The Internet might just make rabbit ears obsolete for local television

Have you ever had to use rabbit ears to pick up a local TV signal? I have, and I’d say most of us have as well at some point in our lives.

Quite frankly, it sucks.

Last year, I embarked on a cord-cutting experiment in order to save the money I had been spending on cable television. It is easier now than ever with online services like Netflix to provide affordable content and DTV broadcasts.

Digital Television (DTV) is an advanced broadcasting technology that has transformed the television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality, and multiple channels of programming. Since June 13, 2009, full-power television stations nationwide have been required to broadcast exclusively in a digital format.

Federal Communications Commission

Despite these technological advancements and my modern flat-panel HDTV purchased new in 2010, my experiment failed miserably.

Apart from missing the programming from certain cable channels that could not be substituted online (I’m looking at you, ESPN), the most annoying thing was having to constantly adjust my antenna to get a good picture only to have it flake out on me a minute or two later. An omnidirectional antenna was still just as flaky, and I couldn’t even adjust it.

I live in the city — within 10 miles of all the local broadcast transmitters, in fact — so it wasn’t a matter of distance. I bought a newer amplified antenna that was a step above the basic, so there was no good reason why I should have trouble. Of course, in the city, there are a lot of tall buildings around that can interfere, but there is nothing especially tall between my apartment and any of the transmitters. I even contacted one of the local broadcast stations and told the engineer where I lived — he said something to the effect of “From where you are, you should be able to get a clear picture with a paper clip.”

Very frustrating. So frustrating, in fact, that I decided to pony up the cash and reinstate my cable TV subscription. There just seemed to be an inevitability about paying for television, and to me that payment was worth avoiding a lot of frustration.

Since that time, a few things have happened that lead me to believe this won’t be so inevitable for long.

  • Broadcaster/network/provider contract disputes. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s definitely intensifying. Here in Indianapolis, the parent company of local CBS affiliate WISH-TV refused to pay the CBS Network more money for broadcasting rights to network programming, so CBS just found another local station (WTTV-TV) whose parent company was willing to pony up. On a related note, our local NBC affiliate (WTHR-TV) got involved in a contract dispute with DirecTV that led to a brief discontinuation of NBC programming for DirecTV subscribers. The dispute was resolved, presumably with DirecTV paying WTHR more money…and those subscribers ultimately paying higher bills for the privilege. Presumably the pressure from WTHR to insist on more money came from having to pay higher broadcasting rights fees to NBC. And the pressure on both the NBC and CBS networks to charge the affiliates higher rates is coming largely from sports — especially the NFL. It was no coincidence that DirecTV and WTHR resolved the dispute just in time to get an important Sunday Night Football game involving the Indianapolis Colts back on the air.
  • Broadcast networks offering online subscriptions. In addition to Netflix, television networks have increasingly begun to post programming online…it’s a good way to catch up on missed episodes and the like. But CBS recently made a much bolder move: offering online-only paid subscriptions to live television and archived episodes. If the other major broadcast networks follow suit, then that will enable them to completely bypass the local affiliates and go directly to viewers.
  • Local news online. Those affiliates are even beginning to broadcast their local news shows on a live online stream as an alternative to over-the-air or cable/satellite.
  • Easier ways to get online programming onto the TV screen. One of my favorite gadgets is Google’s Chromecast. It’s small, it only costs $35, and it can use your WiFi connection to beam whatever is on your smart phone, tablet or on the Chrome browser on your PC to your TV with the touch of a button. I have one plugged into one of my TV’s HDMI ports, and I use it frequently. Now that the Chromecast device has been out for over a year, it has dramatically improved in terms of app support and full-screen casting. Dead simple. And even local affiliate stations are coming out with their own apps.

So, that begs the question, why do we need to broadcast television over the air at all anymore? The obstacles are more on the business side than the technology side. Here’s where the FCC needs to be bold (but probably won’t be).

  • Preserve net neutrality. Video content takes up a large amount of bandwidth (especially high-definition and 4K video), so it’s important not to have the telecom companies create slow and fast lanes. After all, the concepts that I’m talking about that could save costs for consumers are a major threat to their cash cow business. Right now, the FCC is taking public comments on this issue — so make your voice heard!
  • Mandate live, free Internet streaming for all over-the-air broadcasts. By law, television stations are supposed to be operating in the public’s interest. As a condition of having a broadcast frequency, the FCC could also mandate that the affiliates provide the same content over the Internet. At the very least, they should have to stream the locally produced content like the local news. This should not be too difficult a hurdle because a lot of stations are already doing this. Now that we have made the full transition to DTV, all of the video content is already digital anyway. But ideally they should also have to stream the network content too for people within their broadcasting area. The programming is free by antenna, so why shouldn’t it be free online?
  • Complete the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is already hard at work implementing the National Broadband Plan, which should dramatically expand high-speed Internet access across the nation. Now that the DTV transition is complete, the older analog television frequencies have gone to emergency response, and the remainder will be auctioned off — presumably to telecommunications companies. The FCC estimates that there are about 7 million households currently without any access to broadband Internet at any price because they are located in sparsely populated areas where telecommunications companies could not expect much of a return on their infrastructure investments. Of course, having broadband access available for a price does not equate to actually having broadband access.
  • Auction off the DTV spectrum. Just as the FCC is auctioning off the portion of the analog TV spectrum not being used by emergency responders, it could also raise funds by auctioning off the DTV spectrum and using those funds to help subsidize broadband Internet access for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Ideally, this would be revenue-neutral, just like the National Broadband Plan is. With a mandate already in place to live stream all broadcast content, local TV stations would not need to change much.

Hopefully by this point in time — let’s say 10 to 15 years into the future — almost no one would still be using a TV without at least an HDMI port. And we already have lots of cheap Internet-based devices today like the Chromecast or Roku that could simply have buttons for local channels right next to their Netflix buttons. It would not be a huge leap. Much like the FCC created a coupon program for DTV converters, they could create something similar for an Internet-based device like this.

Television stations, of course, make their money from advertising, and the amount advertisers are willing to pay is driven by Nielsen ratings. But even Nielsen has said that Internet-based devices have reduced overall television viewership. Of course, you can still measure the number of hits a video receives (see everything on YouTube), and online video advertising is quite common these days. Getting the type of demographic information that Nielsen measures is a little harder than that, but having users complete a web-based questionnaire is a lot easier than having Nielsen install boxes in people’s homes. The Internet provides a far larger sample size to measure all the hits — not just a select few to extrapolate from.

What do you think? What other obstacles might there be to permanently throwing away the rabbit ears and the huge rooftop antennas?

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