And That's The Way It Used To Be

While visiting Cape Cod last week, I stopped by the book sale at the Brewster Ladies Library, and since I knew I'd have to make the long ride back home to Connecticut, I picked up an audio book copy of Walter Cronkite's autobiography, "A Reporter's Life," to listen to in my car. Listening to Cronkite narrate the highlights of his career in broadcast journalism was like a crash course in modern American history. It also made me nostalgic and a bit sad, because it made me realize how much things have changed in the collective consciousness of modern media - from a time when Cronkite was the "most trusted man in America," and broadcast media actually mattered. Sure, it still matters. But it matters less and less each day, and soon I fear, it will matter no more. I mention this because the U.S. broadcasting industry is facing another important inflection point - a government plan to recapture a big chunk of its spectrum - and few people seem to care.

The reclamation, part of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, would carve another 120 megahertz of spectrum from local TV stations, which according to an analysis by the National Association of Broadcasters, would obliterate 20 broadcast TV channels per market And coming on the heels of the 18 channels broadcasters lost during the federal government's mandated conversion to digital broadcast spectrum, means that more than half of all U.S. TV channels will have been removed from American viewers in a few short years.

One of the reasons few people seem to care is that there are now abundant media alternatives to broadcast media, namely broadband Internet destinations, which is what the FCC's plan is intended to accelerate. The other reason is that most of the channels that have been taken out of the public trust were from the ultra-high frequencies (UHF channels 31 and higher) that many American viewers are presumed not to care about. But the NAB's presentation indicates that isn't necessarily the case.

The presentation, "The Incredible Shrinking Free and Local TV Band," points out that in many local TV markets - even major ones like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles - some important stations, including some big network TV affiliates, still rely on UHF frequencies to reach viewers. The analysis indicates that the spectrum impacts more than 4,000 U.S. TV stations, including 672 so-called "full-power" and 209 "class A" stations, and that the result will be the displacement of a significant portion of TV channel options. Many of those stations won't go out of business, but some will. Among those that opt to stay in business, the NAB said the FCC plan is to "repack" their signals into lower channels that won't be affected by the spectrum reclamation.

Frankly, I'm not sure I can explain this repacking process, because I don't fully understand it myself, but from what I can tell, it will involve some stations in the lower channels giving up their spectrum to make room for stations abandoning their higher channel spectrum. In some markets - generally smaller ones - the NAB estimates that as much as 40% of stations could go off the air as a result of the repacking maneuvers.

As disruptive as that might be to the local broadcast TV industry, the NAB says it will be all the more confusing, because stations will be shuffling and jockeying channels at an unprecedented rate, and with virtually no preparation for viewers who will suddenly find some of their favorite channels missing from their normal destinations. The disruption will not just impact broadcast channels, but the cable and satellite operators who carry them, and the subscribers who want to watch them.

As messy as the conversion to digital broadcast spectrum was a couple of years ago - despite ample campaigns to inform the American public - I cannot imagine how this SNAFU will go down, and I can already see myself writing stories about the some major TV ratings debacle resulting from it. That said, the reclamation seems a fait accompli and the shrinking of American broadcast TV industry will continue unabated.

That's sad. And as Cronkite might have said, that's the way it is.

Recommend (6) Print RSS
1 comment about "And That's The Way It Used To Be".
  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , July 27, 2011 at 4:48 a.m.

    Not everyone pines for the good old days when viewers had a handful of choices or just one side of the news.