How Localism Can Save Cable TV

Cable TV’s future is uncertain. The triple-play product — television, internet and telephone — is under attack. Two of the three offerings are especially vulnerable.

Telephone service is threatened by the increasing number of consumers abandoning landlines for cellphone-only service. This is why the cable companies have been talking with wireless phone companies about mergers and partnerships.

The television portion of the triple play is under attack by the streaming services — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and now CBS All Access (with a new, first-run Star Trek series). The streamers are attractive, with their incredible amount of TV series and feature films, uncut and often commercial-free. Access on smartphones, tablets, PCs, TVs and Blu-ray Disc players is simple. Cable’s “TV everywhere” is still playing catch-up. Also, the amount of programming on the streamers exceeds cable’s VOD offerings.

Complete seasons of series are a great attraction.

Now, a new threat from streaming services comes as content producers — suppliers to cable TV and satellite services — are launching direct-to-consumer streaming. The Walt Disney Co. will launch two such services in 2019, one for entertainment programming and one for sports. The entertainment service will be the exclusive streaming home of Star Wars and Marvel movies. The sports service will be programmed by ESPN. Turner Sports has also announced the launch of its own streaming service. Should the Time Warner-AT&T deal go through, look for more Turner services to go that route.

Networks of the big media companies — the new Discovery-Scripps, Comcast-NBC, Viacom, Fox and others — are the foundation of cable and satellite channel lineups. When that programming is no longer exclusive or taken away, what does cable have left?

The internet. Cable, however, is not the only way to get to the web. There’s Google Fiber, AT&T and others.

Think ‘Hyperlocal’

So, again, what does that leave cable? It leaves something that executives don’t want to hear. Something they don’t understand and maybe even despise or don’t believe in. Something with a very long ROI — five, six, maybe seven years or more.

Hyper-local programming. If you think about it, this is what the customer expects. Looking at it from their perspective, in the media market where they live, the local cable TV operator is another editorial voice. To the consumer, the cable operator is on the same level as the local TV stations, local radio, local newspapers, local magazines — with all the national media overlaid on top.

If all the local cable operator provides is public access, that’s perceived by the consumer as how the cable operator chooses to express itself. If the local cable operator offers a local news channel and/or high school football, for example, that’s better.

The consumer doesn’t know about ROI, budgets, TV production equipment and staffing. They don’t know how expensive and time-consuming content production is. It must be easy, right? The consumer can shoot video with their phone. They’ve seen video like that used on local and national news, the internet, home video blooper shows and other places. Their DSLR camera can shoot HD video!

If video is no mystery, then a cable operator offering high school football, for example, can present games in full HD with production values like the National Football League. After all, how hard is HD production if it can be done on a phone or the family camera? That is the perception.

There are local news and sports channels available in some markets. Time Warner Cable was a pioneer with NY1 News in the largest media market in the country. What about Nashville, Tenn.; Salt Lake City, Utah; or Boise, Idaho?

Why not many more markets from more operators? The sooner the better. Have you seen your local affiliate’s newscasts? Precious time squandered on “happy talk,” self-serving station “feel good” cause-of-the-week efforts and self-serving network TV program promotion. There’s barely any time for the local news of the day, and not much in specific communities in the market.

Team With Newspapers

Cable TV would do good to partner with local newspapers and/or radio stations to produce news. Newspapers have the journalists, radio stations have small staffs, cable TV has the technology — and a channel — the arrangement benefits all.

The reality of the long ROI mentioned earlier comes from personal experience. It involves the production and airing of a couple of local cable programs, a weekly high school football half-hour preview/recap show and a monthly program featuring a local racetrack. At the time, it was an effort to convince the ad sales department to give us spots to air for advertisers on a “bonus” basis. Months later, after both shows were gone due to personnel changes or budgetary reasons, ad sales was approached by clients interested in advertising in them.

If cable TV gets serious about local programming, the channel for such content has to be adjacent to the local network affiliates. This shows the consumer that the operatio is committed to local programming. Don’t banish it to the part of the channel lineup where the infomercials and Leased Access live.

In the eyes of the customer, placement near the local broadcasters makes the local cable channel an equal. Make no mistake, it will take years of work, money and talent to begin to equal the quality of a network affiliate. The content cannot look like “local cable.”

Traditional cable TV with the triple play and streaming services will exist side-by-side for a while yet. When that changes, only cable TV can offer the localism that can change the cable operator from a utility to a media company.

Randy Smith is a 35-year veteran of the cable TV industry and most recently a production manager at Charter Communications in St. Louis. He has worked in local programming management for cable systems since 1982.