A few threads connected…
Recently I was at a dinner party with some friends. A young teenager from the East coast was at the dinner and I asked him the question “Do you know anyone who doesn’t have cable TV?” He thought for a few seconds and said “Yes, one friend has satellite.” He didn’t even think to consider that anyone would just get over-the-air TV.
A couple of months ago I helped my parents pick out a digital TV and surround sound system. My parents are “old school” and don’t even want to consider paying every month for television, so we just plugged in the over-the-air antenna to the one on his roof and we were in business with digital television. The picture quality is very high – over the air digital TV broadcasts in higher quality than over cable or satellite because it is uncompressed.
Today they announced that the Cubs playoff games were going to be broadcast on TBS only. If you don’t have cable or satellite, you won’t be able to watch the game. This situation is compounded by the fact that the games start at 9pm central time; if you are older it isn’t reasonable to expect that they’d go out to a bar or restaurant until midnight when the game is done. Of course, lots of them have cable, but probably the majority of the people that DON’T have cable would be older than average. I imagine that WGN TV, which has broadcast the Cubs for years, will be flooded with calls from irate viewers.
The combination of these threads is that over-the-air TV is being marginalized. Per this article, there are about 20 million over-the-air households out of the 110 million or so total – less than 20% of the total US audience. Here is another interesting article with MLB’s opinion on the games… “It’s easy to say the league has an obligation to put these games on [free TV]. But you know, it’s not in the Constitution.”
Over time we have had a massive shift in this country from over-the-air television to cable and satellite TV. From an economic perspective, this is madness. There is a limited number of quality programs available – you could easily fill the available stations with programs that people actually wanted to watch. A parallel industry was built up wiring the cities with cable or launching rockets in the sky for the satellite network. Installers go house to house to set up the gear and operators are standing by to help you run through all the complexity. The cable networks have to pay for content and then pass on these costs, plus profit, to subscribers.
Cable was originally sold on the premise that you pay a monthly fee but are spared having to watch commercials. As anyone knows, that theory is long gone; if anything cable (except for the pay movie channels) is WORSE as far as commercials than over the air television.
In the past cable and satellite TV may have been superior to over-the-air television; but today digital television in major cities like Chicago is up to the task. There are a large number of channels available; and their quality of reception is good once you get out of the inner city where the signal is generally poor (due to interference).
I think that we ought to give free TV a chance; if you never thought of going without paying 35-50 dollars a month for cable or satellite, think about it. However, the fact that major events like the Cubs playoff games may not be broadcast at all over regular TV is going to put the final nail in the coffin for over-the-air TV.
Essentially cable TV and satellite TV are “ganging up” on free TV to put that channel out of business; then they can split the world as an oligopoly and rake in fees indefinitely. Since the broadcast industry is heavily regulated (often badly), here is an idea that they ought to consider; ensure that free TV stations have an opportunity to bid on events like the playoffs and that these events can’t just be taken off over-the-air TV and shown exclusively through pay venues.
But this is very unlikely to happen; broadcast TV, which dawdled for years before moving to digital spectrum, is playing catch up now in the market and with the regulators. And pretty much everyone is going to end up paying for something that could easily be free (since you are sitting through the commercials anyway) while the valuable spectrum sits barely utilized in the sky.
Cross posted at LITGM