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The State of OTA Broadcasting

Hey everyone, Trip's been kind of busy since moving to DC, not entirely for reasons directly related to his job, so he's asked me to provide some posts to liven up the blog at least for the rest of the month. First up is something I originally wrote for Radio-Discussions.com back in March:

What would it take for people to start cord-cutting en masse? Well, what programming is available to them if they do? Here's the channel lineup I put together based on the lineup Trip was supposed to have during his time in Chattanooga, assuming an antenna capable of picking up any station on the plus side of that big gap from 15 to 4 dB (without directional bias because I don't know any of the technical specifics of that). I'm listing PSIP ID's based on what's listed at Trip's site, with affiliations in parenthesis when it's not clear from the ID's.

3.1 WRCB-DT (NBC)
3.2 WRCB-DT (Antenna TV)
6.1 TNN (WOOT-LP)
6.2 RTV
6.3 PBJ
6.4 TUFF TV
9.1 WTVC (ABC)
9.2 WTVC (This)
12.1 WDEF-DT (CBS)
12.2 Bounce
14.1 ION
14.2 qubo
14.3 IONLife
18.1 WNGH-DT (PBS)
18.2 Kids
18.3 Knowled[ge]
20.1 WBXX (CW)
23.1 WELF TV (TBN)
23.2 WELF-D2 (The Church Channel)
23.3 WELF-D3 (JCTV)
23.4 WELF-D4 (TBN Enlace)
23.5 WELF-D5 (Smile of a Child)
26.1 W18DS-D (3ABN; I'm assuming this is the same as W26BE)
26.2 3ABN-PR(oclaim)
26.3 3ABN-DD (Dare to Dream)
26.4 3ABN-ES (Latino)
26.5 3ABN-RD (Radio)
26.6 3ABN-RL (Radio Latino)
26.7 Radio74
30.1 W21BZ (3ABN)
39.1 WYHB (America One)
43.1 WDGA-CA (TNN)
45.1 WTCI-HD (PBS)
45.2 Create
49.1 WDNN-CA (MyFamilyTV)
53.1 WFLI-HD (CW)
53.2 MeTV
61.1 WDSI-DT (Fox)
61.2 WDSI-MT (MyNet)

On the surface, that's a pretty impressive list - not as many channels as you could get from even the cheapest cable company, but it's a good 39 channels, at least nine of them in HD, way more than the analog era could have provided. But it's very disproportionate compared to what you'd get from a cable company - notice how many religious channels there are on that list, thanks to TBN and 3ABN's aggressive use of subchannels. Then, when you look past the religious channels, you see a ton of classic TV channels. How much difference is there, really, between RTV, This, Antenna TV, and Me-TV? (Yeah, I know This is primarily movies, but then isn't MyFamily TV basically RTV2?)

The lineup smacks of nothing more than pandering to the sorts of people likely to already be cord-cutting - poor people and underrepresented groups (hence, Bounce and all the Spanish channels in other markets) and little old lady retirees who long for the good old days when people respected God and their elders, dammit, and TV wasn't full of all this sex and violence crap that's on now thanks to cable ruining everything and making the whole country go to hell in a handbasket. You can begin to see where former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski was coming from when he infamously compared the current use of the broadcasting spectrum to "empty boxcars". And thanks in part to Trip's then-employer, this market is actually in better shape than many of its size.

The story isn't all bad - kids' programming is well represented with qubo, PBJ, GPB Kids, and Smile of a Child, and you might actually get more music videos than you would on cable thanks to JCTV and (maybe) TNN (and TheCoolTV is available in another market if you want more mainstream music). More current reruns are likely to be running on the main broadcast stations and Ion, and lifestyle programming is available on Create, ION Life, and in another market, LiveWell Network. BET (or at least TV One) fans have Bounce, CMT (or at least GAC) fans have TNN, Spike fans have TuffTV, and in other markets Weather Channel fans (or at least fans of what used to be the Weather Channel) have too many options to count. And PBS pretty much has the market cornered on documentaries, though good luck finding anything like MythBusters. But I still don't expect most people to see this as a viable alternative to cable. What's missing?

We'll ignore the lack of a replacement for ESPN (sorry, America One) since the skyrocketing costs of sports are a big reason for cord-cutting to begin with (more on that later), but you still don't have:

Original scripted programming for adults outside the major networks. What is the backbone of the popularity of TBS, TNT, USA, AMC, HBO? It's not sports; it's scripted programming that's been making broadcast envious for over a decade. The real cure for this will be if networks like HBO make their programming more widely available to people willing to pay a fee for just their streaming services, and quite a few cable shows are in fact available online at places like Hulu for free, but outside the major networks broadcast television doesn't really have a "killer app" for people to tune in. How much original programming is there at all outside the major networks? Ion seems to be trying hardest with WWE Main Event, and there's some scattered original programming on the likes of Bounce or TNN, but that's about it. (Worth noting that cable will always have an advantage because of how much the FCC meddles in broadcasters' affairs with limits on profanity, nudity, and other things, and its E/I requirements that also limit the quality of programming on the kids' networks. Incidentally, the fact that Transformers, the most blatant "30-minute toy commercial" of all time, is now a cornerstone of 80s nostalgia, should give those who have long crusaded against the commercialization of kids' television pause - it's not incompatible with entertainment or even quality.)

Twenty-four-hour news networks. Oh, some larger markets may have local news stations giving local news anchors something to do between newscasts, but stations providing national or international news are exceedingly rare - if you're really lucky, you might find a PBS or other station showing BBC World News, RT, Al Jazeera English, or MHz Networks, but they're very highly scattered. And yet one of the hopes for cord-cutting and a la carte is that it'll cripple the Fox-MSNBC hegemony by letting the silent majority vote for real news.

Dumb reality shows, of the sort airing on channels like TLC and MTV. This really falls into the same category as "scripted television" above, but in a more general sense, there's very little outside the major networks appealing to the "sweet spot" of "young" viewer advertisers crave, that might be most willing to cord-cut, and that might be needed for cord-cutting to really take off. Other than Tuff TV (and while I'm at it, Untamed Sports) and maybe TheCoolTV and America One (which I'm not familiar with), the main channels appealing to that group might be JCTV and maybe Dare to Dream. Ouch. Sports are part of the problem here, but what reason would even a non-sports-loving young person have to cord-cut? Again, FCC and parent-group meddling might be part of the problem here, and I'm not saying broadcast has to provide something you can't get on cable, but if the major networks and their affiliates are the only ones trying it just highlights broadcast's weaknesses - and how much of a waste of space the multicast options that are out there now must seem to the average customer.

Limited options for women. Women don't just watch Food Network and HGTV, they also watch Lifetime and Oxygen. But even the classic TV channels offer little in the way of shows appealing to them, and for that matter, while I have (obviously) very limited experience with them, the lifestyle channels seem kinda same-y as well. There are some reality-type shows on the likes of LiveWell and Create, but both seem to be primarily oriented towards actually "educational" programming. Given everything else, it actually surprises me that we have TuffTV (and Untamed Sports) but no obvious female equivalent.

C-SPAN. I don't want to be too nitpicky about this, and many PBS stations have legislative coverage on subchannels (hell, this particular incarnation of Create appears to have Tennessee state legislature coverage), but if this is the market we're going for, why not give the political junkies within that market the channel they tend to stick to now? Actual C-SPAN might not be possible, admittedly, since it's run by the cable companies themselves.

I'm sure you're going to say that I'm way off-base on specifics, and I admit I'm enough of a sports junkie that I don't have a good grasp of what the rest of the cable-subscribing landscape is like, but it really does seem like the programming available OTA outside the major networks is a vast wasteland compared to cable. This might reflect a chicken-and-egg problem, where cord-cutting would need to accelerate for there to be enough programming to reward it, but the fact is that for all the hype, I don't see how the reality of cord-cutting is really that attractive an option right now. The good news is there's quite a bit of redundancy; the bad news is that I don't see what the motivation would be to reduce it, or in the case of religious broadcasters, even how they would do it - though the fact TBN is running something like JCTV instead of a family-friendly network like Ion or MyFamily TV might be telling, even if only of religious broadcasters' attitude towards all of TV beyond their own studios.

Comments

1. On Monday, August 12 2013, 08:22 by Matt

If more of these Cable Networks wanted to be available as digital sub channel and let's say your local Fox would pick all of Fox's channels up then.

