Read on for a SPECIAL OFFER on Television(r)!

In the past couple of days I have come to realize that there is a far deeper problem with the effort to spread awareness about the transition to digital television than anything I hinted at in my mock PSA, and it has to do with its seeming irrelevancy to the vast majority of the general public. So, as a public service and in an effort to inform as well as possible, I’m going to spell out for some people in my target audience/age group who may be confused as to exactly what’s going on here:

You know antennas? You know, those things your parents and grandparents used to watch TV on?

(Okay, back in the day your parents had to take a little round base with two metal sticks on it and attach that to the TV instead of a big box or just a cable in the wall, and they would have to jiggle the sticks around in order to get a picture…)

Well, those rabbit-ears are still around, and you can still hook them up to a TV and watch TV on them. Without going through a cable or satellite company. Yes, you can get HD too. There are hundreds of stations across the country, sending out signals for miles around, that you can pick up by sticking an antenna into your TV.

Those ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and so on, channels on your cable lineup? Those “local channels” the cable and satellite companies are always going on about? Not only can you pick them up off of cable or satellite, you can pick them up with an antenna as well.

For free.

Oh, you have to buy the antenna, but you know how the cable and satellite companies whine about how the other keeps jacking up prices? With an antenna, there are no prices to jack up, and there never will unless TV as we know it ceases to exist.

“What about static or screwy pictures?” I hear you ask. “Doesn’t getting an antenna mean having to jiggle it around a lot and taking up yoga to get it to work?” Not once we hit the digital transition. Digital signals are generally stronger than analog signals, so they deal with fewer problems. Even barring that, the way digital signals are sent eliminates such problems as static and ghosts. The worst you’ll get is pixelization and occasional frozen images. And these days, many if not most antennas – and if you live far enough out you’d need this – aren’t of the old-fashioned, indoor kind you set on top of the TV, but instead aren’t much different from satellite dishes in the way they’re installed.

In fact, with digital television you may well get a better picture with a free antenna than you would paying for cable or satellite. Cable or satellite companies, as I touched on in my mock PSA, like to compress TV signals so they can cram as many of them in as possible. With an antenna, you get the signal as the station sent it out originally. Moreover, as it stands the extra channels opened up by transmitting in digital are not subject to the FCC’s “must-carry” rules that mandate cable companies to carry every full-power television signal in the area. But they’re only required to carry a single main channel for each station. All those bonus new channels are considered “subchannels” of the station that was able to clear space for them and runs them – and while your cable or satellite company might carry them, they’re not required to, and even if they do carry them they might charge you extra for a “digital” package to get them.

So, with an antenna and digital television you get all your local channels, in HD if you like, as clear or even clearer than you’d get with cable or satellite, plus several more channels you might not get at all with cable or satellite. (Not just subchannels, but – assuming you’re still able to get analog signals – low power stations.) All for free!

Free!

It’s been in place at least since digital television was codified in the late 90s, so how on Earth could you never have heard of this great deal before? Why isn’t this the message of the DTV transition campaign? The answer is, as it often is in these sort of situations: Who has an interest in telling you?

Well, cable and satellite companies sure as hell won’t tell you about it. They’re sure as hell not going to lose your business. The FCC is supposed to be completely impartial, not advocating some thing or another, but in practice they tend to stay on the side of their corporate patrons (or groups complaining about seeing a boob for .02 seconds). Antenna makers might have an interest in getting you to buy their product, but it’s not likely to make them much money, and most of the largest ones tend to be more general electronics companies, especially electronics retailers who also deal with cable or satellite companies in contracts far more lucrative than they make with antennas. (That sentence is purely speculative, but still, I imagine antenna makers might not have a lot of resources to spread the word.)

