This past week, I attended the BIAfn Winning Media Strategies Conference in Washington, DC. During the course of the conference, there was much talk about how broadcasters and publishers need to provide unique service to their communities in order to survive in the competitive media marketplace. The point was made over and over again that, in each market there are unique attributes and personalities that a station should be covering in its programming, and should be exploiting even more broadly through their digital assets, to tie it to its community. Only by doing so will the station be able to survive in the new media environment - and by doing so, the station may be able to thrive. In fact, I was stuck by a statement by USC's Adam Clayton Powell III that domination of the local online and digital media marketplace was "the broadcasters to lose." In other words, the broadcaster has such unque promotional abilities with its current audience that it can establish its brand in the online and in the mobile world far easier than other media players. But there were also the repeated warning that there is more and more competition for this local digital market from new entrants and other media entities and that, if the broadcasters did not take advantage of their current advantage, the local service would come from someone else. What most stuck me was that there was no question that the superservice to local needs would be coming from someone - broadcaster or not - as a result of marketplace developments, not because of any government mandate. The broadcaster has to adapt to and compete in this new media marketplace or become culturally and economically irrelevant. The broadcaster needs to serve the local market to meet these challenges, not because some Washington agency has ordered him to do so. And the broadcaster needs to serve his community in a way that the public will find compelling, not in a way that the government thinks is best.
At BIAfn, the presentation that made the greatest impact was probably that of Greenspun Media from Las Vegas, which has reinvented a secondary newspaper and a Low Power TV station as an on-line powerhouse, uncovering the aspects of the community that would draw the largest audience and covering that information in great detail. The Las Vegas Sun site not only covers hard news, but also the gaming industry, University of Las Vegas sports and even state government issues in a way that its audience seems to find interesting. Even a history of Las Vegas, in great detail, is included. And video plays a big part of the site, with the company in development of a hip news and events program, 702.tv, that will soon be a daily program on the television station and online (featuring local "celebrities" doing the weather, including strippers and Neil Diamond sound-alikes). While some attendees at the conference thought that Las Vegas presented unique opportunities that might not be available in all communities, many were immediately speculating on the opportunities in their own communities to find unique personalities and events that could be developed on-air and on-line in ways to maximize their connection with their audience.
After the conference on Friday, I found two emails waiting in my inbox from broadcast industry pundits, both echoing the same sentiment that was reflected at the conference - that broadcasters need to take advantage of their current connection with their markets to grow their digital platforms, or someone else will come along and preempt the opportunity. See the comments from Hear 2.0 and Inside Music Media - both making the case that broadcasters must change to serve their communities to meet the new competitive threats. The message seems clear - broadcasters need to serve their communities or someone else will (see this blog post by USC Professor David Westphal, cited by Powell in his remarks, about how these other new media entrants can micro-target audiences and survive economically) .
All of these commentators seem to agree that there will be more and more service to local communities - either provided by broadcasters or by someone else. And this service will be provided without the need for any FCC mandates. The service will come if there is a market for that service - a need that can't be artificially manufactured by government fiat. The FCC in the mid-1980s recognized that a broadcaster would either provide local service or be replaced by someone else who would, justifying the abolition of detailed public interest requirements. This was a full decade before the service that is now provided by the Internet was even a possibility. To now talk about reviving those detailed localism mandates, when the competition is far greater than anything imagined in the 1980s, seems almost impossible to justify. We'll see what happens as the FCC deals with its localism proceeding in the near future.