2. On Monday, August 12 2013, 09:50 by MrChips

I don't think programmimg is the real problem with OTA. I think it is that the average viewer has a problem wth using an antenna. Most veiwers on cable and OTA, watch the major networks. The difference, OTA needs an antenna, cable doesn't.

3. On Tuesday, August 13 2013, 22:05 by Jim in DC

(Background: I moved to the DC area 2 years before Trip did from Houston, TX)

I've come as close to cutting the cord as I can without fully cutting it: I have the basic "Welcome Pack" from Dish along with the "minimal basic" pack from Comcast (Internet is actually $10 cheaper with minimal basic than without...).

Living in northern Virginia, I am spoiled, in that I do get all of the DC stations, plus a couple from Baltimore (ABC and Fox reliably) (unfortunately not WBAL or WJZ, which I would prefer, due to a South-facing apartment...). I am blessed with 3 OTA PBS stations (WETA with its WETA UK channel, WHUT and MPT), along with the full suite of 12 channels from MHz. I do miss Universal Sports (now cable only) - as it covered activities I actually do (marathons and triathlons), plus know that I can usually find something to watch on MeTV or Antenna TV.

I do get NewsChannel 8 (WJLA/7's cable news channel) - but from what I've heard with Sinclair purchasing Albritton's stations, is that the end goal may be to take it national as a digital network on most of the 150+ Sinclair stations around the US. That would fill the gap of a semi-national news channel.

Also, between My Network TV (picking up a number of the USA network scripted dramas) and weekend nights on local stations, a number of the top notch cable dramas have been appearing (albeit a year or two later).

Most of what I watch is OTA (with the big exception of HGTV's ever-on "House Hunters/HH International" when I can't find anything else to watch). Now that I've discovered the foreign-language sub-titled "Krimi"s on MHz, there's even less of HGTV...

One option that the FCC could consider is opening some spectrum in smaller/underserved markets for some of the diginets to build a mux on and expand the reach (similar to what I've seen in England or Germany).

Enough of my ramblings. If it weren't for the DVR in my satellite, it would probably be gone too and I'd have totally cut the cord.

Jim

4. On Tuesday, August 13 2013, 22:08 by Jim in DC

I forgot to mention ION with additional off-network and off-cable programs...

5. On Wednesday, August 14 2013, 16:11 by tested

Great post. I can suggest two specific ideas that I think would help.

A more recent "classics" channel from Fox. (and I suppose each network could do this) No, it wouldn't have The Simpsons or Family Guy, shows that are still big in syndication. It would have things like 24, In Living Color and The X Files that are now basically out of syndication and cable runs. No Fox movies, but I would have some reality show reruns like Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. I might run some shows that only lasted a season or so on the weekends to give them some life with old fans or make some new ones. (Firefly, Alcatraz, Mr. President and Wonder Falls come to mind) The overall idea would be to give people who like your main channel a reason to keep watching the signal even when they're looking for something different from what you're currently running.

A headline news channel from Fox. We're not talking Hannity and O'reilly, I mean more like reports from Jim Angle, James Rosen, etc. Pull international stuff from Sky, AP and Reuters. Get stuff from local Fox stations. Have a new half-hour newscast each half-hour 24 hours a day. You wouldn't break format to do a bunch of long live breaking news coverage, leave that to Fox News Channel...but you could dip in and show some of it. Get Fox Sports and Fox Business to provide some content too. You could set it up so stations could easily insert their own news content. You could let them run it on their main channel too as fill in or overnight programming.

I thnk thse two stations, properly promoted, could be successful and get some to cut the cord and go to the trouble of watching on the antenna.

6. On Thursday, August 15 2013, 16:36 by Justin Hill

I have an idea for a digital subchannel:
An English version of Mexico's Canal 5*, a Televisa-owned channel that primarily runs Spanish dubs of children's cable TV programming over-the-air during the day (including reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants, Fairly OddParents, Dexter's Laboratory, and The Powerpuff Girls), as well as some more grown-up programming at night (Law & Order, boxing, etc.).

An English version of this channel would be perfect for people who can not afford cable TV (as well as those who do not know how to speak Spanish). Of course, some permission from the FCC and the cable networks to syndicate and air these programs is needed.

7. On Saturday, August 24 2013, 21:21 by Joseph

I don't disagree with everything you wrote, but I disagree with a lot of it.

