Guest blog: Local TV Broadcasting: Lifeblood of U.S. Communications Ecosystem

Thought leaders, policy makers should support, advance local broadcast TV

Every day, millions of Americans watch their local and national evening news on their home TV, browse their mobile devices for local news alerts and weather updates, and flip through popular prime time TV shows they enjoy watching on local broadcast TV channels.

Video programming, however, is not immune to the endless advances and innovations in technology. There’s no question that Americans value access to local TV and have come to rely on the quality and diversity of local broadcast news and programming regardless of when, how or why they watch it.

During the past several years, digital, online video platforms have emerged, all made possible through the deployment of high-speed Internet networks. Consumers can now easily access these new services through a variety of Internet-based platforms.
 
Consistent with the introduction of any new technology, critics and pundits typically offer quick market predictions. Some now contend that these new services will ultimately lead to the death of TV as we know it.

But, as Major League Baseball Hall of Fame great Yogi Berra once said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

The current trend line of television viewers increasingly cutting the traditional pay-TV cord and signing up for online video services such as those offered by Netflix, CBS, ABC, HBO, Dish, Viacom, and Sony, has led some to reflexively conclude that web TV will outright replace traditional television in the home.  

Yet, trend lines do not always accurately reflect existing and changing consumer preferences for the future. Over-the-top (OTT) services today create new competitive pressures on traditional pay-TV services and provide consumers with more choices in the marketplace, but they likely will not present a substitute for the way consumers watch video in the future.

The new entourage of web-based services are limited in scope and programming variety. And although they may be accessed at lower prices than traditional bundled pay-TV packages, the majority of these services do not include local news or live sporting-event coverage consumers have become accustomed to.

The popularity of pay-TV among the American public is undoubtedly driven by network TV programming, as well as local news and investigative reporting. The diversity in media ownership and viewpoints within broadcast TV are also important factors that must not be ignored.     

Furthermore, cord-cutting has raised the awareness and prominence of the digital antenna, given its ability to easily provide free high-definition local broadcast TV to consumers.  

Even in a world where consumers predominantly watch television through a paid subscription, the digital antenna has suddenly become a hot commodity among consumers. Cord-cutting coupled with increased broadband penetration has highlighted the antenna’s ability to make broadcast TV available to viewers on their home television sets or via wireless tablets without a paid subscription.  

Laws and policies that expand opportunities for viewers to access local broadcast TV have never been more critical as a growing number of U.S. households are turning to free over-the-air broadcast TV on multiple digital platforms to access local news and programming, severe weather updates, and emergency alerts and warnings. Available data also shows that the predominant use of free over-the-air television among American households increased by 38% from 2010 through 2013, with those trends expected to continue.

Amidst all these considerations, Washington’s thought leaders should recognize the one constant in the marketplace – the power, reach and popularity of free and local broadcast TV. The central question policymakers should be asking is: How do we support and advance a vibrant local broadcast TV business that can compete against giant national pay-TV interests?

TV broadcasters are a lifeline in times of crisis and an engine that drives commerce in communities across America. As Congress begins debate on a Communications Act update and the Federal Communications Commission opens a review of OTT video services, let’s not ignore the irreplaceable role of free and local TV broadcasting as the lifeblood of our nation’s communications ecosystem.

Kenny is director of public affairs for TVfreedom.org, a coalition of local broadcasters, community advocates, network TV affiliate associations and others advocating for preserving the retransmission consent regime. He is a former press secretary at the FCC.