Broadcast, cable... What's the difference?

There are adults today who have never known a world without cell phones, color television or ATMs. These are people who have had cable television all of their lives (not to mention Internet access, DVRs, DVDs, and so on for a shorter period of time). This actually presents significant challenges to the cable industry. To people who have always had cable, there is no difference between an over-the-air (OTA) broadcast channel and cable offerings. However, in both the business and regulatory environments, the difference between OTA television and cable matters. The business models are different, the ad revenue streams are different, the content regulation is different. Whether you run a local TV station or a cable system, a broadcast network or a cable net, you live with these differences everyday. To viewers, those differences are invisible. They cruise around the channel lineup, probably not paying any attention when they’re tuned to a cable channel and when they're looking at a broadcast station. They may be vaguely aware the rules for swearing vary between basic cable and networks like NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, or the CW – although, as broadcast standards have changed over the years, the differences aren't as stark as they used to be. Even if they see that distinction, they may not know this is because broadcasters use the public airwaves, while cable programmers do not.

Another example: If a cable programmer – Animal Planet, Comedy Central, Turner Classic Movies – wants to be carried by a cable operator, then that network has to make its pitch. It has to demonstrate the value it will deliver and then an agreement is negotiated. An OTA broadcaster can choose between Must Carry or Retransmission Consent status in order to gain carriage. As NCTA President & CEO Kyle McSlarrow pointed out in testimony earlier this year, "it's not a free market negotiation." For example, if negotiations between a cable operator and a broadcaster go badly, that operator can't turn to an out-of-market broadcaster that carried the same programming. You can argue that the average viewer doesn't need to know the difference. They watch what they want to watch and they don't care whether the programming is cable or broadcast. But you cannot ignore the impact of these differences. They can be seen all the time. I’ve mentioned the issue of must carry/retrans, which I blogged about earlier when clashes between Time Warner Cable and broadcaster LIN TV were in the news. I’ve written multiple times about the distinction between the broadcasters’ Digital TV Transition and the cable industry’s migration to digital; just recently, my colleague Michael Turk responded to a Consumers Union letter that seemed to combine the two. I’ve written about the so-called “cord-cutters,” who aim to get all their TV via the Internet; I mentioned how little cable programming is available online as compared to broadcast television – an issue which is a direct result of their differing business models. (Will Richmond writes about this issue in more detail today.)

When discussing television, and the impact of various policy proposals, it is useful to be aware that the telecommunications and television industries are still rooted in historical traditions, no matter how much it seems like all the old rules are gone. While public policy may eventually catch up with the rapid changes of the last decade, we’re not quite there yet. We must remain cognizant of that in applying a one-size-fits-all model to services that vary greatly – whether you can see the differences or not.