Broadcasting’s disruption on display in Raleigh

NBCWRALThe affiliate switch in the Raleigh market is BIG news and yet another harbinger of things to come for broadcasting. It doesn’t matter who initiated what in this remarkable event. WRAL-TV claims they did, because NBC is the best positioned broadcast network for the future. However, many observers, such as Al Tompkins at Poynter, are blaming the tough fiscal stance CBS is taking in affiliate renewal negotiations.

The switch was prompted by a disagreement between WRAL and CBS about how much revenue paid to WRAL from from cable companies should go to the network.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another financial consideration on the bumpy road broadcasters are trudging, but that doesn’t go deep enough. The truth is that the broadcasting business model itself is hopelessly borked, and these kinds of events are simply guideposts along the way to its inevitable collapse. Nobody wants to talk about it, least of all owners, because there’s real money in maintenance of the status quo or at least the appearance thereof.

Local television is falling off the same cliff that destroyed newspapers, but it hasn’t shown up on the bottom line yet, because ever-increasing retransmission consent fees have shielded it from reality. There is no way it can continue for long. Consumers will simply refuse to pay for it when there are cheaper alternatives available. Mass marketing continues to take blow after blow from more cost-effective digital marketing, which is actually direct marketing disguised as mass marketing. Again, nobody wants to admit this, so we all just move forward basing our value on false assumptions of an archaic model. It helps no one except the executives charged with maintaining the hunky dory appearance.

How is anyone surprised that CBS wants top compensation for its top-rated programs? One day, CBS will be a kind of cable network, because it can gain the kinds of program compensation it deserves instead of splitting that money with local affiliates. TV program distribution doesn’t require broadcast affiliates anymore. Netflix and Amazon both won Golden Globes this year. This is all being forced by consumers who are now free to protest the gluttony of 5-minute commercial breaks in “their” programs. Are we really so foolish as to think the era of audience captivity is still moving forward? So much has been written about how the people formerly known as the advertisers are now functioning as media companies themselves that it’s hard for me to believe there’s a single person left who believes the ad-supported content model remains viable as a growth strategy.

The ONLY thing local broadcasters have left is news, and it’s never been more important to be number one. These locally-produced programs historically have generated half of the typical station’s revenue. But half the revenue will never equate to 100% of the expenses, so even the viability of quality local TV news is problematic. There will be cutbacks galore, and some stations just won’t make it. 15 years ago, I suggested stations might want to spin off their news departments into wholly-owned subsidiaries and let them find their own economic justifications. At the time, this would’ve also given local news efforts an opportunity to actually compete with web companies instead of relying on the brands of the TV stations for complete sustenance. Competing as a TV station online has never made sense, and yet that’s as far as most have gotten or will ever get.

In conclusion, the event Friday in Raleigh is stunning no matter how you look at it. To me, however, it’s just further evidence of a predictable future that doesn’t look so bright for my many friends and colleagues still toiling in the trenches.

And to paraphrase George Carlin, “These are the kinds of thoughts that kept me out of the corporate board rooms.”

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