What does the future of broadcast television look like?

If there’s one tweet that sums up the conundrum broadcast television has found itself in for going on 15 years now, it’s this:

As I’ve been writing about for years, most notably in Chapter 7 of my book, this dynamic has led broadcasters to neglect their own nominal medium in the years since the dawn of the modern retransmission consent era – not merely to collect more money than they could get from advertising alone, but at least before cord-cutting caught on, as an existential lifeline allowing them to hope to compete with cable networks that could extract subscriber fees from cable operators without having their leverage undermined by the ability of people to watch their content for free. Even as cord-cutting has ramped up, the broadcast industry has remained sufficiently dependent on retransmission consent that they have not only done little to take advantage of the phenomenon, they’ve crippled any efforts to help them do so, from killing Aereo and Locast to at-best hesitantly embracing the stopgap technology allowing broadcast signals to be received by mobile devices directly.

To be sure, the owners of the networks, with their investments in cable networks, have been more hostile to broadcasting than the affiliate owners, but the two largest station owners, Sinclair and Nexstar, have dramatically ramped up their own investment in cable networks in recent years, and while the topic of that post – the absence of non-owned-and-operated stations on streaming TV providers – has since been alleviated by agreements struck between networks and station groups, it’s fair to wonder, in the wake of the recent brouhaha over CBS affiliates being pulled from Hulu, how much leverage the affiliates actually have to direct the future of the industry, considering how little people under the age of 60 care about local news, the one truly local bit of programming they have. Young people should care about what’s going on in their local community, and local news can be especially important in the midst of breaking news, but even with newspapers continuing to circle the drain, it’s not clear they need to get their local news from local stations specifically, especially when the largest station owners have turned local news into conduits for conservative propaganda (Sinclair more famously than Nexstar). If the networks wanted, they could cut off the affiliates entirely and just send one national feed to every provider, incorporating shows that are currently syndicated and only having local deviations for NFL games and possibly local news.

That’s why local sports largely decamping for regional sports networks was so devastating for broadcasting, and it’s why, with the RSNs themselves circling the drain, the prospect of major local sports returning to broadcast in force has started attracting attention, especially with Scripps’ announcement of a new Scripps Sports division. Personally, I like the idea but I’m not sure Scripps, whose portfolio of stations primarily consists of major-network affiliates and the Ion network whose stations, where they exist at all, tend to broadcast at lower power from outlying areas and aren’t as familiar to viewers as even MyNetworkTV and independent stations, is the best company to lead the charge; the stations better positioned to spearhead the return of local sports to broadcast are CW and MyNet affiliates and general entertainment independent stations, which are owned in the largest markets by Nexstar, CBS, and Fox, so those are the companies most worth watching. (Had Sinclair succeeded in buying the former Tribune stations now owned by Nexstar, their purchase of the former Fox Sports RSNs could have put them in position to effectively transition local teams to broadcast themselves, something I raised the prospect of a couple years ago based in part on their history before the purchase.)

But of course, any real effort to return local sports to broadcast in force has to contend with the issue raised above: any such contract would be paid in part by retransmission consent that viewers can easily get around by putting up an antenna. While the Bally Sports RSNs are in the midst of bankruptcy and the AT&T Sportsnet networks are being forcibly shut down, other RSNs are doing perfectly fine, and until the cable bundle completely collapses no other model can come close to bringing in as much revenue. Whatever model replaces the RSN, any service that can collect subscription fees from viewers will be at an inherent advantage over freely available broadcast stations. That’s why I think the MLS-Apple TV deal probably is closer to the future of local sports distribution than Scripps Sports is. Any MLB, NBA, or NHL team that signs up with Scripps is really only doing so as a stopgap to deal with the loss of their RSN.

