The Beginning, Not the End

The television industry faces an uncertain future, which to many means a frightening one. Executives are hearing some bad news. Every industry prophet we read is sure that, this year, advertisers are going to accelerate their migration to the Internet and beyond.

We sense a TV industry that is paralyzed by the future rather than intrigued and excited by how television can—and must—reinvent itself.

Broadcast and cable media must seize that future. As the traditional powerhouses, they have name recognition, but they will have to fight to keep it. They must make their content a standard for the new age, not an echo of the old one.

What is certain is that mainstream TV means something totally different from what it did only a few years ago. In fact, it should now be called “mainstreams TV,” with those streams multiplying almost daily. TV is now seamlessly time-shifted. We get TV digitally, through wireless devices, from telco operators, off the Internet. It seems a new distribution mode is invented every day.

It is difficult for executives raised on a one-way boulevard to move to a multi-lane information highway, and even harder to anticipate which road leads to profitability and which to the eight-track–tape graveyard. To embrace a future that has wreaked havoc with traditional advertising models is scarier still, particularly when it is so hard to wrap your brain around what it all means. We had a dress rehearsal in 1999, when the new-tech explosion claimed thousands of victims. This new world of media is wiser—it lived through the dotcom crash.

So, smart television executives know that, at a minimum, in the new-tech world, the viewer will be in much greater control of the media experience. So will the advertisers. If broadcast and cable/satellite programmers and outlets don't provide that flexibility and interactivity, the consumer and the ad dollars will just cross the virtual street to telcos or the Internet.

That means that old media have to act like new ones. The reason broadcasters are so passionate about multicast must-carry is they see that as one route to competitiveness in this new multichannel age.

Washington could help provide a road map. The FCC needs to provide some regulatory certainty by finally coming up with new media ownership rules that let media companies know what they can and cannot own. Congress needs to get on with rewriting the 1996 Telecommunications Act to reflect the explosion of new technologies.

But in the end, it will be the media companies themselves that determine, by being creative, flexible and smart, whether they will be players or historical footnotes. Television content providers that get their acts together will prosper. The rest will spend the remaining years remembering the good old days—and missing the thrilling reality of the here and now.