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Geo-Targeting? Meet Geo-Limiting!

Submitted by on October 6, 2010 – 4:23 pm3 Comments

Unlike other media, local broadcasters are licensed to serve the public interest by the federal government.  Each month, a TV station creates numerous reports that become part of its public file, and even rationalizes how its employees’ ethnicity is reflective of its Demographic Market Area. In return, it becomes one of a finite number of license holders for that particular DMA.

Whether airing syndicated programming like “Wheel of Fortune” or passing on the programming of its network, affiliated stations are limited technically and legally to broadcasting within a specific region. It is this “local exclusivity” requirement that creates saber rattling when a satellite provider seeks to beam a local broadcaster’s signal nationwide, or when Internet sites like and seek to carry local stations online without their permission.

Now, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association are backing a technology designed to facilitate the distribution of TV stations over the Internet by insuring that only viewers within the stations’ over-the-air market can receive them. Provided by a company called Syncbak, the technology uses a code within local stations’ digital spectrum to provide an encrypted authorization code to receiving devices, whether desktop computers and Internet-connected TVs. With “key advisers” like Wilson Sonsini on board, it is not to be taken lightly.

Why is this a significant development?

Everyone from Google to Apple to TIVO is working to create a seamless interface to allow the entertainment device of the future to provide cable channels, broadcast stations, and websites on the same device. For some, the vision is simultaneous web-enhanced viewing of television. For others, the future will exist of seamlessly “changing channels” between ESPN, YouTube, HealthCentral, and your local ABC station. In either case, what happens on this future entertainment device when you wish to watch “Dancing with the Stars” in Peoria?

One school of thought says local broadcasters are dead, the networks simply provide all of their programs to Hulu or the own networks’ sites, and the problem is solved. The problem with marginalizing local broadcasting becomes apparent during a tornado warning, however, or when a local Representative wishes to reach constituents with re-election ads. Like Congressional elections, all weather is local, and that “serving the public interest” stuff can become rather important at critical times!  Without multiple media voices, access becomes limited. And without protection of local exclusivity, broadcasters may no longer see a need to serve the public interest.

A technology that limits online viewing of network programming to local affiliates may be just the shot in the arm that local broadcasters need, or it may be applying 1950’s thinking to 2010 technology. Internet users want choice and control, and it could be argued this technology takes both out of the hands of the user.  Prompted by the NAB and Congressmen seeking re-election, however, the FCC may feel that the public interest necessitates it.

In any case, “geo-limiting” may now become yet another piece of the puzzle as the “battle for the convergence box” wages on…

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