What is a broadcaster?

That used to be an easy question to answer. It was a company that purchased and commissioned programs, made programs and ran a newsroom. The company carried the programming on channels and fed those channels to a transmitter. For the engineer, it was all about signals that ran through BNCs and XLRs.

The advent of file-based operations has changed all that. The way is open for any company so minded to distribute programming via the Internet and to mobile devices via the phone system or Wi-Fi. Many of the new entrants don't make, or even commission, programs. Their business is aggregation and distribution.

As broadcasters morph into multiplatform providers to compete with the new guys, it is time to question whether the incumbents deserve the special treatment that being a broadcaster used to incur. When everything revolved around the allocation of spectrum, broadcasters had a unique position in the media and entertainment landscape.

The concept of the state running broadcast channels dates back to the early 20th century. There is only one RF spectrum, so the logic of many governments was to keep it under the wings of the state. Also, broadcast communication was seen as such a powerful medium that it was kept under state control and management.

Over recent decades, we have seen governments divest themselves of state monopolies over telecommunications, power and water. However, many of those same governments have retained tax-funded broadcasters, although commercial companies are allowed to operate alongside.

In Europe, we are spared the use of state-funded broadcasters as organs of propaganda, but in many countries around the world, broadcasting still lies in the hands of the military or the state, and the broadcasters blatantly follow the party line.

The rise of the Internet has broken the cozy relationship between the state and broadcasting. It has introduced new global providers of content to viewers. The independent production sector is capable of supplying content aggregators with all manner of programming, and has been for decades.

Should broadcasters wither to become program commissioners and news operations, feeding a transmitter? Will they be acquired by global media conglomerates?

This is where the tax-funded operators sit in an awkward place. They can diversify to other platforms, but then they distort the commercial marketplace. Have they had their day? Have they been rendered obsolete by new technologies that make the special treatment they had through access to reserved spectrum a thing of the past?

As mobile data delivery bandwidth expands, does delivery as a broadcast signal seem outmoded? I wonder if it would be more logical for a broadcast signal to also be delivered as IP over RF, fiber or copper — whatever pipe is available? It would be a harmonized delivery format, rather than segregating broadcast television from generic video via IP over wireless and wire.

New technology for the creation and distribution of audiovisual entertainment has made the tax-funded broadcaster an anachronism. It does not need the dead hand of the state-managed media and entertainment businesses.

The small group of broadcasters that have been allocated spectrum have had a monopoly over television. In contrast, anyone can set up a business delivering content via the Web; it is a level playing field for all. Broadcasters are pre-Internet dinosaurs that maintain their position through political influence and lobbying. All-IP delivery would open spectrum auctions for broadcast (as opposed to multicast and unicast) bandwidth, much like the cellular operators. It becomes a business marketplace rather than a historical grace and favor operation.

Where does all this IP-based operation leave the broadcast engineer? Well, nothing much has changed with program making. It still needs cameras, lights, switchers, microphones, sound desks and all the traditional paraphernalia familiar to the broadcast engineer. It is the distribution end that is changing.

Send comments to:editor@broadcastengineeringworld.com