Wednesday, February 25, 2015

CBS joins the terrestrial superstation ranks

[There's a Car 54 marathon coming up on Decades. Every episode of William Faulkner's favorite show starting March 3rd. Just wanted to get that out of the way.]

We haven't hit this one for a while so perhaps a bit of review is in order.

Back in 2008, the US finally caught up with the rest of the world and switched over to digital broadcast television. One of the many largely unreported results was that, since over-the-air broadcasters could carry multiple channels on the same signal, the satellite superstation model could be extended to terrestrial television.

At first, the field was limited to one well-respected but minor regional player called Weigel Broadcasting, which in rapid succession launched the TBS-style movie channel ThisTV and the TVLand style retro-channel MeTV. Weigel had what appeared to be no external marketing budget, instead relying on walk-ins and word-of-mouth (their internal marketing was a different story with no less an authority than Carl Reiner calling their station promos 'brilliant').

Terrestrial superstations received almost no coverage outside of trade publications and a few industry-heavy towns like Chicago. The lack of coverage was perhaps not surprising given the absence of promotion and the downscale demographics of the market, but it raised a potentially troubling issue. The broadcast television industry occupies a valuable piece of virtual real estate. The telecom industry was lobbying hard for a chance to grab that portion of the spectrum. The national press (particularly in the Northeast) was discussing the possibility of shutting down terrestrial TV while being completely unaware of what was going on in the medium.

The debate over what to do with the spectrum quickly came down to two narratives: the first was that the over the air market was tiny and rapidly shrinking and that its resources could be better used elsewhere. This argument, supported by Nielsen data, had lots of powerful friends and was widely promoted; The counterargument, supported by the market research firm GfK, was that the market had grown sharply since the conversion to digital. Under this scenario, selling of the television spectrum would kill a fledgling industry, reduce media diversification and remove a service that greatly improves the quality of life for the bottom quartile in order to slightly improve things for the top. Rajiv Sethi may have been the first major blogger to take the OTA side.  Our blog also jumped in early in the debate.

(You can find a summary of the argument here. Make sure to check the comment section.)

Given the huge discrepancy between the Nielsen and GfK numbers, I suggested that we should watch what companies with high-quality proprietary data (particularly ad revenue) were doing. Two early indicators were NBC's terrestrial superstation COZI and the Fox/Weigel joint venture Movies!.

The comically inept COZI was of interest primarily because is part of the same corporate family as the cable company Comcast. Movies! was far more notable, both for quality and innovation and for the business arrangement that spawned it.

The Fox/Weigel deal was really something unusual, perhaps even at the time unique (more on that in a minute). At first glance, Weigel seemed to bring nothing to the table. Fox had the money, the stations, the library and at least as much experience putting together channels. If Fox were treating this as just another cable station, the deal would make no sense, but Movies! launched as a terrestrial superstation, and in that area Weigel had an unmatched track record.

Since then the number of terrestrial superstations has continued to grow. In addition to numerous smaller players, major studios like Sony and MGM entered the market, and now one of the biggest, smartest and most cautious major has decided to give the model a try.
NEW YORK and CHICAGO – The CBS Television Stations group, a division of CBS Corporation (NYSE: CBS.A and CBS), and Weigel Broadcasting today announced plans to launch DECADES, a new national entertainment programming service for distribution across local television stations’ digital subchannels – broadcast channels that utilize a local station’s available spectrum to provide a companion to that station’s primary channel.  For example, in the New York market, WCBS-TV will continue to be available digitally as Channel 2.1 and DECADES will be available as Channel 2.2. In addition to being available as an over-the-air broadcast channel, DECADES will appear on numerous local cable systems and other multichannel video programming distribution services along with the stations’ primary channels.

Utilizing a library of more than 100 classic television series, including select titles from the CBS library such as I LOVE LUCY from the 1950s, STAR TREK from the 1960s, HAPPY DAYS from the 1970s and CHEERS from the 1980s, as well as a wide selection of theatrical and made-for-television movies and footage of historical news events from the archives of CBS News and ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, DECADES will provide viewers with a new way to experience our shared historical and cultural past.

As the ultimate TV time machine, DECADES will differentiate itself from other subchannel programming services by varying the classic series and movies that appear on the network every day.     
“DECADES is the most ambitious and creative subchannel programming service that has ever been created,” said Peter Dunn, President, CBS Television Stations. “We are thrilled to partner with Weigel Broadcasting, the leaders in this space, to make smart use of our stations’ spectrums and our companies’ considerable programming assets. This service will be a tremendous new business for CBS and all of the other stations across the country that participate, regardless of their primary network affiliation.”
DECADES will take viewers into a daily time capsule presentation of entertainment, popular culture and news. The service will feature DECADES RETROSPECTICAL (SM), a daily one-hour program that will be produced around the news events and cultural touchstones of a specific day, week or other time frame or theme. The TV series and movies presented each day will reflect that day’s theme or commemorative event.

For example, DECADES will look back at classic series such as HAPPY DAYS and its “jump the shark” episode, explain its historical significance and then broadcast that episode. Viewers will also be taken back in time to rediscover events that shaped our world, such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Beatles’ U.S. debut on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and the birth of software and technology companies like Microsoft and Apple. DECADES will connect these events to what people were watching on television, seeing at the movies and experiencing as a nation.
Even more than the Fox Movies! deal, Decades shows how much Weigel has come to be recognized as the dominant player in the terrestrial television market. As with the earlier collaboration, CBS would seem to be the one bringing everything to the table: the name, the money, the stations, the library, even expertise (keep in mind that in an earlier incarnation, CBS/Viacom* virtually invented the retro-genre in the Eighties with Nick-at-Nite, followed by TVLand).

The decision not only to start a MeTV style station but actually to bring in a competitor to run it is enormously telling. First, as an indication of Weigel's standing and second,  as an illustration of how much the terrestrial subchannel market is seen as both distinct and important.

We can probably never say whether Nielsen or GfK got it right, but we can say that the companies with the best proprietary data seem to see a future in rabbit ears.

* CBS and Viacom are not exactly the same company these days, but they are basically owned by the same people.

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