As We Cut The Cord, Should Netflix And YouTube Recognize The Emergency Alert System?

Gather round, friends, for I bring tales of yesteryear. Once upon a time, people young and old huddled around the warmth of their vacuum tubes, welcoming whatever cathode rays came their way in the very same order as they left the tower. You’re watching I Love Lucy? No way! I’m watching I Love Lucy! At the same time! And it’s the same episode! And they’re saying the exact same thing at the same time?! And we’re not even using Chill?! Ridiculous.

While curmudgeons damned the television for rotting brains and antiquating motivation, it long had one strength that even the most fervent of naysayers couldn’t deny: at any given time, one could reach the eyes and ears of the majority of the nation. In case of an emergency, there was no better way to tell the masses to batten down the hatches and duct tape the windows.

Then came the DVR — an obstacle, but not one that went unconsidered. Then came the online streaming services — the Netflixes, the Hulus, the Youtubes — and the eyes found their new focus. Slowly but surely, the volume and efficacy of the Alert System began to taper… but does it have to?

While my tone above is obviously a bit exaggerated (most homes, do, after all, still have cable), the trend is quite clear: each day, more people cut the cord. And even amongst those who haven’t and never will make such a move, hours spent consuming media bit-by-bit is skyrocketing. As the eyes and ears find new homes — or at least, new regular hang outs — is it the duty of the streaming services to act as the harbinger of bad news? Should Netflix, Hulu, et al. be required to fulfill the same emergency duties as the radio in the early 20th century and as the television in the latter half? If so: should all streaming sites be required to comply, or just the biggest ones?

Such requirements would introduce a host of new challenges, only the most obvious of which I’m familiar enough to foresee. Taking over a handful of manually controlled broadcasts is one thing; overriding many millions of unique streams spread across tens of thousands of servers and dozens of different video protocols is an entirely different beast.

And how do we handle emergencies specific to certain locations? Right now, IPAWS can hash things out with local network operators — but in an online world, the fences fade. Geolocation by IP is an option — but as any “206 hot people in [some location 150 miles from you] want to meet you!” ad might suggest, it isn’t anywhere near perfect.

And of course, there’d be all kinds of security challenges. To be effective, such a system would require some degree of autonomy for whoever has the duty of flipping the appropriate switches… and, as a childhood friend’s wise uncle once (kind of) said: with great power comes great responsibility. Given a bit of unintended access, a 15-year old me would have told an army of Beliebers “OMG! Asteroid coming! Hide in your basement for 2 weeks!” in a heartbeat. Perhaps most debate-worthy: the Internet is still a largely unregulated place, and that’s a big part of the reason it’s so great. If a step like this is taken, is it a subtle step in the wrong direction?

To be clear: right now, I’m neither advocating or opposing such an idea — I’m just cookin’ up some food for thought. Of course, such brainstorming may be a bit futile for now. It took until 2007 for satellite TV networks to become a part of the emergency broadcast system, and this morning’s test of the current system (the one that’s been in place for well over a decade) failed rather spectacularly. Still, it’s something well worth considering as our world evolves.