First off, your contention is that there isn't much difference between all those old rerun channels. I get all of them. I watch AntTV all the time. I rarely turn on RetroTV. They are different. Following your logic would lead to the conclusion: why have 4 networks? They all show sitcoms, dramas and the evening news. So there isn't much difference between them. Yes there is: if Modern Family gets cancelled, it won't make me watch New Girl. Same with oldies. It's legitimate content.

Next up is your comment about pandering to Spanish speakers and little old ladies, it's pure bigotry. Those are the groups who don't pay for cable. Recognizing and serving who actually buys a product is not pandering, it's customer service.

Pandering is not when a station airs a mystery because a boatload of quiet homebody ladies will watch it. Pandering is when a station puts on a same sex marriage mockumentary because the .001% of the viewers who want it threaten to picket unless it's aired.

It's almost comical to read your complaint about programmers pandering to old ladies, then read your complaint that there aren't enough choices for _women_.

As for 24 hour news, yup it would be nice. I admit that I am amazed that the 2 networks who do NOT have cable news channels (CBS & ABC) have not offered a news/weather service to affiliates. I'm also surprised that other video news providers, like Dow Jones, have not tried to package a product for OTA sub-channels. However, both C-Span and Bloomberg are free on the internet. The combination of morning news, evening news, PBS plus C-Span and Bloomberg would seem to be enough news for anyone, unless you are referring to cord cutters who also do not have internet access. There are more of those people than you'd think.

You make a good point that young adults are a demographic prone to cord cutting, but I'm not sure that an affiliate picking up any of your suggestions would hasten their cord cutting. The OTA dial is bursting with court shows and talk shows. I dislike both genres, but you can't say there isn't enough reality tv on OTA subchannels.

Yes, beyond the network channels, OTA is sparse compared to cable, but that is a tilted comparison. Take the top 6 channels off of cable, cable also looks weaker.

As someone mentioned above, this isn't the main problem with OTA. It isn't the programming, it's the reception. 8VSB stinks. That's why nobody uses it but the US. Nobody wants to watch tv that breaks up everytime the wind blows. Until transmission improves, cord cutting is gonna be limited.

8. On Saturday, August 31 2013, 21:20 by Shamrock

I kinda agree with most of what has been said but... noone has addressed the problem in the print media. The newspapers refuse to list the additional channels that are now available. Papers in the Pittsburgh market list Chanels 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 11 & 13... but what about 4.2 and 7.2, 7.3, 8.2, and etc. Are the newspapers in bed with the cable companies?

I was fortunate enough to acquire a commercial, 70 foot tall, self supporting tower from Penna.State Surplus almost 40 years ago. I hung a small Finco TV antenna on a side-arm bracket at the 45 ft level and went for 20 years without ever having to pay a cable bill. When we moved, the tower came with us and for another 20 years we did not have a cable bill. When the United States went digital I raised the TV antenna to the 70 ft. level and I am now receiving over 40 channels of digital television totally free. Once in a while I have to turn the rotor but I don't have to turn my "Check Book". Can you imagine how much money I have saved over the last 40 years?

The biggest problem (IMHO) is that the public is not aware that the old antennas still work, and that there is a lot of programming NOW available; CBS, ABC, NBC, BBC, FOX, PBS, QVC, LWN, METV, THIS, Retro-TV and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, we are also subjcted to watching reruns of the same commercials time after time for 15 minutes out of every viewing hour regardless of whether we are on an antenna or non-premium cable/dish channels.

9. On Monday, September 2 2013, 16:07 by Justin Hill

I live in Northeast Wisconsin, and this market has no Ion affiliate, since PAX sold their Green Bay station, WPXG-TV 14 to the WB Network to become WIWB-TV (now the CW, WCWF, owned by LIN TV along with with WLUK-TV FOX 11). Now, if only KFIZ Radio of Fond du Lac, WI would go back into the broadcast television business and license Ion to the dormant-since-1971 KFIZ-TV 34 of Fond du Lac, WI, that would be great, but I doubt it will ever happen without reapplying a construction permit on channel 34. The other option would be to have WLUK-TV FOX 11 move The CW to 11-2, and in turn convert channel 14 into an Ion affiliate. Another option would be for WGBA-TV NBC 26 to have MyNetworkTV move to 26-3 and have WACY-TV 32 converted to an Ion affiliate.