You might think TV stations and networks might have an interest in losing the competition of cable channels and getting a broader audience for their subchannels, but truth is, they profit off your patronage of cable and satellite as well. Though broadcast television keeps whining about having an unfair disadvantage against cable channels that reap the benefits of cable companies’ subscriber fees, for years TV stations have managed to wring money out of cable and satellite providers by charging them “retransmission consent fees” to show their signals (depending on where you live, you may have experienced losing a station in a retransmission-consent dispute) – even though the must-carry rules say they’re supposed to show them anyway. All that really means, since only the stations can invoke the must-carry rules, is that the cable companies have no real leverage to bring down the price or charge money of their own.

Put up an antenna, give up your subscriber fee, and TV goes back to the pre-retransmission-consent days, where they’re back to advertising as their sole means of getting your money.

So getting you to buy an antenna isn’t in the cable companies’ interest. It’s not in the regulator’s interest. It’s not in the TV stations’ interest.

And quite frankly, I’m not sure it’s even in the consumers’ interest.

On cable, Monday Night Football routinely gets ratings over 10 – meaning over ten percent of all households are watching MNF alone at any given time. It’s rare for even the highest-rated non-MNF cable shows to top a five, but cable channels are able to serve a wide variety of audiences. SpongeBob SquarePants is able to approach four percent of all households with an audience that’s largely children; with over a hundred channels on almost every cable system, and 24 hours in every day and seven days a week, chances are most people with cable watch some number of cable programs each week somewhere on their lineup. I know I don’t know how I’d live without ESPN, C-SPAN, cable news, and on and on and on it goes.

Lose cable or satellite, and you lose all of that. I’d wager that at least a quarter of homes with cable are not willing to give it up without a fight. Yes, you would get a bank of digital subchannels to replace it, but because of the technical limitations involved, you’d only get one, maybe two a station – and they’re probably not in HD, which would only support one additional channel at the most and would still push the limits of the technology. Most markets are lucky to have seven general purpose entertainment stations that can be lined up with the Big Six networks plus an independent – nowhere near enough to replace the vast universe of cable. And take a look at the subchannels that are out there. Here in Seattle, according to Wikipedia, we have the following subchannels on our local broadcast stations: NBC’s weather channel on the NBC station, “RTN” on the CBS station, and another weather channel on the Fox station. And a whole bunch of junk on the PBS, TBN, and ION stations but no one watches the main incarnations of those channels anyway.

In a catch-22, though, it’s possible that if the subchannels had a wider audience they would have programming more worthy of your time and even take something away from cable. But because they don’t have the programming, there’s little reason for you or me to make the switch compared to the value of cable. Certainly I would never consider ditching my cable to watch everything on an antenna only. But if you don’t live so far out in the sticks that you can’t get a signal, you’re willing to sacrifice what you get on cable, and you can put up an appropriately-sized antenna to get what you do want to watch (the larger antennas aren’t terribly appropriate for apartment buildings), then go ahead and stick it to the man. Go for it 1950s-style. You may find you’re really going for it 2050s-style.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think HDTV signals can be picked up from an antenna.

    Additionally, all analog broadcasts (i.e. broadcasts which can be picked up with an antenna), will be stopped once the transition to digital broadcasting is made.

  2. Morgan Wick
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Both of these are dead wrong, the HD one obviously so, and there’s another one underlying the second. And now I’m tempted to edit my previous post on misconceptions about the digital transition (and the implicit one can be at least partially fixed by looking at said post).

    If you have an antenna, and you can’t get digital signals, the problem is with your TV, not your antenna (although you may still need a spiffier antenna).

    Perhaps you’ve been confused by PSA’s telling you you’ll need a converter box, and thinking “converter=cable”?

    From Wikipedia:

    “In the United States, digital television broadcasts, or DTV, can be received via cable, via internet, via satellite, or via free over-the-air (OTA) digital terrestrial television – much like analog television broadcasts have been.”
    “”Low-power”, “Class A”, and “TV Translator” stations are not currently required to cease analog broadcasts.”
    “Digital television transmissions over-the-air (OTA) dare now available in most metropolitan areas in the U.S., often carrying both standard-definition and high-definition (HDTV) transmissions of the same stations.” (The next sentence claims “all stations must transmit digitally or shut down” without making any exceptions, but it’s redundant with the start of the article anyway.)

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