COMMENTARY

It’s Not Greed That’s Hurting OTA TV

John Hane: "It's a complicated series of laws, regulations and court decisions that spurred the rapid growth of pay-only platforms, weakened profits (and caused significant losses) for broadcasters and resulted in necessary cost cuts in almost all aspects of their business."

Last month, a TVNewsCheck’s morning email led with “The Sad, Greedy Decline Of Network Television,” a lament about changes in broadcast network programming.  The article was penned by David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun, who has been a TV/media critic for more than 30 years.

In that column, Zurawik acknowledges the profound changes in the television marketplace, but argues that the major broadcast networks are “ragged ghosts” of their greatness in decades past mainly because “in their greed, [they] gave away their journalistic and cultural dominance and authority.”

I disagree with Zurawik’s implicit premise — that television networks are greedier than other business enterprises that compete in TV — as much as I disagree with his conclusion that, well, network programming just isn’t good enough these days.

The oligopoly of big media in the 20th century had many downsides. But it allowed print and broadcasting enterprises to spend liberally on armies of great researchers, reporters, writers, editors, directors, photographers, producers, and on high-cost sports and entertainment programming.

Did greed cause the erosion of network television viewership?  No. The networks were just as greedy in the heyday of broadcasting as they were in the early 2000s and as they are today.

Commercial media relies on “greed” — the profit motive — as do all sectors of commerce in the U.S. It’s how we aggregate capital and overcome large barriers to entry to build large institutions (like TV networks) that can provide competitive goods and services. Overreaching and excess sometimes occur throughout the commercial economy. With luck, competition eventually corrects those ills.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The decline of free over-the-air broadcasting, if you see it Mr. Zurawik’s way (and I don’t), began sooner than the decline of print, because television distribution began migrating to pay-only platforms years before widespread adoption of Internet access.

A complicated series of laws, regulations and court decisions created a framework in which high-quality television content could be distributed to far fewer people — yet far more profitably — via cable and satellite, than it could be distributed via broadcasting.

That framework spurred the rapid growth of pay-only platforms, weakened profits (and caused significant losses) for broadcasters and resulted in necessary cost cuts in almost all aspects of their business.

Some of the most expensive programming moved to pay-only platforms that didn’t suffer from the same legacy regulatory framework.  And many talented producers appreciated the freedom to work without worrying about the FCC’s many content regulations.

Yet other regulations guarantee that FOTA platforms will be bit players in today’s television economy. Decades-old regulations created to promote diversity and localism severely thwart those very goals today, when the formerly dominant broadcasting sector is just a small part of a vastly larger television marketplace that is essentially unregulated.

The fallout of those two regulatory frameworks included necessary and significant cost cuts in all aspects of network operations, including, unfortunately, the high cost of news departments with global reach and the relative luxury of wall-to-wall coverage of political conventions.

Marketplace changes have impacted networks and stations as much as they have affected newspapers. The broadcast ownership and content regulations only compound the challenges for broadcasters.

I don’t buy the view that broadcast television is doing a poor job today. Following a partial (yet hugely inadequate) correction of the regulatory framework, broadcasters have greatly increased investments in sports, news and entertainment compared to a decade ago, even as competition has grown even more intense.

Many of the most popular television programs originate on broadcast television. Broadcasters are also investing in an extensive upgrade of technology — called ATSC 3.0 — that will make their programming more accessible and far better integrated into an IP world.

Broadcast television today routinely punches far above its economic weight in delivering high cost, high value, highly rated programming. No other platform delivers high quality scripted programming, big league sports and daily local and national newscasts. All of that programming is available for free to anyone who wants to put up an antenna. No other platform makes all of its programming available for free.

It’s not valid to compare legacy media platforms today to what they were decades ago and blame the changes you don’t like on greed. Those platforms reflected then, and reflect now, the work of profit-seeking enterprises pursuing their journalistic missions while responding to the economics, competition and (in the case of television) regulations of the times.

I too wish we could have the best aspects of the media enterprises of the 1960s and 1970s along with the much greater diversity, vastly easier access and remarkable flexibility that we enjoy today. But that’s not a possibility, and the media executives who read critiques such as Mr. Zurawik’s can’t learn anything from them.

John Hane is president of a Spectrum Co., a joint venture of Sinclair Broadcast Group and Nexstar Media that is developing datacasting applications for broadcasting using the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard.


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