BBC America LogoLong-time readers might remember my First Rule of TV Programming: No matter what niche a pay-TV channel initially occupies, as time goes on, it will become more and more like all the other channels. It might start as the Chess Network, but by Year Five, it’ll be running old sitcoms and reality shows.

It’s easy to find examples of this rule in action. The Game Show Network became GSN and de-emphasized old game shows. TV Land, which started with classic TV shows, added shows about old TV shows, then added original sitcoms that had nothing to do with old TV shows. The Sci-Fi Channel became SyFy and added pro wrestling. The Nashville Network started with country music, then became TNN and added pro wrestling, then became Spike and added reruns of Star Trek and CSI. The History Channel runs reality shows. You get the idea.

(I pause here to give a shout out to the lone exception to this rule: Turner Classic Movies. It started later than American Movie Classics, but as AMC strayed away from that shared vision of commercial-free classic movies, TCM has expanded on it. TCM is one of my favorite channels.)

Anyway, from the logo at the top of this post, you can guess the latest channel to embrace this rule. BBC America has hired a vice president for its new original programming division.

This is particularly annoying because BBC America holds exclusive US rights to all BBC content. It’s the main reason why you can’t get the BBC channels anywhere in America. The BBC already produces more content than BBC America can show, yet the channel already pads its schedule with movies, The X-Files, and Star Trek. (At least it hasn’t picked up pro wrestling. Yet.)

Maybe if we’re lucky, BBC America will follow the path of several other channels and spin off a second channel that is pretty close to how it used to look. (Think Cartoon Network and Boomerang, or MTV and VH1 Classic.) That would buy us a couple of years until the new channel falls victim to my Rule all over again.

A menu. You know, for a la carte

A menu. You know, for a la carte

Here’s a small item that happens to illustrate a big point, one that’s a source of frustration to some satellite viewers. According to Multichannel News, The owners of the Fine Living Network are going to change it into the Cooking Channel next year.

It doesn’t sound like much of anything, but think about it for a moment. If you or I wanted to start the Cook This channel, we’d have to go to all sorts of cable and satellite operators to try to work out deals for them to carry Cook This and maybe even pay us a little for it. FLN’s owner, Scripps, won’t have to do that for the Cooking Channel. Instead, if the original contract was flexible enough, the new channel will be automatically carried to the millions of people who have FLN on their channel guides. Probably some of the people who would never think to sample Fine Living will be interested in Cooking.

Channel refocusing goes on all the time. My First Rule of TV Networks is that no matter its niche at its launch, every channel tends to become like every other channel. The Game Show Network adds poker. TV Land adds original series. American Movie Classics runs a scripted weekly drama. You get the idea. (Turner Classic Movies is the lone exception. Thank you, TCM!)

There’s also been a fair amount of rebranding. The Nashville Network became TNN, which became Spike. The Cable Health Network became Lifetime. And soon, FLN will become Cooking.

My point is that any channel’s presence on cable and satellite is a huge opportunity. If you own one, and you think another format will work better, you’re free to try your experiment. Of course, this is intensely valuable, and this is the reason why the handful of companies that own the majority of pay-TV channels will fight to prevent them from being offered one at a time, or a la carte. If viewers could choose not to subscribe to FLN, they probably wouldn’t notice Cooking’s launch.

Remember why we have bundled channels. The first multi-channel distribution system was cable TV. Most cable systems began with simple analog technology that simply delivered every available channel, maybe as many as 36. Premium networks such as HBO required a physical filter on the line to allow or disallow reception. No one could choose to subscribe to only MTV or to block out The Weather Channel.

Flash forward to now. Satellite providers routinely add or subtract individual channels from individual receivers. There’s no technological reason for not selling each channel a la carte. But content providers understandably resist the idea. It’s not just that they won’t get the extra 2 cents per month per subscriber for their Rerun of Everything Else Channel. It’s that they might want to rebrand the Rerun channel to take advantage of the next fad. And if they do, they’ll want the built-in potential viewers that bundled programming provides.

Finally, this is another reason to enjoy FTA programming. FTA viewers are used to having everything change. We search out new and fun shows instead of stumbling onto them as we scroll past Channel 285 in our guide. We work hard to find the shows we like, and that makes them all the better to us. And of course, it’s nice that they’re all free.

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.