How Broadcast TV is Like a Bus

[Free-to-air TV is] kind of like the horse, you know, the horse was good until we had the car…The age of broadcast TV will probably last until 2030.

-Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, speaking in Mexico City on Monday while downplaying the significance of Nielsen rating Netflix and Amazon (something I’m not sure how it would work or that it’s a good idea).

Here was my response:

Well before the car caught on, mass transit systems were already being built in the world’s biggest cities, although most of them used the established rail technology. An early horse-drawn “streetcar” was open as early as 1807, and in the United States in 1832; the first horse-drawn bus line opened in 1824. The first leg of the London Underground opened in 1863; an early precursor to the New York City subway using pneumatic tube technology was built in 1869, a year after an elevated line up the west side of Manhattan opened. By the time World War II hit, even Los Angeles, that car utopia, had one of the great public transportation systems in the world, as Who Framed Roger Rabbit put it.

Then in the postwar period the American dream, as defined as a cheap house in the suburbs supported by the freedom of the car, became the norm for most middle-class (white) Americans. The streetcars that lined America’s streets were replaced with buses that offered more flexibility to change routes, but that also proved their undoing; the perceived potential for bus lines to change at the drop of a hat meant it couldn’t support the transit oriented development that had typified urban development before the war. (That said, despite what Roger Rabbit would have you believe, the demise of the streetcars probably can’t be chalked up to a car industry conspiracy, but to real inherent drawbacks of streetcars as a technology; for that matter, the inability of buses to support development had as much to do with not putting much more investment into them than sticking a pole in the ground as anything else.) Outside of New York, as middle-class whites left the city and turned it into a refuge for the poor, so mass transit came to be seen as little more than a form of welfare for the poor. (This was far less the case outside the United States and Canada.)

In recent years – really decades at this point – a combination of dissatisfaction with the suburban lifestyle compared to the urban lifestyle and awareness of the destruction of the environment caused by car dependency (not to mention the impact our dependency on oil has on global politics) has resulted in a nascent “urbanist” movement and a transit renaissance, and members of my generation increasingly are shunning the suburban lifestyle their parents sought and clung to so fervently in favor of a return to the city (which some cities are reacting to better than others). Much of this movement has involved the advocation for and construction of new rail systems, be they streetcars, “light rail”, or heavy rail, but for the most part the very people that advocate for revived transit systems still tend to ignore or disdain buses (even the people running the transit agencies that run the buses), even though buses do much more of the (often unglamorous) heavy lifting of moving people across the city than the shiny new rail lines. (That “bus rapid transit” is often supported by people who just want to kill rail plans and don’t actually have a real BRT proposal doesn’t help, especially when much American BRT is barely any better than plain old buses and if you make them sufficiently better, you might as well put in rail.) Meanwhile, many people have suggested that any number of new technologies, be they electric cars, self-driving cars, even more “flexible” “demand-responsive” systems, or “personal rapid transit”, might help reduce our oil consumption or otherwise obviate the need for mass transit, but the ability to transport large numbers of people in a small amount of space is too valuable, especially in dense cities, for the need for transit to ever fully go away.

Some of the similarities to broadcast television should already be obvious. Like transit, for many years, decades even, broadcast TV was the norm – indeed the only form of television there was. Like buses, broadcast television has become increasingly neglected and dismissed as welfare for the poor as two different, more appealing visions, the multitude of channels made possible by cable and the freedom of scheduling made possible by the Internet, have become ascendant. Like buses, broadcast TV is doubly shunned both as a part of the larger category of mass transit/linear television and as a particular kind of linear television; like buses, broadcast TV is disdained even by the people who run it in favor of cable, despite being home to the most popular programming on television (even if cable as a whole is more popular), and like transit, linear television is subject to all sorts of dreamers like Reed Hastings or this guy who see it as wasteful and “inflexible” and think that technology can obviate the need for it and render it obsolete, ignoring its ability to serve large numbers of people in a minimum of space (in this case, spectrum or bandwidth). And like buses, broadcast linear television is ignored by the very people leading my generation’s societal movement against the dominant paradigm of the past, the “cord-cutting” movement against cable, who understate just how much of the unglamorous work of delivering video is done by linear television, and how much they are asking of the Internet. (Remind me to tell you about all the other times the Cordkillers podcast I linked to above has rooted for broadcast television to go away and have its spectrum reappropriated to deliver the Internet. And incidentally, the “back-to-the-city” movement stands to put a lot more people within range of TV stations.)

Broadcast television may be old technology, but mass transit is even older, and it’s still around because it does what it does better than anything else that has or possibly will come along. Linear television isn’t simply a technological stopgap until a better technology comes along; it has its own benefits, as AT&T and Verizon have recognized even as they drive existing broadcasters off the air, and one ignores those benefits, or what broadcasting will look like in the future, at their peril. Media companies may prefer a post-cable future where all video is consumed on the Internet for a variety of reasons, but Reed Hastings might want to be careful what he wishes for, or at least predicts, because if linear television completely goes away and all consumption of content moves to the Internet, the inevitable result will be that ISPs will have that much more incentive and ability to subject Netflix to interconnection blackmail and other violations of the spirit of net neutrality.