I wasn’t at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, but I have been in the past. I know it’s a geeky affair, in all the worst aspects of geekdom--weather van salespeople and booths where you can buy the red blinky lights for your tall tower.
But online video-related vendors are there, as the broadcasting convention comes to be defined less by the broadcasting “thing” -- with antennas and stations and public interest standards and news doctors -- than an umbrella term that is referring to mass distribution of content.
“Real” broadcasting issues the last 20 or 30 years have been largely about stopping somebody. Usually, it's the FCC. Sometimes, cable competitors and sometimes phone companies and other would-be spectrum thieves.
Television is now trying to relate. An essay by The Diffusion Group’s Joel Espelien, who was at the show, makes a good point: Almost whatever linear television does, it’s just not what is happening now, and that’s a killer for any mass, popular medium.
I know tens of millions still watch every day and billions are spent, just like millions still go to McDonald’s. But, in Espelien’s view, and I guess mine, TV’s no longer relevant, and like Mickey D’s, its menu is out of date.
He writes, “Let’s be honest: the sin qua non of successful products and services is being viewed as cool. Cool is that point at which the brand and use of said product/service is perceived as extending a unique esteem to the user.”
Even if you are 50 years old rather than 25 or 30, you lose a lot of cool cred admitting you watch the 11 o’clock news. And that is local TV’s cash cow. Massively popular shows like CBS' "NCIS" are exactly the image of TV that gives it a bad name.
“On one NAB panel, I actually heard an industry executive (who shall remain nameless) all but apologize for the fact that he still watches pay-TV using a set-top box,” Espelien writes. “Oh, the horror! Equally interesting, multiple conversations I had with executives confirmed that, in little more than a week, HBO Go has ceded its coolness crown to HBO Now (at least among the cognoscenti).”
He goes on to point out that even Facebook has discovered it is finding itself considered a little old. He asks: “If that’s the case for Mark Zuckerberg and his entourage of tech-savvy hipsters, what chance does the local TV station or cable operator have?”
Espelien doesn’t go in this direction, so I will.
It seems the media message of the last 30 years -- though it might have been whispered -- is to go with the flow. Had television networks and stations been smart about it, they all would have become powerful platforms online far sooner, and far more firmly than some of them are now.
Their Web sites would have divided into several sub-sites catering to distinct mini-audiences. They would have been the pioneers on YouTube. If cable had really taken the cord-cutting stories seriously and acted to create alternative, efforts like Comcast’s X1 platform would have looked like progress, not reactive, defensive gestures, taken long after most subscribers decided they really really hate you, or maybe worse, just don’t care to find out.
There are still no funeral plans for cable or broadcasting. They will survive, but they’re great examples of standing still when they should have been racing ahead. The same fate probably faces online sites now that they have miscalculated the trend toward apps and mobile viewing. But actually, the digital world that was paying attention probably learned a lot about what not to do from the mass media giants that walked the Earth before them.