Of vinyl records and 8‑track tapes

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel AlitoEvery once in awhile a quote comes a long that’s bound to stick around for awhile, one you’ll likely see many times downstream. This one is from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (a George W. Bush nominee) during yesterday’s hearing on cursing and nudity over broadcasting’s airwaves. Suggesting that the market itself should be allowed to deal with the issue without regulatory interference, Justice Alito made this remarkable statement:

Broadcast TV is living on borrowed time. It is not going to be long before it goes the way of vinyl records and eight-track tapes.

What’s most remarkable here is its source, the mind of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. If this is the way a member of the final court in the land views things, broadcasting has no hope of ever finding relief in the courts against market forces that threaten its existence. The spectrum that the government licenses to broadcast companies is eventually going to wireless broadband, and that will doubtless end up in the courts. Alito is not alone in this belief, but he’s the highest ranking government official that I’ve ever heard say it.

My friend Ethan Beute asked via Twitter “how long?” I think this is going to come upon the industry much sooner than later. It will appear like a thief in the night, although it has been visible and approaching for many years. Broadcasters have been playing defense all this time, while intruders from Silicon Valley and elsewhere have been staging guerrilla and flanking attacks with armies funded by venture capital. Lobbyists representing the NAB and local interests are at war with those representing the Telcos and others, and it will likely be bloody. In the end, though, it’s pretty hard to deny the interests of the public in the matter, and that is strongly tilted to the wireless broadband side.

My advice to broadcasters has always been to move forward strategically on two separate paths. Get as much as we can out of the mass media market available to us via those airwaves and at the same time develop new ways to make money. Mass is shrinking and fragmenting. We can’t “fix” that, but we can find new ways to replace the revenue. We must look outside our comfort zone, but we CAN drive the car and fix it at the same time.

Vinyl records and 8‑track tapes evolved, and so can we.


  1. Physical media can live on (film photography, analog recordings, etc.). But once broadcast spectrum is reallocated, it’s gone forever.

    What I don’t like is a Supreme offering commentary on topics that should be left to the markets. Alito needs to interpret the law, not decide which technologies are superior.

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