Ned Beatty in Network

Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen in Network

And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war or famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”
– Arthur Jensen, “Network”

In my last post, I promised predictions about the future of television viewing. Here’s the first of them, from the eerily prescient film Network. (If you haven’t seen it, run out and buy or rent an unedited, uncensored version. Don’t just watch it on broadcast TV.) When Network came out, according to one source, about 50 corporations controlled the US media. Less than 30 years later, we’re down to six that own the great majority of the TV networks viewed in the US. In general, they will work to ensure that they continue to own all significant sources of TV ad revenue.

I’m not pointing that out to say they’re somehow evil for concentrating network ownership so thoroughly. It’s the duty of a corporation to maximize profits; consolidation decreases redundant expenses and removes competitors. In the absence of legal restraint, it’s only natural for something like this to happen.

Anyway, the most likely scenario is that these huge content owners will continue to be the only source of “new” channels. They’ll populate them mostly by repackaging existing assets, adding just enough original shows to ensure demand. Even the broadcast networks, if they can get enough leverage over their over-the-air affiliates, might switch to national feeds supplemented by local advertising inserted by cable systems.

OR if you’d prefer to think positive, satellite TV may ride to the rescue with something completely different. Think of what Ted Turner accomplished in the late 1970s. He turned a local independent station into a national network. While the times are different now, there aren’t any barriers preventing others from doing the same thing.

The real trick is for a station to own national rights to all of its programming. For college stations, such as those run by the University of Washington and Brigham Young, it’s easy to get a cheap (student) workforce to create lots of content. For others, such as the kinda-comatose White Springs TV, the trick was to use a lot of content that nobody owns. Other national networks with very modest programming budgets include America One, RTV and Tuff TV. (I was going to include old FTA friend AMG, but I couldn’t find any active affiliates for it.)

If you can take that national content and add a very local presence for one underserved home market, then you can create a new superstation, one that relies on local car dealer ads as much as national dishwasher soap ads. Whenever big content owners squeeze out local voices, the new superstation can be there with extensive news coverage, local sports events, and a home-town feel to it. Then that station can go up on satellite to be picked up by FTA viewers, out-of-town cable systems, or both.

Or you can turn that equation upside-down and do it the way a lot of RTV and America One affiliates do it. They create a nice piece of local programming, then rely on the network to fill the rest.

Finally, there’s always FreeDBS. If those folks can really get that project off the ground, it could provide a great example for other folks who want to put something interesting on our TV sets. There’s always hope.

Ocean wave“Something’s comin’ up
And I don’t know what it is
Something’s comin’ up
And I don’t know where it’s gonna take me” –Barry Manilow

My apologies for starting a post with a Barry Manilow lyric. There’s a similar snippet in West Side Story, but that one is more optimistic. “Something’s Comin’ Up” matches what I see – the video viewing world will be much different 10 years from now, but no one knows exactly how it will look. Whether it will be good or bad for us viewers will depend on a lot of factors, especially how fast your internet connection will be.

First comes an amazing story published by Advertising Age. According to report from Horizon Media, the median age for prime-time broadcast TV viewers has gone up by four years during the last four years. That means that there were only as many new, young viewers added as there were older viewers who died. The same median almost-47 year old in 2006 kept watching and became the median almost-51 year old today. (Props to Tod Sacerdoti for mentioning the report on his blog.)

Think about it. This means that very few young people care about broadcast TV. But they do care about the internet. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski seems to be recognizing and anticipating this shift, finding wireless internet spectrum from mobile satellite services and setting his sights on taking a chunk away from broadcast TV. The broadcasters are fighting hard against this idea even though they’d get paid for relinquishing the space and that, well, they don’t actually own those pieces of spectrum in the first place.

Second, there’s Nielsen’s Law of Internet Bandwidth: A high-end user’s connection speed grows by 50% per year. It used to be crazy to think that every home user could get any channel he wanted, live or on demand, via IP. Now with ever-faster speeds and load-balancing, widely distributed content servers, that’s not so crazy. It used to be easy to say that satellite broadcasting offered the least expensive way to simultaneously reach hundreds of millions of live viewers. At some point, an IP-based delivery system will be cheaper. Already, PBS has announced it will shift some of its non-real-time program delivery from satellite to IP.

Third, more households are cutting back or dropping traditional pay-TV services. A report from Yankee Group said that one in eight would at least cut back in 2010. Add in anecdotal evidence of viewers who are switching to broadcast HDTV with dozens of channels in most markets. With an increasing minority of broadcast TV viewers, maybe it’s not so simple to predict the end of over-the-air TV.

(Or maybe we can anyway. At least one federal spectrum reallocation plan suggested free lifeline cable TV for soon-to-be-former OTA viewers. One TV repeater district servicing far-flung households in rural Nevada suggested switching everyone there to satellite pay-TV.)

So what does it all mean for FTA satellite? Leave a comment and tell me. Meanwhile, I’ve got one crazy prediction that I’ll save for my next post.

