Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen in Network
“And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
– Arthur Jensen, “Network”
In my last post, I promised predictions about the future of television viewing. Here’s the first of them, from the eerily prescient film Network. (If you haven’t seen it, run out and buy or rent an unedited, uncensored version. Don’t just watch it on broadcast TV.) When Network came out, according to one source, about 50 corporations controlled the US media. Less than 30 years later, we’re down to six that own the great majority of the TV networks viewed in the US. In general, they will work to ensure that they continue to own all significant sources of TV ad revenue.
I’m not pointing that out to say they’re somehow evil for concentrating network ownership so thoroughly. It’s the duty of a corporation to maximize profits; consolidation decreases redundant expenses and removes competitors. In the absence of legal restraint, it’s only natural for something like this to happen.
Anyway, the most likely scenario is that these huge content owners will continue to be the only source of “new” channels. They’ll populate them mostly by repackaging existing assets, adding just enough original shows to ensure demand. Even the broadcast networks, if they can get enough leverage over their over-the-air affiliates, might switch to national feeds supplemented by local advertising inserted by cable systems.
OR if you’d prefer to think positive, satellite TV may ride to the rescue with something completely different. Think of what Ted Turner accomplished in the late 1970s. He turned a local independent station into a national network. While the times are different now, there aren’t any barriers preventing others from doing the same thing.
The real trick is for a station to own national rights to all of its programming. For college stations, such as those run by the University of Washington and Brigham Young, it’s easy to get a cheap (student) workforce to create lots of content. For others, such as the kinda-comatose White Springs TV, the trick was to use a lot of content that nobody owns. Other national networks with very modest programming budgets include America One, RTV and Tuff TV. (I was going to include old FTA friend AMG, but I couldn’t find any active affiliates for it.)
If you can take that national content and add a very local presence for one underserved home market, then you can create a new superstation, one that relies on local car dealer ads as much as national dishwasher soap ads. Whenever big content owners squeeze out local voices, the new superstation can be there with extensive news coverage, local sports events, and a home-town feel to it. Then that station can go up on satellite to be picked up by FTA viewers, out-of-town cable systems, or both.
Or you can turn that equation upside-down and do it the way a lot of RTV and America One affiliates do it. They create a nice piece of local programming, then rely on the network to fill the rest.
Finally, there’s always FreeDBS. If those folks can really get that project off the ground, it could provide a great example for other folks who want to put something interesting on our TV sets. There’s always hope.