Narrowcasting is a catchall term used for communications such as radio or television signals that are limited to subscription customers or otherwise prohibited from being broadcast. Broadcasts are transmitted to the general public, available for any general receiver with the capability to capture the signal(s). Narrowcasting is directed to a particular audience via proprietary equipment and encryption, or by some other discriminatory means.
One of the most common examples of narrowcasting is cable TV. The encrypted signals can only be viewed on a TV by first running through a descrambler provided by the cable company for a monthly fee.
Another example is satellite radio. Satellite radio is commercial-free radio, requiring a proprietary receiver or tuner. Satellite radio is also a paid subscription service, but narrowcasting doesn’t always involve a fee.
The Internet itself encompasses both broadcasting and narrowcasting. Websites that are open to any visitor without registration or subscription are essentially broadcasts. Those websites or subnets requiring passwords, registration, or some form of membership are examples of narrowcasting. Mailing lists are yet another example, as are podcasts that are generally geared towards a highly specific segment of the public. With some exceptions, mailing lists, podcasts, and subscription-centric websites are generally free services.
Because narrowcasting is directed towards a limited pool, it is associated with target and niche marketing. Narrowcasting has also found useful applications in malls, airports, and other public facilities where visitors use touch screens to find flight schedules, shop locations, restaurants or other information. Sometimes referred to as interactive narrowcasting, this type can reduce the need for customer service personnel.
Original television networks CBS, NBC and ABC sought to appeal to as many people as possible by varied broadcast programming throughout the 1950s, '60, and '70s. Now, newer cable TV networks often specialize in single genres. MTV was the original music-only channel, while CNN produces news only. Home and Garden, the History channel, ESPN sports, and the Animal channel are all prime examples of the fundamental shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting in cable network television.
While the original broadcast networks continue to offer a variety of programming, narrowcasting has arguably influenced that model as well. Programs that appeal to the same audience segment are often offered back-to-back on the major networks, and while one night of the week might be dominated by legal dramas, the next night might be dominated by teen shows or sitcoms.
There is little doubt that narrowcasting will continue to grow as technology opens doors to the average tech-savvy Joe and Jane. Where it once it took a great deal of money to broadcast a message, today even a teenager can use an Internet cafe and a free website to reach the world, or their own little niche audience.