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)
6.4 TUFF TV
9.1 WTVC (ABC)
9.2 WTVC (This)
12.1 WDEF-DT (CBS)
18.1 WNGH-DT (PBS)
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)
26.3 3ABN-DD (Dare to Dream)
26.4 3ABN-ES (Latino)
26.5 3ABN-RD (Radio)
26.6 3ABN-RL (Radio Latino)
30.1 W21BZ (3ABN)
39.1 WYHB (America One)
43.1 WDGA-CA (TNN)
45.1 WTCI-HD (PBS)
49.1 WDNN-CA (MyFamilyTV)
53.1 WFLI-HD (CW)
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.