Digital TV hasn't exactly elevated the conversation
Three years after L.A. Law finished its eight-year NBC run, former NBC News and PBS President, Lawrence K. Grossman, published an In the Public Interest column in Columbia’s Journalism Review. I quote his September 1997 article: “Congress has decided to hand out free to the nation’s TV broadcasters’ extra channels on the public airwaves…”
Grossman argued that the new channel space belonged to the American people to be used for digital TV to start in 1998. (I remember watching my over-the-air TV go black the night it ultimately happened.) Grossman predicted that the digital spectrum would replace the analog spectrum. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain called it “One of the great scams in American history.”
What does this mean for television the way you use it–Nielsen measures usage– today? Why are our new channels indigenous to The Price I$ Right? Well…were it not for the digital channels, the producers probably couldn’t give the stuff away. People watch these digital channels thinking they have new cable channels when, since they are broadcast channels, the cable systems have an obligation to carry these rebranded national networks. In New York, WCBS2 has been supplemented with STARTV 2.2., DABL 2.3., and FAVE 2.4. Comcast has supplemented 4New York with COZY, 4.2, and on 4.3, Lx, the heavily promoted millennial news that turned out to be a blunder. Fox still has FOX5 but they’ve added Movies 5.2, Fox Weather 5.3, Byron Allen’s Grio 5.4 and Decades 5.5. Disney, Nextstar, Scripps/Katz, and at least Sony broadcast Hollywood repeats, my favorite being Kojak on Sony’s Great Entertainment TV, channel 68.3. So, if in total, over-the-air delivers another 200 channels, Grossman was asking, “Where’s the news?” We get fewer hours of news and news division programming and instead we get more and more repeats with tons more commercials. As a result, the broadcasters have capitalized on the government “giveaway” of broadcast signals by selling the fresh commercial inventory that has been created as a result.
I made note during The Price I$ Right and spotted brands from the 1980s and 1990s when I was buying and selling ad time: Dawn, Febreze, Angel Soft, and Gold Bond; which Martin Himmel sold to Chattam Brands, making Gold Bond a top shelf program buyer. Prior to that, they bought programming that was left for us to eat at ABC as cheaply as possible. Most of the remaining load in that Price I$ Right commercial pod position along with long established corporate brands were, alphabetically, Anji, Caesars, Colonial Penn Insurance featuring Johnathan Lawson, DealDash, Lume, Nutro, Quick Hit Slots, and Pluto TV. Nutro is a dog food made by Mars. I worked with Mars, but on M&Ms. Ten or more years ago, most people knew what I was talking about when I said, “The Hogans Heroes Channels.” No one had a clue when I called them “The Julie Menin Channels.” Menin, a Community Board Chair in the immediate 9/11 district, hosted a talk show on a local NBC channel soon after they were digitized. She’s currently a city council member from the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. She ran for Borough President a cycle or two ago and, unlike her competitors, smiled when I asked if I could be her Borough Vice President candidate. Ha! Too bad she didn’t win. She’s the rare politician with real TV business experience.
Expanded signals enhanced the media “behemoth’s” advertising availabilities. “Did you know that the same company that makes Gulden’s mustard makes Preparation H? Think about that next time you have a hot dog at the ballpark,” joked Johnny Carson about my employer and NBC’s largest advertiser, American Home Products. AHP’s brands were sold off to other corporations long ago, but Preparation H, Guldens and their other brands have been drowned out on TV. Like many brands that remain number one in their packaged goods categories, they can’t spend like the little guys much less the big ones. So, what was Mr. Grossman concerned about? News.
We know these low budget brands better than we know current events because instead of ads formerly competing for time on one of seven channels, they’re on seven channels or more. But, according to a source at the FCC, the total number of channels has not increased. Even without including cable or satellite channels, over the air channels that don’t program news dwarf the few that do. TV news sourced by a station or network has measurably plummeted as a percent of programming. Remember, most all signals are now broadcast 24 hours a day. But I said that Grossman was President of PBS, too. Whither the viewers, like my father, who was glued to PBS but came undone during pledge week. In today’s era, he could have channel surfed over PBS’ 10 signals and avoided their appeals.
I happen to watch so much PBS that I don’t know who I’d ask to accompany me to New Zealand’s pristine waters, The News Hour’s Laura Barrón-López or Dora the Explorer. David Hogg, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor, now a Harvard undergraduate and gun control activist, said to a group panel that he was becoming more partial to PBS, calling it less filtered vs. network news, beholden to its corporate sponsors. But he knew PBS has parameters they abide by, too. Even with his life so severely disrupted, he, too, would know Camp Lejeune and all the other personal injury lawyers, for example, that have benefitted from buying four channels for the price of one. If, over time, all the new channels are equal, why have I never seen a candidate buy those spots? You’d think that the least well financed candidates would have gone digital by now. They’d be more recognizable than Urolift, at least.