How Can TV Survive the Recession? Local Public Service

by Charles Benton

For years, I have been trying to convince television broadcasters that their legal requirement to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity is also in their own financial interest. This year's economic downturn has broadcasters -- like other businesses -- worried about their survival. The recession is costing stations some of their biggest advertisers, such as car dealers and retailers. Advertising sales at TV stations may fall 23 percent in 2009 after a 9 percent dip to $13.1 billion last year. On April 16, Bloomberg news published a story titled "U.S. TV Stations Attract More Viewers With News Than 'Seinfeld'" that shows that now, more than ever, broadcasters must serve local community needs if they are to survive.

During a time of national economic concern, what the public is interested in reflects just what "in the public interest" means. Public interest in news is high. This season, the three broadcast networks' nightly newscasts have increased their audiences 5.9 percent from a year earlier, drawing an average of 24.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. And Bloomberg shows in local markets around the country, it is local news, not re-runs -- that audiences are hungry for. In addition, local news advertising has held up, partly because people watch live instead of using digital recorders that skip commercials.

Local news is the most economic way to survive in this economy. With crews already in place, TV stations can produce local news for as little as half the cost of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and other syndicated programs "In almost every situation, the incremental cost to expand news, if you already have the resources in place, will be less than the license fee that you'd otherwise have to pay," said Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Group which advises stations on purchasing and scheduling programs.

But, of course, there's more at stake here than just broadcasters' balance sheets. During the Reagan Administration, the then-chairman of the FCC declared that television "is just another appliance...a toaster with pictures." But if television were a mere toaster, then perhaps our country's most time-honored broadcast values of competition, diversity, localism, and democracy might all be toast. Television is not just an appliance. Because of the speed and immediacy of television, broadcasters perform a public forum function with immense power to influence public opinion and affect elections. The question today is how to create the opportunity for television to do better. America has the best broadcasting system in the world because of - not in spite of - the regulatory scheme established by our nation's communications laws, which promote diversity of program and viewpoints

As broadcasters say, they are in the business of competing for the most eyeballs - the most viewers. Competition is growing for those eyeballs. The Internet, computers, Blackberrys, Gameboys, and a host of other gadgets are competing with the TV as the central device in a person's life. So wouldn't it make sense that broadcasters would want to reach the greatest number of viewers with content that is not peripheral but central to their lives? Ironically, that is what public interest obligations encourage broadcasters to achieve - reach a greater diversity of viewers and become more central in their lives. Broadcasting is a business, in fact a very profitable business. Quality news, information, and an informed public can be a cornerstone for a thriving economy - and a valuable broadcast business.

If broadcasting is continually seen as just a business like the toaster business, a short-sighted focus on narrow, profitable market segments may prevail. The result will be less and less programming that benefits the broadest segments of society. And TV could soon be seen as just a big box filled with yesterday's technology.

When broadcasters embrace their roles as journalists and protectors and proponents of the public interest, we benefit far beyond what TV stations can recover in advertising - people are engaged as citizens; government power is checked; waste and fraud are exposed; and we can value our televisions as much as broadcasters value our well-being.

By Charles Benton.