Podcasting shakes up local media

Rise of on-demand programming may mean a wider audience but radio and TV affiliates worry about losing ad dollars.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When National Public Radio (NPR) started offering a free podcast of its popular quiz show "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" it did so with little fanfare. That didn't stop hundreds - and perhaps thousands - of people from downloading the satirical look at the week's news on a Sunday afternoon back in February.

By Monday morning, the show had joined Apple Computer's list of the day's five most popular podcasts.

It was good news for NPR, which has become a major player in the podcast world. Not so for the 350 NPR member stations that broadcast "Wait Wait." They're worried that making the program available to iPods could mean a loss of listeners - and consequently the donations and ad dollars that keep the stations afloat.

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"Anytime customers can find your product in another place, it's going to cause some concern," says John Decker of San Diego's KPBS-FM. He says the podcast trend makes some public radio programmers "nervous."

Indeed, the rise of the on-demand world has local suppliers of content everywhere unsettled. In one sense, it's the classic tale of old-guard businesses struggling to withstand a disruptive technology. (Think Napster and the record industry.) But it's also a lesson in how media are benefiting by embracing the new broadcast landscape of content without boundaries.

The spike in the number of TV shows available online has put network affiliates on notice. "Let's face it: The Internet eliminates middlemen," says Terry Heaton, a broadcast consultant in Nashville, Tenn. "And your local broadcaster is the middleman."

As more people watch programs on their computer or iPod, network affiliates worry about lower ratings - and lower revenue from commercials.

The vast majority of TV viewers, of course, still watch "60 Minutes" or "The West Wing" the old-fashioned way: on a television tuned to a local station. But that paradigm is fading out.

Last week, ABC announced it would offer shows for free - although with commercials - for viewing directly over the Internet. ABC and NBC already offer shows like "Lost" and "The Office" as $1.99 commercial-free podcasts, viewable on computers or video-equipped iPods.

NBC and CBS, meanwhile, will offer on-demand versions of their shows through the Comcast cable company. And tens of thousands of people routinely download illegal bootlegs of popular network shows.

Not every affiliate is worried about losing ad dollars. In fact, the growth in on-demand programming could spur interest in TV watching by making shows available to new audiences, says Craig Robinson, president and general manager of WCMH-TV, an NBC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. "It can increase awareness for a show," he says. "Not everybody wants to ... watch on a computer screen or iPod."

But Mr. Heaton says affiliates should be concerned. Under the current system, networks typically pay affiliates to run their programming. But that situation could change as more viewers bypass their local stations, Heaton says. "The affiliates need the networks, and the networks know that."

On the other hand, the networks could choose to share the wealth, and one already has: FOX announced last week that it will give affiliates some of its proceeds from on-demand and Internet-based airings of shows like "American Idol."

What does all this mean for home viewers? If on-demand programming grows, networks may devote less effort to programming shows that blend well together, like NBC's famous "Must See TV" Thursday nights. A combination of higher expenses and fewer viewers could force affiliates to cut their budgets for their profitable local news shows. Or, conversely, local affiliates could take an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach and offer all their content live over the Internet, as a station in Raleigh, N.C., is planning to do.

The situation is somewhat different in public radio. Member stations pay NPR to air its programming. So far, NPR is tiptoeing around the on-demand issue.

Between August 2005 and March 2006, listeners downloaded 18 million podcasts of the shows and individual stories it made available for free. That compares with a weekly listenership of 26 million.

But neither of NPR's two signature daily news shows - "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" - are available as podcasts, nor are they aired on NPR's channel on the Sirius satellite radio network. The shows "were specifically designed to be a vehicle for the local stations" to provide their own bits of programming, says NPR spokeswoman Andi Sporkin, and they're staying that way.

Mr. Decker, the San Diego programmer, says those who worry about the impact of podcasts miss the big picture about access to public radio. "I do believe that we're better off in the long run if we make ourselves as available as possible," he says. "We can't stand in our own way."

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