The affiliate relationship
On longtime network affiliations, the changing media universe, and what happens when everyone has a "personal brand"
At least for a good share of the Upper Midwest, WHBF in the Quad Cities is the record-holder as the television station with the longest stretch holding the same channel number, call sign, and network affiliation. It's been the same (Channel 4, carrying CBS programming) since 1950. That would be a long relationship in any business -- maybe some implement dealers and insurance agencies have gone on with their principal producers longer, but not many.
■ That longevity raises a question worth pondering: How much will affiliation ties matter to media outlets in the years to come? Radio stations once proudly trumpeted their network relationships, but that has faded into almost complete obscurity as once-renowned names like Westwood One and NBC Radio Network have become identities in name only with no connection to their past incarnations, and networks like the storied Mutual Broadcasting System have gone defunct entirely.
■ Television networks still have brand identities (driven in no small part by their newsgathering arms), but it's becoming increasingly important which streaming service carries a program than which network. Finding NBC programs on Peacock versus Hulu may be more relevant to many viewers than identifying the network with a local channel number.
■ This transition, from placing lots of weight on institutional and team identities to placing relatively little, is evident throughout media. Newspaper and magazine columnists have far less incentive to remain loyal to their institutions when there's always the option to strike out on their own, possibly for much greater compensation. In the light of extraordinary downsizing at publications both big (like the Chicago Tribune) and small (like the St. Cloud Times), being a career institutionalist may no longer remain an option.
■ Local radio and television personalities, pushed by management to "build audience engagement" via social media and other outreach, may find that their affiliation with a local station is best used mostly as a springboard to other high-profile occupations (a choice for which they can hardly be blamed, given the dismal state of the broadcasting job market).
■ Longevity is still to be admired, to be certain. When someone can last 40 years at one outlet, it's worth recognition and applause. But something is decidedly different in the media from what it was just a decade or two ago, and the macro-scale forces seem aligned to keep it that way for a while to come, at least unless and until consumers grow so weary of trying to follow their favorite content producers in so many places (and under so many subscriptions) that they reconstitute themselves into bundles much like the old ones -- albeit perhaps more digital this time around.