McAdams On: TV's Current Transition

HERE, THERE —The FCC issued rules last week that will alter the nation’s video media infrastructure in ways not yet fully imagined much less understood by all who will be affected. That is the one certainty regarding the spectrum incentive auction, due to take place next year. The ambiguity of this untried type of spectrum auction is but one factor of many contributing to the prevalence of uncertainty in the media delivery business, especially for broadcasters and their suppliers.

Aereo is due to be decided this month by the U.S. Supreme Court. If Aereo prevails, it will not mean free-for-all Internet distribution of all broadcast (and cable) signals right away, but it will be a step closer. Aereo’s legality is not the question before the high court. It technically will not be deciding if Aereo is violating copyright law by carrying broadcast TV signals without obtaining permission. It is deciding on whether or not the lower court erred by not granting an injunction to broadcasters to shut down Aereo while the copyright question was being deliberated.

There’s a lot of SCOTUS-watching on this one. Experts with far more insight than I possess are giving even odds, and I agree in the sense that I think the court will rule on this as narrowly as possible. Even though the justices appeared skeptical of Aereo’s claims during oral arguments, they also acknowledged the complexity beyond the question of the injunction—how to apply 1990s media law to a medium that did not exist then.

Into this cauldron throw network neutrality and what it may or may not come to mean to the Internet and everything distributed therein. Including whatever Aereo may or may not do, and whether or not the two or three giant pay TV distributors left standing invest their billions in wires or towers.

And then, Google. Google stands on its own because it has single-handedly thrown media policy into chaos with subtle cunning. Google invented network neutrality, opened the TV spectrum to unlicensed devices, and stranded the D Block of spectrum in the 2008 auction. The NSA calls Google when it loses its keys, so it’s a very safe bet that no matter where the chips fall in Washington, D.C., Google will sweep through them like a baleen whale in a swarm of krill.

Media ownership deserves at least a mention in the examination of moving parts, if only a cursory one. FCC rules are forcing TV station divestitures and closings even as the agency kisses the rings of Comcast and AT&T and their respective multi-billion dollar alliances with TWC and DirecTV. It’s so absurd as to have crossed the threshold of credulity, like putting a lobbyist in charge of communications policy.

As if all of these things and a million other picayune rules weren’t enough to throw the broadcast sector particularly into turmoil, there’s the rapidly accelerating transition from iron to circuits, from hardware to software, from facilities to remote network connections. A couple of years ago, vendors on the floor at the NAB Show in Las Vegas were calling it “function collapse.” Today, it’s a race to recast oneself as software-defined network provider in one or another iteration. Manufactured, fabricated hardware is being displaced by coding.With that comes the reality that no two jobs will be the same.

The larger vendors are evolving through M&A and the ability to leverage an established customer base with which emerging technologies are being co-developed. Smaller vendors— entrepreneurial businesses so presumably beloved by the Washington bloviati—are employing the coping strategies at hand. One veteran, independent TV facility vendor put it plainly:

“For those of us who service the ‘linear’ broadcast industry, it’s like the classic vision of the guy hopping over the backs of alligators trying to get to the other side of the river.”

It’s a fair analogy if you add not feeding the gators for several days before throwing a bucket of fish in the middle of them.