Thursday, April 15, 2010, 10:22 AM ET|Posted by Will RichmondOne of the more interesting things coming out of the NAB Show this week was the announcement by a dozen local TV station groups of a new mobile direct TV content service intended to reach 150 million Americans. The service, which is still unnamed, is backed by Belo, Cox, E.W. Scripps, Fox, Gannett, Hearst, ION, Media General, Meredith, NBC, Post-Newsweek and Raycom. No details on programming were revealed except to saying local and national news, sports and entertainment would be included.
For the last several years, it's felt as if local broadcasters have been on the short end as online and mobile delivery have gained steam. One looming threat has been from broadcast network partners, who have increasingly embraced online distribution, which threatens to shift audiences from consuming programs through local affiliates' stations to consuming at the networks' web sites and aggregators like Hulu.
More recently, the FCC's National Broadband Plan, with its "voluntary" spectrum reclamation would transfer valuable bandwidth to mobile carriers - a move that was quickly perceived as further marginalizing local broadcasters' role in the digital ecosystem. If this wasn't enough, the launch of Apple's iPad highlighted the growing role that consumer electronics devices - and the apps that are built for them - will play in empowering users to search and access content from many new sources, further fragmenting traditional broadcast audiences. All of this has unfolded against the recession's backdrop, which has suppressed consumer spending and local ad spending.
Now, with the new joint venture, local broadcasters seem to have the beginnings of a cohesive plan to show that they too have an important place in the digital era. Throughout the NAB Show various industry executives repeated the mantra that local broadcasters play a vital role in news, weather and emergency information, a not-so-subtle reminder to policy-makers that broadcasters shouldn't be shunted aside in favor of shiny new gadgets.
Still, it's early days for the venture and for mobile DTV in general. Next month a big DTV trial in Washington, DC is scheduled using the ATSC-M/H technical standard. The new JV doesn't have any agreements yet to put DTV tuners in handsets or with carriers for integration. Larger questions of governance still loom as well. Broad industry initiatives like this often suffer from members' differing goals, tactics and motivations. An even larger question is consumers' desire for the mobile DTV format. With countless viewing options already, and more coming every day, local stations' DTV efforts will be in a competitive battle for attention.
Big questions remain about what the new JV's ultimate impact will be, but at a minimum it at least appears to show that local broadcasters are getting serious about how they fit into the digital video ecosystem.
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