consensus among broadcast executives with whom I’ve spoken is that “you’d be a fool not to look at the numbers.”

Owners seriously considering a sale will dig past the hyperbolic figures. They’ll look closely at each of their markets and assess competition, availability of media services, recent spectrum acquisition valuations specific to those markets (versus the Brobdingnagian totals proposed by auction promoters), station revenue, market position and local economics. TV stations seem to be holding their own in the local ad market, but who knows for how long, and who wants to hold their own when they can retire in the sun with a humidor of Cohibas?

Let’s count the hands.

While one can make a decent argument that local television news provides a contributive community service, it’s also a business. Businesses have to make money. As much as the Consumer Electronics Association and the user community in general spit nails at paying for content, creators of content comprise mostly soft-bodied animals who require shelter from the elements and regular meals.

For 50 years, we’ve had the uncomplicated triad of journalists, advertisers and broadcasters (or publishers). Our increasingly rapid plunge into the Digital Age is dismantling that arrangement and leaving the components scattered with no clear path to a new structure. Detractors say “citizen” journalism fills the gap, but anyone monitoring Facebook’s meme cavalcade knows there is a greater need than ever before for fact-checking, confirmation and analysis. Snopes cannot go it alone.

The thing we’ve come to know as “news”—the local, regional and global information that may effect our daily lives—was for decades the province of a balance of personalities: Fervid, intellectually curious reporters; dispassionate exacting editors; referees, artists, sales people, accountants and managers. Those were the salad days. These are not. Now we have “one-man bands” and “blog sites.”

Truly, we get what we pay for, and with that in mind, I return to my original query: Can a TV station exist as a local news operation without a signal? Will Verizon and AT&T support market-based news? Will cable and satellite TV service providers pay a fee for it? Can local programming of any sort thrive without national network partnership?

There were 1,782 full-power TV stations in the United States as of last June. Of those, 719 provided local news with fewer people, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association.

As much as traditional journalism has suffered the digital transition and been hijacked in general—think Anonymous, where no one wears a byline—the baby may be sleeping in the proverbial bath water.

Local TV news can be a lifeline, and not just during disasters. A heat wave isn’t exactly a disaster, but it can be if you’re 80 and your air-conditioning goes out and no one knows you’re suffocating. We always hear about the big ones, where people are warned in time to dodge a tornado, or how transmitter engineers in New Orleans risked life and limb to keep a signal on the air.

You don’t hear so much about the heat shelter announcements, food donation coordination, crazy person on the loose bulletins and the myriad other daily pieces of information that keep us safe, informed and prepared when necessary. We’ve had this type of information handed to us for so long that perhaps we’ve forgotten what our lives might be like without it.

We may soon find out.