The challenge of digital

contributing writerJuly 29, 2012 

Here is some stuff I know, the “looking for the digital big picture in an analog world” edition:

 • The passing of Chris Wedes (better known as J.P. Patches) didn’t mark the end of an era, since the television genre in which he made himself famous – locally produced children’s shows – long ago signed off.

The sunset of local children’s programming was referenced by TNT columnist Peter Callaghan in his remembrance earlier this week, but there’s a larger point to be made about the TV industry: locally produced programs, if not extinct, are an endangered species.

In the days of three local channels, maybe an independent, and the public station, all received over the air, even modest-size markets could boast not just local newscasts but multiple local children’s programs, local sports (bowling, anyone?), local talk and interview shows, quiz shows pitting teams from local high schools, local knockoffs of “American Bandstand,” public affairs programs, and locally hosted afternoon and late-night movies (on weekend nights usually some variation of “Chiller Theatre”).

Where did it all go? Locally produced means local expenses. Far easier to fill blocks of time with syndicated reruns or, much worse, paid programs (i.e., half-hour or hour-long commercials). The fragmentation of audiences through cable didn’t help, nor did changing tastes and demographics that favored national over local.

Most stations retreated to news as the extent of their local programming. There are a few holdouts: events such as this weekend’s Torchlight parade in Seattle, and series such as Ciscoe Morris’ gardening program. The public stations and KING offer a fair amount of local shows. Entities such as TVW also provide local flavor.

But the days of extensive local TV programming is as anachronistic as the end-of-broadcast-day sign-off itself.

 • While on the subject of local, bricks-and-mortar retailers have long complained about the competitive advantage online retailers have of not collecting sales tax in states where they have no physical presence. Of late the complaints have expanded to a practice called “showrooming,” in which consumers check out a physical item in a store, then go home and buy it for less from an out-of-state online retailer.

Those complaints are addressed by the Marketplace Equity Act, a piece of legislation now working its way through Congress that would require online retailers to charge and collect sales tax in all states that have one (Oregon and Alaska, among others, do not).

The bill and similar pieces of legislation have created some interesting alliances; Walmart, traditionally viewed as the mortal enemy of local retailers, is backing it. So is Gov. Chris Gregoire, whose state is home to a few online retailers of note (Amazon). The interest of politicians in the legislation is obvious: more tax revenue, and political support from local retailers. The bricks-and-mortar retailers may have a philosophical case to make about the differing treatment of different types of retailers (hence the strategic use of words like “equity” and “fairness” in the titles of these bills) but they have a practical aim of narrowing the price gap with the online sellers.

Are either likely to achieve what they hope to, presuming some sort of bill passes? (The online retailers don’t like the bills but there’s a sense of inevitability that something’s coming.) Washington still has the problem of living next door to a state with no sales tax. The online folks are still going to have cost and convenience advantages over those who operate physical stores.

Bargain-hunting consumers, meanwhile, may not have a lobby to speak on their behalf, and they may even nod in agreement with the local retailers’ complaints – even as they prowl the aisles, Web-enabled portable device in hand for price- comparison purposes, poking and prodding the merchandise that they’ll still go home and buy online.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and PacificNorthwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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