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Editorial: Auto-Immunity

The notion of one of America's ultimate legacy companies lurching toward bankruptcy last week was disturbing. But there was also a sense of relief when General Motors put the speculation to rest and officially declared Chapter 11, like a terminally ill loved one finally letting go. We'll leave crunching the Wall Street numbers to the folks in fancy suits, but we're pretty sure the 200-point boost in the Dow on the day of GM's announcement reflected this relief.

There's little reprieve, however, in GM further slashing its marketing budget, or it and Chrysler draining a shallow ad pool even more by shuttering almost 2,000 car dealerships. But the savvy broadcasters started weaning themselves off their automotive advertising addiction some time ago. With the major national accounts like auto and financial services in grave retrenchment mode, smart stations have been putting the focus of their sales energies into local.

A small army of mom-and-pop ads generated from leads in the Yellow Pages may never equal a few big auto accounts, but it's been a healthy reminder to those in local television as to why they got into the business in the first place—to serve the local community. For years we've heard the catch phrase “hyperlocal” when referring to content; we're hearing it more and more on the ad side, too.

There's something decidedly, pleasantly retro about this trend, like warm apple pie or that Creedence tune we heard in the drugstore yesterday. So instead of grieving about these hard times, let us instead celebrate the hope that lies ahead for television. All seem to agree that the worst of the economic downturn is over, and many on the business side are reporting a few bright spots poking through at the end of the tunnel. “The signs are small, but at least they're there,” says one prominent broadcaster. “We couldn't say that until recently.”

Conan made a smooth transition to The Tonight Show, and broadcasters anticipate a similarly seamless shift when analog signals are turned off June 12. If anxiety is running high about this historic event, we're not hearing much of it. (Let us all please knock on wood.) The DTV revolution brings with it a wide array of digital options and broadcasters, freed from the crushing cost of keeping both analog and digital signals alive, are eager to exploit them.

Out of bleak times come groundbreaking creativity and innovation; our last recession, for one, catapulted Nirvana out of Seattle. GM now is forced to rebuild its business model for the new economy. So, too, is television.