James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Posts Tagged ‘digital TV’

Past-cool Facebook turns 5, but offers little financial guidance to media

Posted by James McPherson on February 4, 2009

Another reminder of how fast time flies: The social networking site Facebook celebrates its fifth birthday today. Started by a Harvard student Mark Zuckerman (soon making him the youngest billionaire on the planet, CNN reports) and once primarily the domain of other college students, now it seems almost everyone who wants to connect with others or sell something is on Facebook.

“I’m on Facebook,” or “We’re on Facebook,” several media leaders told the students in my recent Jan Term class visit to New York and Washington, D.C. As a further indication that social networking is way past cool, even I joined a couple of months ago. I remember to check in about once a week, and rarely update my status (using primarily as a way to direct people here), but CNN reports that according to Facebook, some 15 million users update statuses every day, adding more than 850 million photos per month. The average user has 120 “friends,” many of whom they’ll be soon able to follow even more closely and creepily.

The story credits social networking with making Zuckerman rich and helping make Barack Obama the president of the United States. Yet even Facebook does not demonstrate a workable “business model”–a term my students also heard repeatedly, as virtually all of the mainstream media struggle to make an acceptable profit in the Internet world. Adam Lashinsky of Fortune magazine reportedly told CNN that Facebook “is selling advertising, it is bringing in revenue but it’s not wildly profitable even if it is profitable at all.”

And that’s the problem all of today’s media face–the need for money from advertising, or something to replace that income stream, via a medium via which people are accustomed to getting content for free. If Facebook, now on the downside of cool, can’t do that, the prospects aren’t promising for mainstream news media sites.

Of course, more people may be looking to the Web for news after their TV service disappears with a shift to digital (a shift likely to be postponed later today), but in fact people continue to value news. Getting people to a news site isn’t a significant problem. Getting those people to pay for anything is the problem.

Same-day update: Congress approved the digital television extension today.

Next day update: Time disses a new Facebook trend.

Posted in Education, History, Journalism, Media literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Surprise: Your TV may go dead next month, after all

Posted by James McPherson on January 28, 2009

Perhaps I (and many others) spoke too soon. CNN now reports that despite an earlier unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives did not get the votes necessary (2/3 approval was needed because of the “emergency” nature of the bill) to approve delaying the switch to digital television until June 12. Odd–it’s usually the House that goes off half-cocked.

The House may take up the issue again, after members think more about it, but as I wrote yesterday, some heavy hitters oppose the delay. Regardless, if the switch isn’t postponed until June, expect lots of screaming from viewers on Feb. 17. Of course, you may or may not be able to watch the complaints on your own television.

Next day update: Broadcasting & Cable reports that a compromise bill is in the works. A new vote is likely next week.

Feb. 4 update: Congress approved the extension today.

Posted in Politics, Written elsewhere | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Congress approving digital delay that few want?

Posted by James McPherson on January 27, 2009

After last night’s unanimous Senate vote, the House of Representatives will take “emergency action” to vote on a bill to delay the switch to digital television from Feb. 17 until June 12. The House vote may come as early as later today, though I suspect ongoing stimulus talks and other issues (which fortunately included passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) will delay it until tomorrow or later this week. So much for the idea that interest groups and lobbyists have all the power in Washington, since students and I learned first-hand last week that representatives for several powerful groups actually oppose the delay to digital.

The “emergency” aspect of the House action is somewhat humorous, since the switch to digital has been scheduled for more than a decade and those of use with cable or satellite hookups probably won’t be seriously affected (though even we may need an extra cable box or experience a slight  increase in the number of neighbors who want to watch football games at our houses). A January startup date previously had been moved to Feb. 17 after legislators realized what might happen if the switch screwed up people’s Super Bowl viewing or messed with the plans of advertisers, who will pay up to $3 million for 30 seconds of advertising during the game. No, that’s not a joke–at least three experts we spoke with in New York and Washington, D.C., verified the Super Bowl-related reasoning behind the February date.

I don’t know the significance of the June 12 date, which among other things happens to be George H.W. Bush’s 85th birthday, the 70th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the 22nd anniversary of the date Ronald Reagan urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and the 15th anniversary of when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered (an event that came 27 years to the day after the Supreme Court struck down state laws against interracial marriages, suggesting that O.J. may have an odd way of celebrating key anniversaries).

Regardless of the date, the Nielsen ratings folks are concerned about the switch to digital, as Dave Thomas, president of Global Media Client Services of the company, noted when we met him two weeks ago. He estimated that 5 to 6 percent of viewers are “completely unprepared” for the switch (despite the fact that as National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Marcellus Alexander told us last week, more than $1 billion has been spent on industry advertising warning viewers that “you may need a converter box” if your TV is too old and you don’t have cable or satellite television).

“What’s troubling is that it’s not going to fall evenly,” Thomas noted about the people who will be left without television. Young people, the elderly and poor people will be most likely to suffer problems, and not nearly enough cost-reducing coupons have been set aside for people who need converter boxes. I don’t know how much the problem might be aggravated by people like me who got converter boxes despite already having cable, just in case a natural disaster or the desire to watch a baseball game while camping forces me to rely on older, non-digital technology.

A bigger problem will be that some people won’t have signals even with their new converter boxes, as we were reminded last week by Seth Morrison, senior VP of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. On the digital transition issue, members of CTAM–who naturally (but not “officially”) want everyone to switch to cable, anyway–find themselves in rare agreement with the National Association of Broadcasters in opposing the delay, in large part because in the meantime broadcasters and cable companies are paying to transmit both digital and traditional analog signals.

Paula Kerger, the president and CEO of PBS, told our group last Friday (and apparently told the Associated Press a few days later) that a four-month extension would cost PBS stations more than $22 million in extra transmission costs. Coincidentally, just a few minutes into our meeting, she had to leave the room to take a call from Senator Jay Rockefeller, the sponsor of the bill (favored by Barack Obama) to delay the transition to digital.

“It sounds like they won’t extend the date,” Kerger said when she returned, indicating that there didn’t seem to be enough Senate votes to force the extension. Assuming that Rockefeller wasn’t intentionally misleading Kerger, just three days later the tide shifted dramatically to make the vote for the extension unanimous, while illustrating another Kerger point: “The conversion has not been well managed.”

On the other hand, as more and more Americans find themselves without work, at least the delay will let more of those people spend their suddenly free time watching the antics of politicians and thieving financial fat cats, so viewers can better understand just how screwed they really are.

Incidentally, for tonight’s viewing I recommend FRONTLINE/World on PBS, which starts a new season with stories about Guantanamo prisoners, the Italian Mafia and Barack Obama’s Brazilian appeal.

Posted in Education, History, Media literacy, Personal, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »