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Does the Broadcast Versus Cable Debate Matter?

Aymar Jean Christian September 14, 2010 uncategorized 3 Comments

Original at SpliceToday. Comment there!

I’m about to make a cheap argument. A “cheap argument” is obvious to everyone, satisfies no one and only makes a small group of people feel self-satisfied. Think of an essay titled: “Sarah Palin Isn’t the Sharpest Tack in the Box.” Too easy! Solves nothing! But I bet it feels good to write.

My cheap question: Is there any point discussing the “broadcast” and “cable” divide anymore?

It’s a distinction I’ve made myself but in our convergence culture is becoming anachronistic. Why?

1. The economic models are converging (and have been for quite some time).

For those of us born after 1980, a little history: the rise of cable is a very specific phenomenon. It had been around for decades, for rural customers who couldn’t receive urban signals, but took off in the 1980s as companies sought ways to reach new, upscale, suburban, and targeted audiences, led by TBS, MTV and HBO. Broadcast was everywhere and in the air, cable was special and in physical form.

Now, of course, the air-versus-cable distinction is mostly irrelevant, and broadcast networks are just a handful of channels in an sea of many. No longer must-see ratings juggernauts, like cable channels they are starting to ask cable operators for money for carrying them (potentially to the detriment of smaller cable networks).

Don’t get me wrong, the broadcast nets are still far more valuable than cable nets. They are generally durable brands, like Tylenol and Band-Aid, and they produce and distribute a lot more original programming — cable is still the land of the repeat (how many times can E! air Keeping Up with the Kardashians?)

2. Basically everyone gets the same ratings, or they will soon after American Idol is canceled.

Or, where the graph above comes in. Cable programming has for many years been more marketable than broadcast programming. Of course, despite their declining market share in the advertiser-friendly demos, the broadcasters are just four channels and make up a sizable chunk each, but the trend is not looking good for the big four.

Certainly the summer is now firmly in cable’s hands. And even the ratings for fall and spring broadcast scripted programming are starting to look awfully cable-like in spots. Summer shows like True Blood (an unfair comparison, to be sure) and The Closer would be welcome additions for many of the big four, even as reality shows like Dancing with the Stars and American Idol and live event programs like the Oscars and the Super Bowl still give cultural and financial clout to TV’s veterans.

3. The same corporations own most of them.

(Note this information is from CJR and may be out-of-date, especially with the impending Comcast-NBC deal)

Let’s look at the companies that own the broadcast networks and see what major cable properties they own:

CBS (CBS): Showtime and CW (partial with WB)

NBC (GE): CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, SyFy, USA, Sleuth, Oxygen

ABC (DIS): ESPN, ABC Family, Disney, Toon Disney, SOAP, Lifetime (partial with NBC, Hearst), A&E, History

Fox (NWS): FX, Fox News, National Geographic, FUEL

This is cheapest part of the argument. The “corporations own everything anyway” line that’s about as old as the 1980s in television debates. Still, it’s important to note that companies owning broadcast networks saw the trend a long time ago and worked to diversify their portfolios in the face of growing competition for eyeballs.

Among the cable networks themselves, we see not too much diversity:

Time Warner: HBO, Cinemax, Adult Swim, CNN, CourtTV, TBS, Cartoon Network, TNT, TruTV, E!

Viacom: BET, Comedy Central, Logo, MTV, Nickelodeon, SpikeTV, VHI, Atom (web)

Cable is far from scrappy and corporations owning broadcast stations are far from weak. Of course, no one would envy any big media company these days, but they’ve got something going for them. Newspaper companies they are not (although some of them own newspapers).

4. Cable rules the summer, but who rules cable?

This is an extension of #3. As the summer comes to a close and the fall starts up, if we break down the summer’s top cable hits, we see only a handful of companies — including a few broadcast players in NBC and ABC (Disney). This is part two of the “cheap” argument.

A recent cable top 25:

NBC: USA (Burn Notice, Royal Pains, Covert Affairs, White Collar, NCIS, Pysch)

TW: TNT (Closer, Rizzoli, Memphis Beat, Hawthorne)

VIA: MTV (Jersey Shore)

DIS: ESPN (Football)

TW: HBO (True Blood)

DIS: Disney (Good Luck Charlie, Sonny with a Chance)

VIA: Nickelodeon (Spongebob, Victorious)

TW: E! (Kardashians)

5. Consumers are making less of a distinction.

Besides journalists and academics, does anyone really care about the distinction between broadcast and cable? For subscribers to digital cable — and for the alleged cord-cutting milennials out there (I’m among the few who actually pays for TV in my home!) — NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox are just a couple of channels. We have little or no nostalgia for the days of turning the 13-channel dial on the TV set or watching the trustworthy anchor at 6 o’clock. In an OnDemand, Hulu, Netflix, 500-channel world, the broadcasters are four-among-many. They’re a well-endowed, content-churning foursome, so they’ve got our attention (we like Glee!), but practically speaking their novelty is running a little thin.

Media history is always changing and I would never say all the trends we see today will be around for even the next five, let alone twenty, years. But I always pause when I read — and write — an article pitting the broadcast set with the cable upstarts. I’m just not sure if it makes sense anymore.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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