TV under attackThe perfect complement to FTA TV is over-the-air (OTA) TV, and OTA is under attack. The FCC is talking about selling some of the OTA TV spectrum to folks who will use it for broadband internet. An op-ed column in The New York Times last week suggested that we should sell off all OTA TV spectrum. For folks who get free TV now, the column says that most can get cable or satellite pay-TV, then suggests that the FCC could require “a low-cost service that carries only local channels.”

This is crazy on several levels. Folks who love high-quality video know that OTA HD is usually much better than what cable or satellite provides. Folks who honestly cannot afford to waste even $20 a month on TV entertainment will not benefit if their free TV is taken away from them. And the idea that weather emergencies are best communicated via cable? When I had cable, the way I knew there was a storm in progress was that my cable had cut out.

There are some people who really want to get all of that juicy, wall-penetrating TV spectrum to use for their own commercial projects. Those airwaves belong to all of us, and I don’t want to see free OTA TV go away just to enable the latest internet access flavor of the month.

And while I’m talking OTA, another hot topic is retransmission fees. If a cable or satellite TV company wants to carry an OTA station, it has to pay a fee that it negotiates with that station. (If the company doesn’t want to carry an unpopular station, then the station can insist to be carried for free.) Every time the retransmission contracts come up for renewal, there’s a good chance for public posturing and the occasional loss of a channel to the company’s subscribers.

I’ll skip over the idea that because OTA stations use our public airwaves at very little cost, maybe they should be free to everyone. Given that retransmission fees are appropriate, the current system is inefficient and hurts viewers. The chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee says maybe a station should have to show that the cable or satellite company is bargaining in bad faith before it yanks its signal away. That’s not the right answer, either.

When an internet broadcaster streams music, it doesn’t have to negotiate with each song’s publisher. When a jukebox operator changes records, it doesn’t have to figure how much to pay each songwriter. The stakeholders in these cases negotiated mechanical royalties, ensuring that all sides get fair terms without having to bargain about every transaction.

That’s exactly what retransmission consent needs: a negotiated national contract. Fees could be based on size of market, audience share, the end-user’s bill, or any other appropriate factors. It could be tied to the cost-of-living index, it could have negotiated yearly increases, or it could just be reopened for fresh national negotiations every five years or so. The stations would get what’s fair, cable and satellite companies would get some cost assurance, and viewers could be sure that they’d get all the local channels that they’d paid for. Too easy?

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

There are some people out there who don’t appreciate FTA for what it is. They don’t want a wild cornucopia of sports feeds, news from other countries, and oddball channels. They just want their regular TV networks, and they want to pay as little as possible to get them.

Maybe you’re one of these people who want what you might call “normal TV.” For that purpose, FTA just isn’t the best choice. So what should you do? You may be surprised at the free and low-cost alternatives that are available.

The best way to get your local broadcast channels is with a standard, pointy or bow-tied over-the-air (OTA) antenna. Connect that to your digital-ready TV set or cheap converter box, and you’ve got loads of free entertainment with very little effort. But that works only if you can pull in strong enough OTA signals where you live.

What if you can’t get local OTA channels, or if you want a few pay-TV channels? Then we start looking at alternatives that are cheap but not free.

Dish Network offers an unadvertised starter set of 20 channels (the list is here) for $9.99/month. You’d have to buy and install your own equipment, but old standard definition Dish receivers are pretty cheap, and Dish dishes are at least as cheap as FTA dishes. If Dish offers them, you can add your local channels for an extra $5/month. You can add a set of Public Interest channels for free. You can add the true Superstations (KWGN, KTLA, WWOR, WPIX, WSBK) for $1.50/month each. If you call and sign up for autopay, Dish will give you the Cinemax channels for a year for a penny. You could cobble together a cheap, decent set of channels this way.

Dish also has the Family Pack, using a different mixture of channels, for $24.99/month, and so begins the slippery slope. If you’ve simply got to have ESPN, Dish’s Classic Bronze 100 at $39.99/month is probably the cheapest way to get it. These advertised packages also have the advantage of including equipment and installation if you commit to a year or two.

Another way to avoid equipment purchases is to sign up for cable. Most local cable systems offer an unadvertised “lifeline” package at a price lower than their most basic package. It typically includes all of your local channels plus local government and public access channels and sometimes a few extras. (For example, where I live, Comcast includes TBS and Bravo.) The exact lineup will vary, of course, but it’s something you can ask your cable company about.

If you’ve got broadband internet access, you can look around for streaming media options. Most of those “normal TV” channels aren’t available live, but you can find some old clips or even full-length programs to watch online. And some of what is available live might surprise you if you Google around or stop by TVU Networks.

Or you can turn to DVDs for your TV entertainment. Some public libraries offer DVDs for checkout. Redbox rents new-release DVDs for $1/night. Netflix, hated source of pop-under ads, lets you swap DVDs by mail for $8.99/month or more. Swap a DVD lets you indirectly trade your DVDs for the cost of postage.

So there are most of your choices for free or cheap “normal TV.” But if you want over 200 channels of free TV, and you’re not picky about what they’re about or what language they’re in, then FTA is definitely your best choice.