An Open Letter to ABC Affiliates

I recently read about a letter written by the ABC affiliate association president to the head of ABC. It seems that the affiliates are upset about the recently announced licensing of ABC’s ‘Lost‘ television program for distribution via the Apple video store. I must say that I am both disappointed and underwhelmed by this predictable letter from threatened affiliates.

For years networks have relied on so called “appointment viewing” of their shows but this model does not seem to interest the iPod wearing, Xbox playing, Tivoing and all too busy generation of today. The time where the family would gather around the radio each week to listen to the latest installment of Fibber McGee, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny and Richard Diamond. Today our lives and the lives of our children are filled with work, school, sports, music lessons, debate team, play practice, scouts, yearbook, medical visits, twenty-four hour grocery shopping and all the other things every American family wants to partake in. We no longer clear our schedules to watch a TV show. Empowered by timeshifting technologies such as the programmable videocassette recorder and the digital personal video recorder many of us now watch our favorite shows on our own terms. Meanwhile television stations and networks have been neglecting the radical shift in viewing habits hoping they would just go away. I applaud ABC for recognizing this is not the case. Rather than be preempted by the rising star of the audio and video podcasts such as This Week in Tech, DigitalLife TV, Systm and others ABC has taken the lead by taking the content to the consumer in the format they want.

This is smart on the part of ABC for a couple of reasons. First, they have jumped ahead of the other major networks by cutting this deal early on. Secondly, they have started a trend of paying for mobile video content. Think about it, if consumers can get used to paying for mobile TV content this early in the game ABC will have paved the way. It’s much easier to do this now than after consumers become accustomed to free content such as the podcasts mentioned above. If subscription supported mobile video content becomes the norm ABC will have gone a long way towards making sure it stays a relevant player in the video production and distribution game for some time to come.

Of course, all this progress comes at the expense of the affiliates and they know this. You’re affiliate probably won’t be going off the air today or tomorrow but with this deal they see the writing on the wall, traditional TV distribution will eventually die. Of course they would like to prolong that as much as possible. What I would have liked to see instead is a commitment to local programming by the affiliates. People are still going to want their local news, sports and weather. What if the affiliates decided to embrace this personal media empowerment and worked a deal to offer mobile audio, video and on demand web versions of their local newscasts? Some of the affiliates have played with web video but it’s clear the main business is still the broadcast news. By adopting a system like the video podcasts mentioned above local stations could offer news updated throughout the day that viewers could download to their media devices and watch or listen to on the train in to work, over lunch or on the trip home.

The world of broadcast media is changing but that doesn’t mean the affiliates need to be left out in the cold. Instead they should be banding together and working out a plan for offering RSS based local audio and video content to the consumer. Make it inexpensive or free and advertising or sponser supported. Whining will get them nowhere, if they don’t change with the times they will be left behind. On demand internet media has arrived for geeks and before long everyone will be on board, either that or they’ll be “Lost” themselves.

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