October 12, 2010

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I just learned by Craig Smith that KCET, the flagship PBS TV station in Los Angeles, is “going rogue.” Specifically, Craig says, “KCET will be dropping its PBS affiliation at the end of the year. That means if you live in Santa Barbara and want to watch the PBS NewsHour, Tavis Smiley, Charlie Rose, Antiques Roadshow or even Sesame Street, you may be out of luck starting at the beginning of next year.”

KCET is a Los Angeles station that puts no signal at all into Santa Barbara (except though a translator on Gibraltar Peak). But it’s the nearest PBS affiliate and is therefore on the local cable system (Cox), thanks to must-carry rules.

Here’s the LA Times storyHere’s another one. Both rake KCET over the coals. They’re abandoning viewers, paying their general manager too much, yada yada.

As all those pieces point out, KCET isn’t the only source of PBS programming in the LA area. KOCE, licensed to Huntington Beach in Orange County, is another long-time PBS affiliate and promises to at least help pick up the slack. And it’s in a good position to do that. Where KOCE used to radiate from a local site in Orange County, it now also broadcasts from Mt. Wilson, which overlooks Los Angeles and is home to nearly all the area’s TV and FM stations. In fact, KOCE is actually putting out a signal that maxes at one million watts, while KCET is currently at 190,000 watts with a construction permit for 106,000 watts. This means that technically, at least, KOCE is now a bigger station. At 162,000 watts, so isKLCS, another PBS station in Los Angeles.

At least one of those others is sure to show up on cable systems in outlying areas such as Santa Barbara, bringing familiar shows to PBS audiences there. (The bihg question for KOCE is whether it can still be an Orange County station, and not morph into National/Southern California one.)

But the real story here is the death of TV as we knew it, and the birth of whatever follows.

Relatively few people actually watch TV from antennas any more. KCET, KOCE and KLCS are cable stations now. That means they’re just data streams with channel numbers, arriving at flat screens served by cable systems required to carry them.

What makes a TV station local is now content and culture, not transmitter location and power. In fact, a station won’t even need a “channel” or “channels” after the next digital transition is done. That’s the transition from cable to Internet, at the end of which all video will be either a data stream or a file transfer, as with a podcast.

All that keeps cable coherent today is the continuing perception, substantiated only by combination of regulation and set-top box design, that “TV” still exists, and choices there are limited to “channels” and program schedules. All of those are anachronisms. Living fossils. And very doomed.

KCET bailed on PBS because it didn’t want to pay whatever it took to stay affiliated with that program source. This means KCET has some faith — or at least a good idea — that Whatever Comes Next will be good enough for lots of people to watch. If we’re lucky, what’s liberated will also be liberating.

I sure hope so. Dumping PBS was a brave move by KCET. They deserve congratulations for it.

[Later...] Please read John Proffitt’s comment below. He lays out a scenario so likely yet easily denied that it has the ring of prophesy. TV is still TV, and KCET and its competitors are all TV stations. The next digital transition for the likes of KCET will indeed give us more more kinds of Ken Burns. The one that follows will bring us whatever we bring ourselves. Yes, there will still be big heads and long tails, but the game won’t be a closed one, or assume a sphinctered distribution system (which TV still is—and will still be if everything still has to run through regulated BigCos). More in my own responses and others that follow in the comments.

For bonus links, check out what KETC (not a typo and no relation), the landmark PBS station in St. Louis has been up to lately. There is lots of co-thinking out loud, including this stuff, facilitated by Robert Paterson

(For some reason the text here keeps reverting to an earlier version, then back to a later one, each time I edit it. Very strange. In fact, I just discovered that half this post disappeared somehow. I just restored it from Google search cache. I hope.)

Loose Links

So here are a bunch of tabs I just cleared off my browsers:

I’d rather find them here than in a bookmark folder I’ll never look at again.

You could build a shallow history of computing by looking only at which company looked like it was taking over the world at any given moment. First there was IBM, then Microsoft, then Google, and now there’s Facebook. None of them ever did take over the world, and no one company ever will.

It was with that perspective in mind that I wrote Waving Goodbye to Facebook in the August issue of Linux Journal, which is now on the Web. The pull-grafs:

Responding in his own Newsweek blog, Barrett Sheridan called Zuckerberg’s plans a “Play to Take Over the Entire Internet“. In TechCrunch, MG Siegler’s headline read, “I Think Facebook Just Seized Control Of The Internet“. Whether or not Facebook is that ambitious, it won’t succeed at anything other than enlarging itself. The limits to that are those of any private architecture. It can get big, but not bigger than the planet. What Facebook has built is The Great Indoors. A lot of people like going there, just like a lot of people like going to shopping malls. But Facebook is a building, not geology.

The Web is geology. It is a wide open public space on which private and public structures can be built in boundless variety. Linux is probably the most widely used building material below and within those structures. Calculating its value is pointless, because — as Eric S. Raymond made clear long ago — Linux has use value more than sale value. As useful stuff, its leverage is boundless and therefore incalculable. It will also last as long as it remains useful.

The same cannot be said of Facebook, whose value is quite calculable, and which will thrive only as long as its revenue model and its investors’ patience holds out. Both of those will be shortened by the dissatisfaction of users, which Facebook has been risking increasingly over the years.

Of course, Facebook has little choice in that matter. To rephrase The Social Network‘s poster copy, you can’t make a billion friends without making a few million enemies. And, of course, following Facebook right now is kinda necessary. A few links I just moved here from tabs on my browser:

But then there is this, by Paul Boutin in the New York Times‘ Gadgetwise blog: Facebook Now Lets You Take Your Data With You. Thanks, Mark.