SIMPLE: Love Thy Neighbor

SIMPLE: Love Thy Neighbor
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You might not have noticed that bandwidth is somewhat more expensive than zero cents per bit per second per mile. But, even if it were free, "centralcasting" wouldn't necessarily be such a hot idea these days.

I remember back when Central Casting was the department you called in your Hollywood studio when you needed a six-foot-tall, bearded, muscle-bound, five-year-old girl or some such. It was the central place where casts could be put together. That's central as in the center of the studio's operations on a pretty danged small piece of real estate in southern California; it ain't exactly central as in the center of the universe.

Nowadays, methinks centralcasting is a trademark of Ackerley or Harris or someone or other for a way to have one master control deal with geographically disparate stations. And, although they're singing its praises at every opportunity ("Its praises at every opportunity, oh its praises at every opportunity, yes its praises at every op-por-tu-ni-ty ... "), I've got a different theory on the subject.

NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL

Ayup, that choir is waxing enthusiastic about how moving the technical operations of all co-owned stations to a single spot saves piles of moolah. From where I sit (hey – you've heard of hindsight, eh?), it looks to me more like centralcasting is about as good for economizing in TV broadcasting as swallowing plutonium would be to kill a cold virus. Both cures ain't necessarily all that effective, and they've also got other consequences.

I mean – granted, TV broadcasting ain't exactly the same business it used to be. Back in the good old days, they used to say NBC could air a test pattern and get a 10 rating. These days, NBC barely made it to Nielsen measurability with the XFL – and that had sex, violence and the governor of Minnesota!

Back in the good old days, there were only ABC, CBS and NBC (okay – and Dumont). These days, there are also ABC-co-owned Disney and ESPN, CBS-co-owned MTV and Nickelodeon, and CNBC and MSNBC, to name just a few of a whole mess of other nonbroadcast TV channels owned by broadcast networks.

Way back in the good old days, TVs were connected to rooftop antennas, and, when that wasn't good enough, cable TV delivered local channels and maybe a picture of a weather instrument or three and a clock. These days, there's streamed video on the Internet, DVDs and satellite folks fighting tooth and nail against having to carry all locals in a market.

BELT-TIGHTENING TIME

Nah, it ain't made all that big a difference in TV ad sales yet, but the writing's on the wall. It's belt-tightening time. Meanwhile, as (the real) NASA's complaint to Our Beloved Commish indicates, the network/affiliate relationship ain't exactly what it used to be.

If Nellie the Neuron remembers correctly (and, if I were you, I wouldn't count on her too much), at least one network has threatened at least one affiliate with sending programs straight to cable in their market. The big networks are already among the biggest station group owners, and all but ABC have left NAB on account of wanting the cap on station ownership pulled.

Then there was that MTV Jackass stuff – you know, all the phase and cry over kids getting hurt supposedly going monkey-do over stunts that sometimes never even appeared on the show? Anyhow, it was good grist for the so-called news on such networks as ABC and NBC, but not CBS. Methinks it wasn't high journalistic standards at the Ed Murrow network (remember the faked Dan Rather in the millennial Times Square?) that kept anti-Jackass stories off CBS news; methinks that co-ownership with MTV might've had a wee mite to do with it. And it ain't just CBS.

Remember all the network news reports about how the outgoing Clinton staffers vandalized the White House? Remember any reports of the conclusion of the congressional investigation, requested by none other than Representative Bob Barr (not exactly a Clinton fan), that said it just wasn't so? Me neither. Methinks this is a pretty comprehensive list of all the media outlets that carried the latter story: The Kansas City Star. But I digress.

JUST SURF

Suppose viewers want national and international news. There are CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and a whole bunch more nonbroadcast outlets. Suppose they want national sports. There are ESPN and cohorts. National weather? The Weather Channel. Children's shows? Entertainment for older folks? Just surf your cable, satellite, MMDS or DSL service.

I'm very much afraid that these days there are only two things that terrestrial broadcast stations offer that can't be readily had without them: the ability to feed portable TVs and local programming. Ayup, Nellie is well aware that DTV challenges that portable bit and that some cable ops are offering local programming, but allow me some straws to grasp at this lunar cycle, eh?

Nellie wasn't planning on my ranting about DTV just now, so I'm going to concentrate on that local bit. Whatever clout broadcasters have in Washingtoon is due pretty exclusively to the fact that we carry local news and local political commercials. And dang if we ain't terrifically neighborly about it.

