Digital side channels still face hurdles


The distribution of crystal clear high definition programming, whether it’s video or audio, is supposed to be the driving force behind the move to digital broadcasting. But when the HD isn’t turned on, there’s room for extra streams of programming. The questions remain: What do you put there and how do you sell it? The answers are not yet in.

The New York Times, which until last year had a direct organizational interest in the television business until it sold off all of its own television properties, took a look at the issue. They noted the obvious: The programming streams that have gone onto digital side channels are little viewed and largely devoid of advertising. Continuous weather reports have been a mainstay on the television side, peppered with attempts to provide highly local content, syndicated reruns, music videos and other niche fare.

At least for television, a fully digital world is just months away by government mandate. Proper consumer electronic gear is readily available and many cable systems carry some of the side channels. Radio’s HD digital future is far, far behind, with no government mandate and few receivers in the hands of the public.

RBR/TVBR observation: At one point, multicast must-carry was a hot topic in Washington, but the failure to figure out a business model for muliticast seems to have thrust the entire issue onto a back burner. And it’s been a long time since we’ve heard one of the anti-consolidation crusaders mention the possibility of one owner getting three television stations in a major market, and that translating into an 18-station local TV empire in the digital world.

Frankly, we were always a little skeptical about multicast anyway. The advertising advantage of broadcasting outlets has always been that they are mass media. They bring large groups of people together in one place, where an advertiser can tell them all about the new soft drink they have in the stores or the great new restaurant opening in the center of town.

Broadcasting’s pain since the 80s has been the rapid proliferation of competitors causing dilution of the audience. Nevertheless, a local network affiliate still tends to outdraw almost all basic cable offerings in a given town, and no internet audio site can even come close to the number of listeners brought in by an average radio station.

So why would broadcasters want to dilute the pool even further by cannibalizing their own audience? It seems to us that it would be better to embrace the vastly improved audio and video offered by the switch to digital and make the investment to make sure that the programming offered is worthy of the technology.