Tough words for those in denial

In London, former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers — who left the newspaper last week in a dispute with his boss — wrote a damning commentary in the London Evening Standard on the whole print industry.

“Working in print, pure and simple, is the early 21st century equivalent of running a record company specialising in vinyl,” Mr Gowers said.

“The future lies with the internet, and those newspapers that survive will be those that produce truly original content and learn fastest how to translate it into the all-encompassing, all-singing, all-dancing new medium of the web.”

Mr. Gowers could just as easily be speaking about broadcasting, and what concerns me about my industry is how the same denial of which Mr. Gowers speaks is a justification for taking our time. Witness the rationalizations presented in this article from CBS Marketwatch (free registration required). The story examines local television’s response to Monday’s announcements by CBS and NBC that they will begin offering same day Internet streams of popular network programming.

The article quotes two executives deeply entrenched in the broadcast industry, Bob Prather, president of Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc. and Brent Magid, chief executive of Frank N. Magid Associates in Marion, Iowa.

Mr. Prather:

“Look — technology’s here to stay, and anything that gets people content from television stations when they want it, where they want it and how they want it, we’ve got to give it to them,” Prather said. “As broadcasters, we’ve got to be quick on our feet to do what the public wants.”

Prather called VOD a “reasonable idea.” He added that he believes most consumers’ viewing habits won’t change very much. “I think a lot of people will watch these things and pay for them, and then turn around and watch them on free TV the next week.”

In any event, Gray’s network affiliates will “get our money one way or the other,” Prather asserted, since their contracts with the networks stipulate exclusive rights to air current-run network programming in a particular market.

Mr. Prather noted also that their real franchise is local news, and as long as they do a good job there, they’ll be safe. Really?

Mr. Magid looks at the disruption and brings forth a line that I’d wager was heard in the board room of Kodak ten years ago.

Local news is still the main source of cash for television stations, and remains irreplaceable, even as the Web grows as news source, says …Magid…

“Sure, what’s being [taken to VOD] are primetime shows, so I suppose that you might see some diminution in ratings on those shows,” Magid said, which could lower ratings for local 11 p.m. newscasts. “I think that’s what everyone is fearing, but there’s no evidence that suggests that that’s absolutely going to happen.”

Irreplaceable? No evidence? Of course, Mr. Magid makes his living helping local stations do their news, so I suppose we should expect such a rationalization. This remarkable statement ignores the reality that local news viewing is off by 30% in the past ten years. Where are those people going? Trust me, folks, news is the LEAST safe product of local television. Mass marketing is dead. Put a fork in it. Nothing is immune from the bottom-up paradigm that we’ve entered.

The author of the article, David Wilkerson, sums it up well this way.

Like so many other media in the past 50 years, local TV stations won’t go away, but will simply evolve into something that retains much of its original role, but takes on others, as well.
He also notes that this evolution demands that stations not sit still. Rather, they need to be proactive and anticipate what they can control. Amen.

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