If one local station carries some hot local sports moment, the others in the market just pick it up off air and credit the first. If one station gets knocked out by a tornado, the others pitch in to get them back on the air. At a local press conference, the first station in often feeds audio to the others.

This might be a dog-eat-dog business, but we're more often sniffing each other’s behinds and wagging our tails. We all live in the same market. We all shop in the same market. And, if we change jobs, it's probably going to be in the same market. So we might as well cooperate in the same market. But then there's that belt tightening.

CHANGING TIMES

Robocams eliminate some jobs at the expense of flexibility (to say the least). Virtual sets do much the same. Think there are some good reasons to use a professional camcorder format instead of a $500 consumer jobbie? Me, too. But that ain't what some bean-counters think.

Hey – times change. Would you rather be shooting with tube cameras and quadruplex recorders and editing with a razor blade? How about dealing with a sync generator the size of a rack? Some job descriptions get eliminated. If we're lucky, others get created.

I don't know anymore of any TV station with an employee whose job is testing and replacing vacuum tubes. On the other hand (where I've still got five fingers), back in the old days I didn't know of any TV station with electronic-graphics employees. If a $500 camcorder helps keep a local station providing local service to a community, then Nellie tells me I'm all in favor of $500 camcorders.

Centralcasting is something else. Read my blips. What's local about a local station is that it's local. Period.

When there's a flood in River City, that ought to affect programming on River City stations, especially when Mayor Shinn wants airtime to announce evacuation orders. Back in centralcasting master control land it might not have rained in months.

As I mentioned way, way back when you started reading this rant, bandwidth ain't free (yet). So, if you want to run a remote master control and not give up a local studio, you're paying for two-way bandwidth over long distances, or, as Neil Armstrong said, one giant leap for WAN kind. Dang! I forgot. We're talking about multiple stations. Better make that many giant leaps of WAN kind.

Now, then, you might just give up on that local studio, but, if you do, what the heck is local about the local station? No local, no advantage over cable and satellite. No advantage over cable and satellite, bye-bye terrestrial TV and hello G3 wireless in the same spectrum. And what big efficiency does centralcasting offer a group owner with ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and WB stations (see, for instance, Sinclair)? An occasional group-sold ad? Yeesh!

If they made me Emperor, you could rest assured that I wouldn't shut a single master control. But I ain't even king (must have something to do with a better-than-C-average), and the bean-counters are going to want to do something, whether it makes sense or not.

AND THE AWARD GOES TO …

That's why I gave one of my precious Mario Awards this year to Azcar for SIMPLE, their plan for a "shared individual-market playout enterprise." Enterprise, methinks, means they'd like to make money. Playout means master control. Shared means spreading costs among multiple stations to warm the cockles of a bean-counter's blood pump (I ain't convinced they've got hearts).

Best of all, individual-market means local. Here's how much long distance video is involved: Zip, zilch and zero. When the flood hits River City, there ain't going to be a scheduling problem with any one station because they'll all be affected. When it's critical for the mayor to get on all the stations with evacuation orders, one feed'll do it. The ads for Sam's Sewing Shop and Barbara the Barber can live on one server serving all stations in a market, even LPTVs and (dast I say it?) local cable channels.

Azcar's idea is that a third-party (for instance, one named Azcar) runs the playout operation, so no one has to worry about one station in a market taking advantage of another sharing its facility. Who knows? This sort of capitalism-with-a-local-face could eventually lead to – gasp! – shared transmission towers!

One more time: This ain't my idea. I'd like to see each and every TV station continue as a complete and separate entity. But I wasn't asked when groups started growing, and I wasn't asked when bean-counters decided that shared master controls were a good thing. I doubt I'll be asked whether it's better to do that sharing long-distance or in local markets, so I'm throwing in my two cents now.

Sharing in a local market's a great idea. That's why it's worked so well with sports and press conferences already.

Center-of-the-universe single-owner master-control hubs don't even sound like sharing to me. To me they sound like erecting a tall fence to keep out the locals. And, if the ownership caps go, there might only be four station groups after a while. And, if each of those four gets to making more money from its cable channels than its broadcast stations ... well, I suppose it is more efficient to shut down one central master control than multiple ones in individual markets.