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Editorial: The Go-To Medium

There looks to be some life in the old medium yet. Even as wireless companies continue to push broadcasting to the boneyard, over-the-air TV was demonstrating that it could still deliver the creative goods, and the audience.

Anybody watching the beginning of last week’s Emmys telecast could be forgiven for thinking they had accidentally tapped into an ABC closedcircuit feed of an in-house company awards dinner, as Modern Family raked in almost all the trophies for comedy.

Then came one of the biggest surprises of the night, when Friday Night Lights took the award for best writing of a drama and Kyle Chandler for best actor, with the show up against the likes of AMC’s Mad Men and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Charlie Sheen may have been delivering a big audience for his Comedy Central roast last week, a sort of twilight zone where racist remarks that would wind up on CNN or get radio hosts canned were bantered with relative, and queasy, immunity. But on the same night, the broadcast of the Sheen-less Two and a Half Men was appointment television, drawing an audience almost four times as large, while Dancing With the Stars proved that a transgender individual could dance—OK, only marginally well—without rending the moral fabric of the nation.

CBS’ Leslie Moonves pointed out at a recent Paley Center conference that while people have been trying to bury network television for many years, his network is still making “hundreds and hundreds” of millions of dollars. No, it isn’t doing ESPN numbers, as Moonves was quick to point out, but the sky is not falling. And with an expected 2012 election ad windfall, broadcast TV is still a good business to be in.

And it is a better business with the help of the retrans cash that Moonves staked out early on as a potential game-changer. CBS is making those hundreds of millions, and it is thanks, in part, to the recognition that a dual revenue stream is key to survival in a multiplatform world where everybody else gets paid for their valuable content.

As the next round of must-carry elections and retrans deals starts coming due this fall, look for more tough negotiations. Of course, this does suggest that, despite the hand-wringing in some quarters, broadcasting is still must-have programming.

While the FCC has been asked to get into the middle of those negotiations, so far its response has been appropriately measured—so long as it leaves on the cutting-room floor its suggestion of waiving exclusivity rules for retrans impasses.

Clarifying for everybody what good faith negotiations are—and aren’t—without inserting itself into those understandably contentious deals (they are, after all, between tough businesspeople trying to gain every advantage) is the right way to go.

There is no doubt that broadcasters are, of necessity, having to think of themselves as content companies rather than tying themselves to any one delivery system. Moonves said as much. But as long as broadcasters put on content that people want to watch, and as long as local broadcasting continues to be the go-to medium for emergency information and news—as government agencies continue to pointedly remind us during emergencies—broadcasting should remain profi table and relevant.

After the earthquake and Hurricane Irene, followed by a little tropical storm that caused a thousand-year-event’s worth of flooding along some parts of the East Coast, it is hard to argue against having that broadcast first-informer line of defense, particularly since it will still take years before an interoperable broadband communications network is built on the backs of reclaimed broadcast spectrum. In the meantime, if the cell phone industry gets behind a push to put TV chips in their devices, they, too, could share in the power of broadcasting to help keep their customers entertained, well-informed and safe.