A Board’s Eye View Of The Future Of US Broadcast

It’s difficult for local stations generally focused on earning positive numbers during the next sweeps to invest much time contemplating station technology needs five to ten years out. This story explores what new direction TV broadcasting could go, from the perspective of someone who controls budgets and strategic direction years in advance: A generic media group Corporate Board member.

Widescale corporate takeovers of television stations and consolidation of smaller groups into larger groups is changing the broadcast business landscape. The new big investors in TV station groups are BlackRock, Vanguard Group, Morgan Stanley, and similar investment funds. Some seem to be more focused on ROI and stock values than owners were during the family-controlled days of local TV stations and small groups. The times and technology are demanding changes in how stations do business and operate.

Hearst and Scripps are two of the top 10 TV groups with family members on corporate boards. Sinclair is one of the only TV groups with board members who have built and sold TV transmitters. Legacy connections with broadcast operations are not the norm. The most common qualification of TV group board members are advanced degrees from private universities in business or finance, and lawyers.

Group Troubles

Right now, big TV media investors are likely watching radio groups like Audacy, formerly known as radio.com and Entercom. Audacy owns 235 local radio stations and thousands of podcasts. Audacy stock has fallen from $156 in Feb 2021 to $0.09 per share on 8 January 2024. Some blame radio’s financial problems on the pandemic, others blame radio’s trouble on streaming.

Similarly, iHeartMedia Inc peaked at $8.07/share on July 1, 2022, and is worth approximately $2.44/share on 8 Jan 2024. Many radio broadcasters blame both groups financial problems on consolidation, streaming, internet competition, bad management decisions and owners that don’t fully understand the industry.

TV media group values aren’t cratering like radio groups, and a few are skyrocketing. Nexstar rocketed from about $10/share in 2012 to approximately $166 on 8 January 2023. On the other hand, Gray Television shares have fallen from about $23 in late 2021 to $9.09 on 8 Jan 2024. Paramount Global (CBS) shares today are worth about ½ their value three years ago.

The perpetual duty of broadcast station management is to increase revenue and reduce expenses. Since DTV, many local TV station engineering staff counts have dropped from a couple of dozen full time engineers to a couple of day engineers and a night engineer, then to a couple of a day engineers, and then to unattended remote operation. Other than CAPEX investments, special projects and occasional productions, there aren’t many engineering expenses left to cut.

Show Business In Boardrooms

Local TV and radio stations are as different as cats and dogs, but they are both ‘show business.’ Try explaining some unusual ‘show business’ expenses to a solemn Ivy League MBA financial controller. Why, for example, should a TV station convert to HDTV when it can’t charge extra for HD spots? It took some serious show-business acumen to make the case in boardrooms for what DTV and HDTV means to the future of television before most people had seen it.

Radio and TV share similar marketing techniques, creative and delivery technologies, and they face similar challenges to attract and hold an audience sponsors will pay to reach. As a business, TV has always been radio with pictures. How closely related is the health of radio groups to the future of TV media groups? Is there enough difference and corporate wisdom available to keep their trajectories separate?

Corporate boards are rather secretive by design. A typical inside director is the company CEO, CFO, EVP, or large shareholders and other corporate stakeholders. Outside directors bring outside experience to the board but are not affiliated with the company. Some directors are appointed, others are elected, depending on the company. The board has the ultimate responsibility to set business policies and goals and achieve them.

I don’t personally know anyone on a media corporate board, but I know the destiny of TV is being investigated, decided, and designed by corporate boards today. Many diverse new workflows and technologies that could be used in TV broadcasting are under development and/or testing and in the news. The TV industry will have to navigate what seems like a decade of significant technical and philosophical direction decisions over the next several months.

AITV

AI up-conversion and colorization of old content is likely coming to a TV screen near you sooner rather than later. Virtually all old color or black and white TV and movie content in all playable formats including kinescopes can be upgraded to realistic 4K by AI. Color, 16:9 and 4K will spark new interest and life into classic content for TV audiences spoiled by 4K big screens.

The word about AI is that a new, personalized, global news network powered by generative AI known as Channel 1 will launch in 2024. An obviously all-AI promotional video proclaims, “From global news, to finance and entertainment, we’ll show you how technology enables us to bring you a global perspective, 24/7, right from the heart of our AI-native newsroom, all presented by our team of AI generated reporters.” 

The idea is to feed specific news content to specific viewers, much like the viewer targeting power of ATSC 3. If a viewer indicates interest in a local high school or nearby dentists, they will see more commercial and program content about it.

