Editorial: The Go-To Medium

Even as wireless companies continue to push broadcasting to the boneyard, over-the-air TV demonstrates that it can still deliver the creative goods, and the audience

There looks to be some life in the old medium yet. Even as wireless
companies continue to push broadcasting to the boneyard, over-the-air TV was demonstrating that it could still deliver the creative
goods, and the audience.

Anybody watching the beginning of last week’s
Emmys telecast could be forgiven for thinking
they had accidentally tapped into an ABC closedcircuit
feed of an in-house company awards dinner,
as Modern Family raked in almost all the
trophies for comedy.

Then came one of the biggest surprises of the
night, when Friday Night Lights took the award
for best writing of a drama and Kyle Chandler
for best actor, with the show up against the likes
of AMC’s Mad Men and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Charlie Sheen may have been delivering a big
audience for his Comedy Central roast last week,
a sort of twilight zone where racist remarks that
would wind up on CNN or
get radio hosts canned were
bantered with relative, and
queasy, immunity. But on
the same night, the broadcast
of the Sheen-less Two
and a Half Men
was appointment
television, drawing an
audience almost four times
as large, while Dancing With
the Stars
proved that a transgender
individual could
dance—OK, only marginally
well—without rending the
moral fabric of the nation.

CBS’ Leslie Moonves pointed out at a recent
Paley Center conference that while people have
been trying to bury network television for many
years, his network is still making “hundreds and
hundreds” of millions of dollars. No, it isn’t doing
ESPN numbers, as Moonves was quick to
point out, but the sky is not falling. And with
an expected 2012 election ad windfall, broadcast
TV is still a good business to be in.

And it is a better business with the help of the
retrans cash that Moonves staked out early on as
a potential game-changer. CBS is making those
hundreds of millions, and it is thanks, in part, to
the recognition that a dual revenue stream is key
to survival in a multiplatform world where everybody
else gets paid for their valuable content.

As the next round of must-carry elections and
retrans deals starts coming due this fall, look for
more tough negotiations. Of course, this does suggest
that, despite the hand-wringing in some quarters,
broadcasting is still must-have programming.

While the FCC has been asked to get into the
middle of those negotiations, so far its response
has been appropriately measured—so long as it
leaves on the cutting-room floor its suggestion of
waiving exclusivity rules for retrans impasses.

Clarifying for everybody what good faith negotiations
are—and aren’t—without inserting itself
into those understandably contentious deals (they
are, after all, between tough businesspeople trying
to gain every advantage) is the right way to go.

There is no doubt that broadcasters are, of necessity,
having to think of themselves as content
companies rather than tying themselves to any one
delivery system. Moonves said as much. But as long
as broadcasters put on content that people want to
watch, and as long as local broadcasting continues
to be the go-to medium for emergency information
and news—as government agencies continue to
pointedly remind us during emergencies—broadcasting
should remain profi table and relevant.

After the earthquake and Hurricane Irene,
followed by a little tropical storm that caused a
thousand-year-event’s worth of flooding along
some parts of the East Coast, it is hard to argue
against having that broadcast first-informer line
of defense, particularly since it will still take years
before an interoperable broadband communications
network is built on the backs of reclaimed
broadcast spectrum. In the meantime, if the cell
phone industry gets behind a push to put TV
chips in their devices, they, too, could share in
the power of broadcasting to help keep their customers
entertained, well-informed and safe.