What's Going To Happen To The 'Local' In Local Television?

I lived in a number of small towns while growing up, but I spent most of my early years in Lake Doster, Mich. I do not recall exactly how much television I watched as a child, but based on my continued fondness for the medium, I would surmise the number of hours was significant. I do remember we tuned in to "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family" on Friday nights. After school it was Bozo the Clown, reruns of "Gilligan's Island," "The Monkees," and a silly little show called "Channel 3 Clubhouse."

Outside of western Michigan, I think "Channel 3 Clubhouse" was relatively unknown but it enjoyed a 30-year run entertaining children. My sister Kim remembered the name of the host, Cynthia Kay, as well as puppets Nigel and Lambert the Lion. I watched the show for the cartoons, but its undisputed stars were the five- to ten-year-olds Ms. Kay interviewed between "Ruff 'n Ready" and "The Flintstones."

In the big scheme of things, "Channel 3 Clubhouse" was not ground-breaking. In an intimate setting with no microphones around, I might even admit the show was not all that fantastic. It was local television -- low-budget, and derivative perhaps -- but television nonetheless. Once, the day I turned six, I too was in Channel 3's mob of children. I became a minor celebrity in Mrs. Watkins' first grade class for the remaining three days of that week -- all because I was on TV for all my friends to see.



Which makes me wonder, in this age of personal Web sites, MySpace and Facebook, is local television dead? When you can take a $100 digital camera and create a Web-worthy video for your friends to see on their own schedule, are we raising a generation that will bypass local television entirely? If content is king, where will the next generation of local television content originate?

In February many local stations will have the ability to broadcast one, two or three sub-channel signals with the hope that local audiences will tune in. Will the stations try to lure viewers with higher quality local news? Will there be four simultaneous newscasts from each station, geared toward various demographic groups? Or will the content come from the broadcast network holding companies?

I have spoken to numerous station managers and group vice presidents and there is no consensus, but we can imagine a scenario. It is not hard to envision an ABC affiliate with Disney content. Another subchannel with ESPN fare would not be out of the question. Perhaps a wholesome broadcast with programming from ABC Family and Lifetime could round out the ABC affiliate's offering. It would not seem far-fetched for an NBC affiliate to have a news-oriented subchannel with content from MSNBC and CNBC. A second lineup could contain adult dramas with content from USA, Sleuth and Oxygen. A third could be geared to young adults with programming from SciFi and Bravo.

An advertising-supported, terrestrial digital competitor to cable could be right around the corner, were it not for a sticky problem: How will the stations pay for content? Certainly, with local audience measurement in the state it is today, everyone must assume that sub-channels will be unrated. This will leave the station managers to look for creative solutions or throw in the towel on local advertising altogether. Would that signal the end of local content as well? For a decade, we have been hearing about the resurgence in local broadcast television a digital transition will bring. But where is the business model to support such an event? Just when broadcast is supposed to explode, will it implode? The answer is near... 126 days and counting.

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