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The end of affiliation

Local affiliations, as we know them, will go away. I have come to the conclusion that it is rapidly becoming against the best interest of local stations to be affiliated with the networks. The threshold has not passed – yet. But it is certain it will. And when that time comes, the affiliates had better be prepared.

When will the affiliations go away? Well, in fact, they already are. The entire broadcast model is based upon the idea that you needed Big Towers in each city to retransmit the signal from the network. It was an excellent relationship: the network got the benefit of distribution, and the affiliates got to, well, exist. We viewers won, because it was easy to keep track of which show was on which channel. After all, there were usually only three or four networks and a couple of independents.

“Broadcast” is an old farmer’s term. They used broadcasters to send seeds across wide areas, saving the trouble of having to plant one seed at a time. Now “Broadcast” is an old television term. While broadcasting survives, its utility is waning. We get information via satellite, cable and the internet.

OK – nothing new there. We know this is happening and we see it in the numbers. But it’s important to learn from what’s going on, and the lesson is clear: broadcasting will be but a small portion of how we get our information.

The old model won’t die, exactly. But it’s not going to be sustainable the way it still is. So, I ask, since the networks are finding ways to reach their audience (and the audience’s money), why aren’t the affiliates doing the same?

Local affiliates like to talk a lot about their branding. It’s a kind of religion. It’s not without merit, but I have found branding can also hinder progress. (“That’s not our brand!” That’s inconsistent with our mission statement!”) Usually the brands are about news. But news is a small part of a local’s programming. You’re running talk shows, soaps, gossip programs, syndicated programs and “The Simpsons” reruns, yet your brand is “News You Can Trust?”

The best brands are the ones that communicate what a company or product are all about. “News You Can Trust” or “Live Local and Late for Whatever” don’t accomplish this. That’s strategic – stations have these brands because the newscasts are supposed to be money machines. They are supposed to give the station its “face.”

Except they don’t.

Do I care that your reporters have “50 years combined experience” when I watch “Wheel of Fortune?” No. I only care to watch “Wheel of Fortune.” A brand may influence my news choice – but that’s it. What about the rest of the day?

Right now, I think the best brand in TV is TBS. You know: “TBS: Very Funny.” Does that say what the station’s about or what? I’m not expecting “Law and Order” on a station that’s “Very Funny.” The cable universe allows us to splinter our programming and be different. That’s marketing 101: differentiate your product. Is your product really that different from the others in your town? From the others in any town?

The network now exists for its own sake. Sure, if it lost affiliates, it would lose audience. But that’s right now. Comcast recently purchased NBC, and it says it’s not going to take NBC and put it on cable only. I believe that. But I also believe there will be a day when there are things like “The NBC Channel” or “The NBC Comedy Channel.” They may have different programming than what they feed the affiliates, but Comcast is in the content (and distribution) business; it would be foolish for it not to use the resources of NBC to build new channels or, at the very least, push new programming out via new platforms.

So we don’t exactly hit the doomsday scenario here (a network “going cable”), but we can see the progression: networks don’t need affiliates. The process is vestigial. And if that’s so, why wait for the inevitable?

What will happen next? Affiliates will get their programming directly from production studios. You used to need syndicators for this process, and now you don’t. Can you think of any reason why a local affiliate shouldn’t be able to program its own lineup? Radio stations do it. Newspapers aren’t beholden to a master plan. It’s only TV, with its ancient DNA, that doesn’t take advantage of the new opportunities.

Then, once the affiliates (now “Local Media Companies”) have their own programming, that’s when the branding can really mean something. The marketplace should dictate which station shows “Lost.” You can be the place to go for comedy or drama or talk shows or whatever. You will certainly need to be developing new and original programming. If I can get “Lost” online, I’m competing in a game I’m going to lose. But if my station is the only one where you can get my shows, well now we have something.

People don’t watch channels: they watch shows. When I was a kid, my favorite network was NBC. Now, my favorite network is The Steve Network. I program my TiVo to record my shows. I download from iTunes other shows. I watch movies on demand. When “The Daily Show” comes on, there is almost nothing you can tease that will get me to watch your news instead of Jon Stewart.

When you have a business based upon a dated model of artificial scarcity, the marketplace will eat you whole. Instead, you have to embrace new models of production, content acquisition and distribution. Why is it that we have yet to see a local media company develop a program like FourSquare? Why isn’t there R&D for new applications going on in the traditional media? We still have the money to make it happen – so why not?

Local affiliations will give way to local brands. Be “Very Funny” or “Very Serious” or “Very Something.” Otherwise, you’re just another stop on my DVR.

I’m not saying “the sky is falling.” I’m screaming it.

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