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.