Last week NPR tore into TV networks for failing to live up to the promises it made to Congress in the late 1990s when the industry pushed to receive its slice of the digital spectrum for free.
The sky was the limit. Technologically able to pump out several channels per station, the networks would use the channels for hyper-local programming including weather, politics and news. But that hasn’t come to be. One new digital network plays MGM movies and another plays Knight Rider and Magnum P.I. reruns.
It turns out all those new channels were too expensive to produce, the story says:
“Whenever a new media is starting, there’s always the promise – the hope, really — of content that is local. … And then reality sets in – cold economic facts — and they tend to change the equation,” says Eli Noam, who teaches economics at Columbia University.
The cold economic facts are that broadcasters collectively spent $10 billion just switching over to digital TV. And content is expensive: Producing just one evening newscast can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Maybe it’s just as well that the digital TV revolution was all hype, since half of network viewers watch via cable, which only provides space for one channel per station. Networks want cable to make room for the additional channels, but cable companies are balking because they have no reason to do so for channels that don’t yet exist.
So there you have it. Networks have digitally failed themselves, customers, the government and cable. On the other hand, they have done right by the most important groups of all, Magnum P.I. and Hasselhoff fans.