AI TV news should scare everyone involved in TV. What station owner board wouldn’t want to eliminate the trouble and expense of managed talent, overtime, crews, studios, news vehicles, studio gear, and people calling in sick? AI makes artificial TV newscasts without humans or physical studios possible. What investor would want the corporation to consider continuing high-budget news operations without AI? AI TV news sounds good, but it has myriad legal issues to sort out.

The NYT Lawsuit

The New York Times announced a lawsuit on 2 January 2024 against OpenAI and Microsoft. The NYT alleges large-scale copyright infringement for using millions of NYT articles, without permission, to train ChatGPT to provide information to readers. The complaint accuses OpenAI and Microsoft of taking a “free-ride on the Times’ massive investment in its journalism” to create content that readers could unwittingly use as a substitute for the Times’ original articles.

Few industries will be more directly impacted by generative AI than M&E. In addition to questions about the legal rights to use AI, M&E talent wants to be paid when their likeness is used by AI. It’s already simple to pirate celebrities and stars with deepfake video software.

AI is also anticipated to help identify deepfake audio and video. Some experts expect the creative community to keep AI companies honest by implementing so-called “forensic AI tech” such as watermarking. Others think trained human eyes are the best fake detector. The industry will most likely continue using every means that works until stronger detection algorithms are available. Deepfake content producers of all ilk are expected to push fake content at TV stations during the 2024 election cycle in the U.S. Stations are on the lookout for it.

Streaming

You can see what streaming has done to radio. Secondary pay-streams from major TV networks with rights to exclusively carry NFL games have become a sharp thorn in the side of many TV football fans accustomed to watching NFL games for free.

Super Bowl LVII in 2023 was the 2nd highest rated TV show ever. The live 1969 broadcast of the Apollo 11 Moon landing was number one in history, followed by eight relatively recent Super Bowl games. Until this season, all but a few televised NFL games were broadcast on free OTA network affiliates.

About one quarter of TV streaming subscribers cancelled at least three services over the past two years. The churn is making platforms develop new ways to bring subscribers back, like lower-cost ad-supported subscription tiers, bundled services and targeted ads. Will it work? Ampere Analysis predicts Disney, Warner Bros., NBCU and Paramount will all be profitable by Q1 2025.

ATSC 3

The ATSC recently reported at CES2024 that more than 100 NextGen TV products will be available for U.S. consumers this year. The NextGen TV rollout has not been the thunderous success many were hoping for several reasons. One is DRM. Not all NextGen TV-badged products can handle DRM on all channels including some DVRs.

As with streaming video, ATSC 3 has provisions for Digital Rights Management (DRM) on each channel, meaning some channels can be encoded and only available by subscription. Local TV news and entertainment once had a rich history of being sponsor-supported and free to all viewers. 2021 retransmission fees for local US TV stations reached and helped pay the bills at local stations.

Most broadcasters aren’t helping cable-cutters because they like retrans fee payments like the $14 Billion USD stations received in 2021. How ATSC 3, DRM and subscription channels develop remains to be seen, as does the future of paid streaming of NFL games and other major live events customarily carried on free OTA TV networks. TV broadcast stations perhaps need to be mindful of the impact on public/consumer opinion of appearing greedy.

Future New Revenue

The broadcast industry is teetering on its once solid, “license to print money,” reputation. Broadcast stations can’t get 50% ratings and competition for eyes and ears has never been so diverse or intense. Advertisers have a growing number of ways to spend their marketing budgets. Most local TV stations are getting the most out of ad sales and sponsorships that the inventory and market will allow, but there’s always room for improvement.

TV fans are being hammered by pay streaming subscriptions and higher MVPD bills. 3D, second-screen, and Interactive TV aren’t the answer. Fortunately, broadcasters are beginning to recognize a new opportunity to make fresh profits from new sources without appearing greedy. That opportunity is the Broadcast Internet for mass data distribution. Several TV groups are investigating and experimenting with nationwide one-to-many ATSC 3.0 datacasting networks which is ideal to simultaneously upgrade all devices or vehicles on a broadcast internet network.

Another technology-based alternative could fundamentally change broadcast TV in several respects. 5G broadcasting is already being tested and in need of universal industry adoption in 5G devices. Clearly, 5G broadcasting solves the one-to-many cellphones problem in major sports stadiums and can resolve critical local vehicular data communication bottlenecks.

On the other hand, some visionaries and consultants are beginning to question the need to continue high-power, high-tower, high-expense, RF broadcasting in a world of ubiquitous cellular data and streaming video. When 5G and 6G broadcast signals blanket a market, could stations trade their licensed spectrum for tax credit and become branded TV content providers without the costs and troubles of RF systems and FCC technical compliance? Never say never.

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