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Deciding What a Channel Is

This column originally was going to delve into the “end of channels.”

After all, in the last 12 months, if any drumbeat has gained decibels, it’s the rumbling notion that watching television on someone else’s schedule is headed for the graveyard.

It was just last October, believe it or don’t, that Steve Jobs and Robert Iger made the first of their joint announcements that have reset expectations about what consititutes viewing a television program.

They said they would allow consumers to download primetime shows such as Desperate Housewives and Lost to handheld devices and watch them when they want, anywhere they want. Waiting in the line at the DMV or attending little sister’s piano recital didn’t have to be boring anymore. Two bucks a download ensured that.

Also engaging millions of television viewers in new ways in the year gone by has been the digital video recorder, courtesy of just about any and all cable and satellite operators, not wanting to give a buck away to TiVo. Now, it’s become commonplace to hear someone declare that they no longer watch any show unless they’ve prerecorded it.

So, then, the column was going to be about the “erosion of channels.” After all, when you have a couple hundred channels to choose from — OLN, er, Versus appears on slot 408 of my local system — the value of any individual channel is lessened. There are, for instance, two horse-racing channels competing for carriage on cable systems nationwide. Then there has been the overwhelming impact on thinking about our personal video consumption that has been wrought by Internet sites.

When Current TV launched in August 2005 as a cable and satellite network, it was laughed at for the notion that everyday Americans could create video programming that could continually be considered compelling and attract new viewers.

Current wanted to put the “viewer-created content” onto a television network. You could watch — and vote for — the “Rocco Barocco Fashion Show.’’ Or you could turn back to Project Runway on Bravo.

But another startup without a conventional TV channel of its own stole Current’s thunder. YouTube — which no one was talking about, or even viewing, when Jobs and Iger stepped to the stage — has had a huge impact on the thinking about what will constitute enjoyable television for the foreseeable future. Its short segments may be the video equivalent of one-liners. But anything that can produce 100 million views a day after nine months is worth dissecting, dissembling and reconstructing to one’s own advantage.

In effect, YouTube — by urging its visitors to “broadcast yourself” — has said that what were once considered television channels are no more. Or at least they are not relevant. And if you are a cable-system operator, you better get on with the on-demand revolution pronto. Because the Internet itself is one huge on-demand machine; its denizens are going to create new video content in volumes that professional producers can’t begin to match; and even just skimming off the cream is going to divert enough eyeballs to wreck growth and profit plans.

When all is said and done, though, the channel not only survives but thrives. Cable and satellite deliver hundreds of them. The Internet delivers tens of thousands. And viewers will create millions more.

A channel, now and in the future, will deliver one thing that every viewer understands. If I go here, I get this.

Only now, the channel is no longer tied to a specific number on a dial. Or a particular hour on the clock

As Jason Zajac, general manager of social media for Yahoo, notes, what makes a channel is the type of content that will be found or the source that produces it. The viewer is buying either the Fox News Channel brand of news, or CNN’s brand of news. And if all he or she cares about is African history, then he or she will manage or tweak the tools at hand to create personal “channels” of interest on a storage device, for playback at will.

So, if there’s anything I’ve learned after a year at the helm of Multichannel News, it’s that the channel is not going away, or being reduced in importance.

Instead, it’s multiplying, yet again. And being redefined.

Every viewer now defines what a channel is. And, one day soon, there almost surely will be more channels than there are viewers.