Change is afoot in the TV business. The traditional world of networks' hit programs being distributed exclusively through local broadcast TV affiliates is being challenged broadband delivery.
The challenge began modestly about a year and half ago, but more recently it has picked up significant steam. Back in October 2005 Disney/ABC made headlines with a deal to have select programs available for paid download via iTunes. Next up was a trial in the spring of 2006 to test consumer and advertiser interest in streaming full episodes of select programs at ABC.com. When ABC launched this officially in the fall of 2006, the other major networks joined in the action. By my recent count there are now over 40 progams available for ad-supported, free streaming.
All of this activity surely left broadcast affiliates wondering how they fit into this new direct-to-consumer landscape. Of course ABC allows its owned and operated (O&O) stations to also stream its programs, and FOX has shown a willingness to open up distribution further to all affiliates. Meanwhile, the other networks have not made concrete announcements about how their affiliates fit in.
If local broadcasters accepted any of these assuagements, news from the past few weeks should have doused any cheery feeling they may have maintained. Recently, NBC and News Corp announced that they were setting up a new joint venture to manage the online distribution of their programs, simultaneously inking deals with four of the Internet's biggest sites, AOL, MSN, MySpace and Yahoo (adding Comcast shortly thereafter). Next, CBS announced its "CBS Interactive Audience Network", together with deals to have CBS programs distributed through at least ten large web sites, with more surely to follow.
Broadband's Long Arm Reaches into the Broadcast Industry
If I were a broadcaster keeping score over the past year-and-a-half, I would say things have gone from bad to worse to (as my 5 year-old would say) worser.
Consider: in less than two years, broadcasters' competitive position has shifted from a world where all viewers had to tune into their local channels to watch original episodes of "Heroes", "24", "CSI" and other hit network programs to a new reality where these programs are going to be dispersed to all the nooks and crannies of the Internet, ready for on-demand consumption by audiences everywhere.
What does this mean for the broadcasters? For starters it means steadily declining audiences as viewers get siphoned off to these new distribution outlets. It also means rising competition just to maintain a parity "user experience" as these other distributors wrap all kinds of interactive and engaging features around these programs (e.g. online contests, blogs, clips, mashups, etc.). And finally, it suggests falling advertising revenues as marketers recognize not only broadcasters' shrinking audience size, but also that the most desirable demos have moved on and are consuming and interacting around these programs through other outlets.
The networks understand that a broadcast affiliate system established to overcome the geographic limitations of retransmitting analog signals is fast becoming anachronistic in a world of high-quality, boundary-less digital distribution. So, to my mind, their recent initiatives represent nothing short of an attempt by the networks to eventually create a "digital replica" of the analog broadcast model, ensuring that network TV programs reach into the far corners of the Internet, easily accessible to consumers who increasingly live their lives online. The networks' emphasis on a forward-looking approach, rather than stubborn complacency around the status quo, seems like a smart game plan to me.
How Broadcasters Can Stay in the Game — A Blueprint for Surviving and Thriving
As many of you know, I believe strongly that broadband's open delivery platform challenges all incumbent distributors' business models. The Internet puts entities that stand between producers and viewers in an increasingly perilous position. Their ability to survive and thrive will rely not on their traditional capabilities, but rather on new ones that add new value to viewers' and advertisers' expectations.
Therefore, I think there are at least 5 key elements in any plan for local broadcasters to prosper in the broadband era:
Become online distributors of networks' programs
First, broadcast TV affiliates must aggressively press the networks for equal access in distributing TV programs through their web sites. Access to these programs is "table stakes" for anyone who wants to have equal footing for audience's attention in the broadband era. I'm not privy to the behind-the-scenes dealings between the affiliate boards and the networks, but for the broadcasters' sake, I hope they are being relentless in their pursuit of these rights.
Invest in creating distinctive local content
As network programs migrate to other venues, it is imperative that local broadcasters invest in creating content that will appeal to their audiences in their own right. For too long news, weather and traffic have been the broadcasters' mainstays. Broadband opens up endless possibilities for broadcasters to exercise their creative muscles and boost the appeal of their home-grown programming.
Distribute programming around the Internet
As the saying goes, "what's good for the goose is good for the gander." As the networks pursue new Internet outlets, so too must broadcasters tap into new ways of distributing their original content. Broadcasters must realize that audiences outside their traditional transmitting range will also have an interest in some of their original content. By using new online syndication tools and partnerships, broadcasters can extend their reach, and their revenue potential. Witness the recent deal between Yahoo and CBS's O&Os, which has extended these broadcasters' reach across Yahoo's vast network.
Harness the enthusiasm of local citizens to contribute video and other content
Speaking of content, the user-generated variety is no longer a fad monopolized by YouTube. Media companies of all stripes are recognizing that users represent untapped potential as contributors to the creative process. This is particularly true in the local community where broadcasters' economics cannot allow them to give equal coverage to all local events. The rallying cry should be "go forth carrying your video cameras." See what the Washington Post, for example, is doing to cultivate local bloggers. Given the right training, incentives and integration, local citizens can make a huge contribution to local broadcasters' broadband efforts.
Create new value propositions for local advertisers
Last but not least, it is essential that broadcasters create new value propositions for local advertisers. National advertising is seriously at risk with the Internet's rise. However, local advertising is somewhat insulated by the big online players' inability to reach into each and every community with a robust content offering. Broadcasters must develop new video ad formats beyond simple pre-rolls, which should include geo-targeting, interactivity and performance-based rates. None of these are easy — they will all require creativity, persistence and re-training of local sales teams.
I believe the networks' march into broadband distribution will be relentless. Just wait until there's mass availability of consumer devices or other technical approaches that bridge the PC/broadband world with the TV world. This will allow network programming to be carried all the way into the living room, instead of being limited to wherever the computer currently resides. When this unfettered broadband access to the TV occurs, broadband distribution will take another giant, disruptive step forward.
Change is afoot in the TV business. Broadband threatens to re-order the industry's traditional participants into new winners and losers. Broadcasters need to run fast to stay in the first group. Let's keep an eye on how they do.