TV stations and professional staffs — commercial and noncommercial alike — have been around for more than a generation. Television started in the middle of the last century and since then thousands of people across the country have built careers upon the technologies, processes and the advertising dollars that flowed freely for decades. A complex art and science, TV demanded workers develop expertise with an arcane and complex set of tools for their unique work. Creating a high-quality TV show was impossible without armies of specialists to turn all the required knobs and punch all the required buttons at synchronized moments.
Money from national and local advertisers flowed easily to television stations — the mass medium of choice that gave advertisers access to an impossibly huge audience; an audience bigger than the daily newspapers; an audience bigger than any single radio station. Advertising money built the industry, dollar by dollar, viewer by viewer. It’s been a great ride.
But those days are coming to an end. Actually, they’ve already ended. Advertisers and TV execs have simply been slow to realize it and are only now starting to act. (Think of it as the music industry, circa 1995.)
Why? What’s happened in the TV market to make stations swing from cash-rich to cash-poor in just the last 10 years? What’s bankrupting the system? And is this a permanent trend or just a temporary blip? Here’s the answer in less than 5 minutes:
The economic model of traditional TV has imploded as the viewing options have exploded (not to mention all the competing technologies that have emerged in the last 10 years, exacerbating the problem). And as the money for TV broadcasting goes away, the ability to produce programming similarly dries up.
For small and midsize public television stations (not the rich behemoths like WGBH) that want to produce original programs of public value, the path ahead is actually pretty clear and comprises two primary modes:
- Big TV. Large-scale high-end TV productions will be few and far between. They will be funded as independent projects, will mostly involve outside contractors rather than inside employees, and will draw most of their funding from external one-off granting sources. Public media companies might manage or “host” these projects, but we won’t fund them from operating cash. When 1 or 2 hours of “PBS quality” video costs $250,000+ to produce, it’s clear the economics are beyond the meager budgets of smaller stations.
- Small video. Ongoing local productions must scale back to one person + camera + laptop, in variations of the VJ (video journalist) model, as espoused by Michael Rosenblum and others. These small productions must be aimed at multiplatform niche distribution rather than mass entertainment. Plus — an important second fact — we won’t produce all this content by ourselves. We’ll curate and collaborate in ways that will make the traditionalists scoff and sputter. In the end, “TV” folks will either become multifunctional “video” folks or will have to leave for production jobs at specialty video houses.
And that’s just the short-term transformational model (up to 5 years), focused on video content production. It’s quite possible that owning an actual television station (the licenses, the towers, the impossibly heavy technical infrastructure) will become economically unsustainable rather quickly as new technologies chip away at TV’s traditional dominance. Indeed, owning a local over-the-air TV station is likely to be financially dangerous to all but the most efficient regional or national network owner-operators by 2015.
If we in public media believe it’s our mission to serve the public interest using digital media, then video must be part of the equation. But does “TV” have to be in the mix? In the short term, definitely. In the long term, maybe, but probably with significant strategic changes.
For now, we may not know the fate of local TV stations, but traditional TV production models are already dead. The revolution is underway. Click below for another 90-second forehead slap:
So these are the market realities. It’s up to us to decide whether these are exciting or threatening developments. Should we engage and evolve or should we hunker down and hope for a different future?
I know my answer. What’s yours?