Hope for local TV in a Giant Zero world
Terry Heaton, the most Net-savvy of TV news gurus, has asked me to put together a few paragraphs of future-proofing-type thinking for TV news executives on the eve of the NAB convention. Here's what I wrote back in an email, backed up here on the Web.
OK, here goes...
The TV news system isn't broken. It's just one system struggling to thrive in the midst of many new systems that will only get more and more useful both to TV news operations and to viewers. Those systems include blogging, videoblogging, podcasting, tagging, videoblogging, rivers of news, and many other emerging practices. It's too easy, however, to get snowed by all the technical possibilities here. Better to look a four larger factors that will put them in context.
1) The Live Web. The Static Web of "sites" is still there, but the action is on the Live Web of posts, real time search, and live feeds of searches on topics and stories that are unfolding *now*.
Key point: Less than a minute passes between the moment when a blog (or any syndicated item) is posted on the Web and when it's indexed and searchable on Technorati or Google Blogsearch. Think of these (especially Technorati, which does the best job*) as engines for searching "what's too new for Google." You can subscribe to live feeds of searches for subjects or tags or web addresses. Your search terms may be city or town names, political figures, weather systerms, news story keywords -- anything, in various combinations. These will be the new AP wire feeds of the future. They should be the feeds of today. There isn't a "system" here yet, but you also don't need one. You can "mash up" a system yourself in your own newsroom.
2) Supply from the Demand side. Thanks to the Net and inexpensive video recording and production systems (Apple's leading the way here), countless former consumers are now producers as well. Nothing the Net does is more important than the ability it gives *everybody* to be a producer as well as a consumer.
Don't think of these new producers as competitors. Think of them as potential allies, partners and collaborators in building out the new systems that will replace TV as we know it. By the way, this trend isn't about "user generated content" a term that calls to mind packing material. It's about participation by parties who will sometimes be much closer to news sources than your reporters, and more educated about countless subjects as well.
3) The Giant Zero. That's how to understand the Net as a giant zero between everybody and everything on it. In the long run, the cost will trend toward zero too. The Net will become a utility like roads and water systems and waste treatment. There won't be much money in deploying it, and its maintenance costs, once installed, will be small.
Here's the key thing about fiber optic cabling: it is capable of carrying enormous amounts of data traffic both to and from homes at almost low cost. This is where we are headed. This is the dirty awful fact that the cable and phone companies don't want to face -- and don't want *you* to face. Because they want to make money by selling access to your station to customers who will eventually be able to bypass them. They have a system of artificial scarcities that they need to maintain for as long as possible. This is not to say they don't have roles to play; just that in the long run their traditional businesses telephony and cable TV will depend on the same Net infrastructure as all other forms of data traffic.
Bottom line: the Interet is the base-level infrastructure. Not cable. Not telephone systems with DSL. Right now cable and phone companies provide wiring that gives us access to the Net but in the long run the Net will become the base utility. More to the point for TV stations, anybody will be able to serve video to anybody else.
Eventually, that's all TV will be. The concept of "stations" is already a relic of an age when TV was waves in the air that only covered a limited geography. Today cable system must-carry rules are designed to mimic the limitations of physical coverage. But those rules are another increasingly absurd example of artificially-imposed scarcities.
4) Relationships. Those are the only advantages stations will have when anybody can serve anything to anybody. Look at the Net and its giant-zero nature as the best relationship-supporting system that the world has ever known. Then look at the opportunities your station has to build relationships today that will survive the transition to a giant-zero environment.
For hints about the scope of those possibilities, think about the relationships revealed by SlingBox usage. Here viewers far removed from their home station's coverage areas can tune in and watch your local games, your local sunrise shows and evening news programs.
Think of the relationships made possible by news systems that embrace what anybody, anywhere in a station's service area can chip in and help produce.
This part won't be easy. Relationships with The Many are new to TV. For the better part of a century TV (like its father, radio) was a one-way, top-down, producer-to-consumer, few-to-many system. Now it needs to adapt to a world where anybody can produce, and anybody can consume anything from anybody, whenever they want, anywhere. The way to stay the Big Dog producer in your service area is to lead the way. And you can only do that by embracing, and relating, to others who can help out.
* Disclosure: I'm on the Technorati advisory board.