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Technological Advances Might Just Save Broadcast TV

The death watch has begun for broadcast TV. At least, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings thinks so.

Hastings says that by 2030 or so, linear broadcast channels will go the way of the horse-drawn carriage. I wonder if that means that in just 15 years, the only place we’ll be able to watch CBS is in Central Park.

Hastings understands that broadcast TV is being squeezed, and he’s happy to help with the squeezing. We all know the litany of woes: Broadcast networks are expensive to run. Audiences are splintering. Ad rates are down. Younger viewers are losing the habit of watching television.

The remaining viewers are impatient with
commercial interruptions. Those in the upscale demographic — the one coveted by advertisers — tend to watch via DVR and like to fast-forward through the ads.

Hastings’ prediction will surely come true if the TV business remains stuck in old technology and obsolete practices. Maybe the next TV standard will help by getting shows onto mobile devices and keeping up with 4K and other improvements. If not, broadcast TV could truly become passe.

However history shows that clever people in entertainment find ways to repurpose and exploit new technology in ways its inventors never intended. For example, 3D wasn’t on most people’s minds when the modern digital cinema standards were created, but the new platform was easily adapted to 3D, and for exhibitors, 3D quickly proved to be digital cinema’s killer app.

And the tech stork has just delivered a baby that could grow up to prolong TV’s life: the 5K video screen.

No, I’m not arguing that 5K will be any better for viewers than 4K. I’m not even sold on 4K TV. This is about getting ads on the screen, which is still the key to free broadcast TV.

Like many innovations, 5K displays are debuting as pro gear. The idea is that film editors and other pros can put up a full 4K image of the content they’re working on and still have room on the bottom and sides for tool palettes and the like. So I say: Take that monitor, turn it into a TV, put the program in the same 4K window, but instead of tool palettes, use the bottom and sides for ads.

There’s already precedent for reserving screen real estate for things other than video. News, business and sports channels put a crawl across the screen to keep viewers updated on headlines, stock prices, scores, etc. NBC and Fox have also put in-game advertising onscreen during soccer matches. Viewers don’t seem to like that, but nobody’s turning the games off.

Many smart TVs already can put social media onscreen with the TV picture. Anyone who watches a lot of Internet video is used to ads flanking video content, or even appearing atop the video window.

Viewers who have upgraded to 4K UHD may bristle at the idea of their screen space being appropriated, but they’ll have less to complain about if they’re still seeing their show in full 4K UHD. That’s where those extra 1K worth of pixels come in.

Nothing like this is in the works yet, and it will never happen unless broadcasters, electronics manufacturers and TV providers decide to work together. But the TV business is facing an existential threat. The National Assn. of Broadcasters likes to tout the services local TV offers the public. So did bookstores and daily newspapers.

After all, people liked horse-drawn carriages, too, which is why you can still get carriage rides in Central Park. But most people prefer a bit more horsepower.

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