Gettin’ Paid!

Every business model is at risk in television. Right now, there are two major fronts on which broadcasters are fighting, and each has the potential to radically change our viewing experience going forward. Towers

The first front is the clamor over spectrum. Perhaps youíve seen the commercials on television touting the benefits of free over-the-air television. These spots are running as broadcasters work to fight off efforts to grab the “left over” parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are now “open” since the transition to digital television. Spectrum is a highly valuable commodity, and would-be service providers of all stripes are fighting for it – trying to convince Congress to re-allocate it in their favor.

Broadcasters are vulnerable here. They were given their spectrum on the promise of their acting in the public interest. Interest groups trying to lever away spectrum, or pressure broadcasters into opening up access, are making the argument that the corporate entities that own station groups have elevated profits above service to an extent that doesn’t justify their continued retention of spectrum.

The other major battle front involves compensation. Broadcast networks, station groups, cable companies and satellite providers are all fighting over who should get paid, and how much. Youíll see television commercials on this topic too.

Broadcasters made a mistake early-on seeking to force cable companies to carry their signals – not yet realizing that the distribution isn’t ultimately as important as the content they provide is. That’s changing now as the networks look to cable companies for a revenue stream for the privilege of retransmission. Advertising alone will no longer support premium programming or news. It probably should have always been this way: The cable companies are utilities and don’t really create anything. They built a highly profitable – and some might argue – parasitic business model on the backs of content creators – kind of like some say Google has done. It’s not evil, it’s just more obvious today.

Major local station owners have opted for retrans fees for a while, but are now also being asked to pay a share back to the network. That’s a more internal struggle that continues a long evolution of the complex relationship between the networks and their affiliates.

I tie the two issues together. I think content creators should be compensated, but in the case of broadcasters, that money needs to be invested back into making use of their available spectrum if they want to keep it for mobile TV and all the other alternative programming they promise. It’s time for the public to start profiting from spectrum allocations either by receiving more services, or selling them to the highest bidder.

Ultimately, this will all become a moot point as each network, cable channel and local station delivers its content over the Internet. The signal will be delivered either by wire, RF or satellite – but it will just be an Internet connection – nothing else. Viewers will create their own menu of local and national content providers and either pay a subscription, a per-view fee, or get it for free by agreeing to receive embedded advertising.

The last group that wises up and decides it’s not going to pay to be a platform for another business model will be the consumer.