Should local broadcasters just call it quits?

If I were a local broadcaster I’d be worried. I guess I’d be in the minority, though. In the last several years, local broadcasters had the opportunity to sell back their licenses to the FCC and name their prices… and very few (about 1.5%) took that deal. That says broadcasters are abnormally confident in their ability to stay profitable in the long term.

And I say good on them.

I personally hope that local broadcasters hang around for a long time. In my life, I saw the newspaper industry, which started about 550 years ago and really took off about 150 years ago, essentially self-destruct. There isn’t a single newspaper today, not the big or the small, that can boast that it is doing better than it was in 1980. And really, the only winners are the very large papers… small local papers have turned into small, thin broadsheets if they’re around at all.

I hope the same fate doesn’t befall local broadcasters. Local television is important to help people understand the world around them. Well-produced investigative journalism goes so much further than social media when it comes to separating out fact from fluff, and I think that everyone would agree we need that right now.

Local broadcasters have to be thinking right now about how they are going to continue to make money in the future. Looking at 2017’s disastrous TV ratings and the rise of streaming TV, just making money from network advertising and retransmission fees isn’t going to keep the lights on ten years from now. I honestly think some broadcasters think it will, but it seems to me they’re just deluding themselves.

For just about the entire 100-year history of commercial broadcasting in this country, it’s been network programming that’s fueled and funded local stations. Back in the days of radio (and I swear I am not making this up) network programming was delivered on records to be played at the appropriate time. By the 1950s some programs were delivered over special phone lines but most came on film. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that satellite-delivered network programming became the norm, and that continues today (although the internet is used as a backup.)

I bring up those facts because until roughly 2010, your local TV station was the only place you could watch network programs. Then came Hulu, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and provider apps like those from ABC and NBC. All of a sudden, network programming was everywhere and you didn’t have to watch on the local staton’s schedule. It became easier and faster to simply find what you wanted online. That’s bad news for local stations, who have depended on that network programming for so long.

No question that internet-based services are a huge threat to broadcasters, but only to the extent that they allow it. Broadcasters today have to be working on doing the things that people can’t do on the internet. To me that means more real investigative journalism and more local coverage. There is so much untelevised local sports, and it’s all out there for the asking. There’s so much happening in our local communities and an average person with a phone and a Twitter can’t reach all of it. This is a vast and untapped market for local television stations and one that the internet can’t touch.

It’s going to take some time for broadcasters to come around, for them to do what they need to do to keep making money in the 21st century, but I have every confidence they will.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.