It gives me no pleasure to say that; I’ve been banging the drum of broadcast TV for years, even singing the praises of the digital transition back in 2008. I’m enough of a curmudgeon that I still believe in the principle that governed sports on television before the ESPN-BCS deal: all the biggest events and shows air on broadcast as a matter of course, and cable is just an add-on to watch additional events and shows that broadcast in the four-network era didn’t have room for – the lingering legacy of a time before modern cable networks when the very idea of “pay TV” was utter poison – with the main exceptions being pay-per-view events and NFL games on ESPN. The streaming era has scrambled this calculus, but I felt that broadcast TV’s place, as a way to distribute high-demand events to large numbers of people at once in a carrier-agnostic way, would allow it to fill and even reclaim much the same place in a landscape dominated by streaming. I felt that the most important aspect of the ATSC 3.0 standard that’s in the process of being rolled out, more than the introduction of 4K or other elements that received more hype, for the long-term viability of broadcasting was the ability to reach mobile devices natively, and to some degree that’s still the case. But the success of Thursday Night Football on Amazon has given me second thoughts about the degree of linear TV’s continued necessity in the streaming era, and it’s possible that another element of ATSC 3.0 could end the era of free broadcast TV as we know it entirely:

As much as I might not like this, it’s probably the logical conclusion of broadcast TV’s place in the streaming era. If the role of broadcast television is to provide a carrier-agnostic conduit for high-demand content, requiring that content to be made available for free doesn’t necessarily further that goal if the content in question normally would be locked behind a paywall. Similarly, other constraints on the sort of content that can be broadcast over the public airwaves are probably outdated given the new principle underlying linear broadcast television. In that post I voiced the opinion that the free market would favor content “targeted at the broadest possible audience with the lowest barriers to entry”, but I’m a bit more skeptical and cynical now, partly because I’ve shifted to a different vision of the future of linear television (even given the condition that it be made available for free) since I wrote that post, partly because of the limited popularity and value of free ad-supported streaming services compared to more conventional subscription services, but in large part because I expect linear broadcast networks to take on a very different role in a streaming era where they can be hitched to a subscription to an associated streaming service.

Specifically, I would expect any content that a significant number of people want to watch as it’s happening or as soon as it comes out to be distributed via a broadcast network. That means that, at least when it comes to primetime or first-run content, broadcast networks would be primarily about distributing sports, and secondarily, breaking news, awards shows, live competitions, parades, and other live events that people want to watch as they happen. You could even see the most popular e-sports and video game streamers brought in to fill time during the daytime hours, or even at night if there’s nothing more popular worth showing. Scripted and non-interactive taped reality programming would become an endangered species, primarily limited to shows that are both hugely popular and with enough intrigue and social-media interest to make people want to watch each episode as soon as possible. As is the case now, but would explicitly be the case in the future, anything that isn’t a live event is filler between live events. With Peacock and Paramount+ being relative also-rans in the streaming race and Fox’s streaming “ambitions”, such as they are, very limited, I would expect NBC, CBS, and Fox to eventually attract considerable interest from larger players hoping to more thoroughly integrate sports into their services – large tech companies like Amazon, Apple, or Google, whose resources are an order of magnitude greater than CBS or Fox, or perhaps wireless carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile eying the networks for their own multicast services. NBC, with its Comcast ownership, could still go it alone, perhaps by integrating Peacock with another streaming provider hoping to emphasize sports – perhaps by buying Hulu or DAZN.

I don’t think the highest-demand events would be locked behind subscription-service paywalls entirely, though. Part of how the major professional leagues (or at least MLB and the NBA) escape antitrust scrutiny is by making their championship rounds available on free TV, and the NFL has gone further and adhered to the principle that every regular-season and playoff game must be made available on broadcast television in the home markets of the teams playing. If everything else gets locked behind paywalls some of that attitude may change, but there’s also likely to be a call to provide some sort of lifeline to people who can’t afford any streaming services (especially at the higher prices likely to be charged by services offering higher-demand content), even with the existence of FAST services. A potential model could be the situation in Europe, or specifically the UK, where the World Cup, European Championship, and FA Cup are all on free TV, as are (for the moment) other major events such as Wimbledon and the Olympics (though their position feels somewhat tenuous), but the Premier League, Formula 1 races not held in the UK, and a lot of other popular events are the exclusive domain of Sky Sports, BT Sport, or Amazon (or Eurosport on the rest of the continent), with Sky, the 800-pound gorilla in sports in the UK since it helped launch the Premier League in the 90s, putting most of its sports channels on a premium tier on its own service.

Perhaps PBS stays around as a free-to-air network, but moves closer to the model followed by the BBC or CBC, where it actually tries to appeal to a broad swath of the population, can be a genuine force for major rights, and might even earn some money from advertising (or at least allowed the producers of the biggest events to do so). I’d imagine that would be a difficult proposition for Republicans to swallow, though, especially if it meant PBS were to become the only freely available over-the-air broadcaster and effectively held a monopoly on the most popular events – even in Britain and Canada conservatives regularly complain about and try to cut funding for their respective public broadcasters. At minimum there would be severe restrictions on how, or even whether, the new PBS could cover the news. (Note also that unless this new PBS operated at least two networks, one of the NFL’s primetime packages would probably have to go back to not going up against the World Series, and it’s worth noting that I had the idea of some sort of publicly-funded service monopolizing the free-to-air linear television landscape in mind when I wrote my recent post about new in-house TV graphics for America’s most popular sports, which is especially relevant with regards to my ideas for distribution for the NFL and, to a lesser extent, the NCAA.)

It’s also possible that the desire to keep over-the-air television free, coupled with a failure to recognize the realities of the economics of the video business on the part of those that want it and a failure to properly grasp the situation (and capture by telecom companies eying broadcasters’ spectrum) on the part of government, derails this scenario and results in broadcasting continuing to circle the drain, with the major networks effectively and increasingly being subsidized by more lucrative services and the rest of the lineup becoming increasingly worthless and ignored. But there’s going to come a point where the desire to keep privately-run freely-available over-the-air networks going, and the desire to force those networks to fit a certain mold shaped by certain interests’ view of what American culture should be, is going to run headlong into the realities of how few people actually consume those networks over the air, how little the major networks want them to, and telecom companies’ continued ravenous desire for spectrum. Without action to fix the economics of the broadcast television business vis-a-vis competing video platforms, by updating the regulations governing linear television to fit its new role, eventually the only things left on broadcast television will be the stuff that’s effectively forced to be there, plus content cheap enough to overcome the poor economic situation and interests seeking to take advantage of broadcast television’s reach, and relative lack of scrutiny outside the major networks, to push their own agenda – and as more and more people who remember the days when broadcast was the only game in town die off, a greater and greater share of the population will start to wonder what broadcast television is still doing around at all. The challenge facing government and activists in the next decade or two is, will clinging to broadcasting’s past continue to render it a dying – if not dead – medium, or will frankly confronting the changing economic and cultural landscape, and the challenges and opportunities presented as a result, allow it to embrace the future?

2 thoughts on “What does the future of broadcast television look like?”

  1. One interesting edge case element of the UK FTA requirements: BT Sport* have broadcast, seemingly not by choice, all of the UEFA club finals via unpaywalled livestream (on YouTube, and also IIRC their own site). That’s another dose of potential future post-broadcast endgame, especially in a world where: a) TNF on Prime Video seems to have not gone wrong as I expected/frankly hoped; b) YouTube TV has not only existed but specifically hitched its marketing wagon to title sponsorship of big sporting events.

    * soon to be TNT Sports; in another interesting business development, BT have turned the sport network into a joint venture with WBD, who in turn have the option to buy all of it. Notably, on-screen marketing this year explicitly incorporated the CL final into a “Weekend of Champions” with multiple other events across both BT Sport and Eurosport/Discovery+, so the corporate synergy play is very much already active even before the branding change.

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