Telecom players take a pragmatic approach; broadcasters, not so much

Jim Barthold, FierceIPTVHaving been around the telecommunications business since two cans and a string were a wireline system and a whistle and a shout comprised state-of-the-art wireless communications, I was more than a bit startled this week when I actually detected some degree of pragmatism in the way telecom players are approaching the realities of 21st Century business.

AT&T (NYSE: T), for instance, heard all the noise about how IPTV players should pay some regulatory fees to help the FCC regulate the industry (and we won't even get into that contradiction) and rather than arching their backs higher than my tortoiseshell cat when confronted by a beetle, the guys at AT&T said, OK, maybe there's some merit to the idea. They then pragmatically added they don't want to be lumped in with cable operators (few in the world do) and they only want their video subscribers to be counted for regulatory fee purposes.

Then there was Vodafone which, some analysts said, pragmatically conceded that wireless was not the only way to conquer Europe and that wires might be handy to have. The British giant then went out and acquired Kabel Deutschland. At the very least, it could complement the IPTV service the wireless player has with Deutschland Telekom; at best, it could give it an intriguing and needed component in a multiservice play.

There was even a casino resort in Reno that conceded maybe its guests didn't want to spend 24 hours a day on the casino floor and that it might be nice to have an interactive video entertainment system waiting for them back in their rooms.

This sort of pragmatic thinking--approaching problems realistically rather than trying to force the old way of doing things into the new paradigm--was surprising and refreshing.

There were--as there always are--a few troglodytes whose strong attachment to the way things have always worked blinds them to the way things work now. Broadcasters, those with the weepy eye for the days of three snowy channels showing The Love Boat, Good Times and Bewitched, were back in the news with a report they commissioned that, to them, said people weren't into all these newfangled pay TV services or TV Everywhere or any of that gosh darned silliness.

"Over-the-air households continue to grow, making up an increasingly sizeable portion of television viewers," David Tice, senior vice president of GfK Media & Entertainment was quoted in an NAB press release.

GfK was responsible for a survey that showed what broadcasters like to believe.

Paraphrase these results to what the broadcasters were trying to say: People are abandoning the idea of paying for television services and returning to the nest.

"Our research reveals that over-the-air broadcasting remains an important distribution platform of TV programming; this year's results confirm the statistically significant growth in the number of broadcast-only TV households in the U.S., which we identified in 2012," Tice continued in the press release.

Now this would be more believable if the broadcasters had a competitive platform. They do have digital TV, which is better than snow--if you can get it. They do have multiple channels of programming thanks to that very same digital conversion, but very little of what they deliver on those channels is interesting and even less is in high definition, making it worse than snow. And they do have local news and weather and sports, all of which makes them noteworthy, but pragmatically none of which make them competitive with CNN or ESPN or HBO or even broadcaster-owned channels like USA.

Pragmatically speaking, broadcasting is another item on today's telecommunications menu. Broadcasters might think what they deliver is the main course, but, those who are doing the ordering, see it as an appetizer, at most. Digital has given broadcasters a chance to take that slim bit of entertainment they still own and expand it to mobile devices and public transportation and even to fulfill some local obligations. Instead, they commissioned a study to show people are moving back to broadcast.

That's just about as far from pragmatism as you can get.--Jim