Thursday, April 25, 2013

Terrestrial Superstations

Normally, I have to work hard to find something to criticize in a Felix Salmon post. With this one, I'm having to work hard to lay the groundwork so I can spell out all of the problems.

When US television went digital, the new platform didn't just allow you to get HD video over a set of rabbit ears, it also allowed TV stations to broadcast multiple subchannels. This has created all sorts of interesting changes in the television landscape (for example, your PBS station is now probably putting out four times the programming). One area of particular relevance to this discussion is the appearance of general interest stations created specifically for the new technology.

The idea of using digital subchannels to launch a TBS style superstation seems to have originated with Weigel Broadcasting, a well-respected regional player noted at the time for being Chicago's last independent television broadcaster. (Both Weigel and Chicago figure prominently in this story.)

Weigel's ThisTV (a partnership with MGM) was up and broadcasting the day American television went digital. Here's what I said about the concept a couple of years ago.
ThisTV has caught on to the fact that the most interesting films are often on the far ends of the spectrum and has responded with a wonderful mixture of art house and grind house. Among the former, you can see films like Persona, the Music Lovers and Paths of Glory. Among the latter you'll find American International quickies and action pictures with titles like Pray for Death. You can even find films that fit into both categories like Corman's Poe films or Milius' Dillinger.
Of course, the other great insight was that movies on the far end of the spectrum tend to be cheaper.

I've written a great deal about Weigel and I have a lot more on the to-do pile. The company is one of my favorite examples of a well-run business but for the purposes of this story, the pertinent factors are: Weigel is an innovative with a good track record; it moves as decisively as any company I've ever seen; it is the most important player in the digital television landscape (as you'll see later).

Skip forward a couple of years and the follow-the-data approach starts to get interesting. The company with the most complete information (Weigel, obviously) announces another, more ambitious superstation called METV, a classic TV channel built around old but prestigious shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Columbo and the Twilight Zone (making very limited use of block programming to allow airing of fifty different programs a week) and promoted a surprising elaborate campaign. In-character station ads featured Betty White as Sue Ann Niven, Ed Asner as Lou Grant, Carl Reiner as Alan Brady and Bob Newhart as Bob Hartley.

The company that arguably had the second best information and experience was Weigel's long-time competitor, the Tribune Company's WGN. Tribune had data from its stations (including KTLA which carried ThisTV in the Los Angeles market), experience with one of the first and most successful cable superstations and finally the inevitable back channel communication you would expect from Chicago's famed television community. It is not a coincidence that Tribune launched its terrestrial superstation, AntennaTV about the same time METV went on the air.

After LA and New York, the two most important television towns are Chicago and Atlanta so it's not surprising that the next terrestrial superstation came from Atlanta. A few months after the launch of AntennaTV, Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III founded BounceTV as an over-the-air alternative to BET.

This is a good place to stop and note something interesting about all of these terrestrial superstations. Neither ThisTV, METV, BounceTV nor AntennaTV have regularly scheduled infomercials. This is a business model built on program driven advertising and we are going on five years of data that seems to say that it works.

2013 continues the trend of more investment on terrestrial television by bigger players. A few months ago NBCUniversal unveiled COZITV. COZI is the only terrestrial superstation with infomercials but, like Bounce, it also has original programming [link added].

And now there's this:
Movies! is an upcoming American digital multicast television network, that will feature an emphasis in its programming on feature films. The network will be a joint venture between Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting and the Fox Entertainment Group subsidiary of News Corporation, and will be available in the United States through the digital subchannels of broadcast television stations, as well as on select cable systems. Movies! will broadcast 24 hours a day in 480i widescreen standard definition.
I have limited this post to commercial, general interest, English language stations created specifically for digital broadcasting. That's a small sliver of what's available over the air but it does, pretty much conclusively, show that the model is viable and that, unlike so many recent tech and media fads, the more data comes in, the more interested serious players get.

No comments:

Post a Comment