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CEA Wants You to Pay

Tom Butts is the Editor in Chief of TV Technology.

If there was ever any doubt as to where the Consumer Electronics Association stood on the business of broadcasting, all of that was laid to rest earlier this month when the lobbying organization issued the results of a telephone survey of about 1,200 U.S. households analyzing the percentage that exclusively rely on free over-the-air broadcasting.

According to its own survey, only about 8 percent of U.S. households get their TV by antenna, and represents a rate that has been in decline since 2005. CEA also noted that, despite rumors to the contrary, the recent rise in "cord cutting" does not represent a move to broadcast television, with only about 10 percent responding that they would cancel pay TV subscriptions due to economic reasons.

CEA President Gary Shapiro laid it on the line as to what policymakers should do next. "Using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense," he said. "Congress should pass legislation to allow for incentive auctions so free market dynamics can find the best purposes for underused broadcast spectrum, such as wireless broadband."

Nonsense says NAB, which responded with results from a survey done earlier this year that interviewed more than twice as many U.S. households as CEA's report. According to Knowledge Networks, around 46 million Americans rely on free over-the-air broadcasts, up by 4 million from a year ago. The total comprises around 15 percent of U.S. households, compared to 14 percent from the past three years. The survey also noted that broadcast-only households skewed toward younger adults, minorities and lower-income families.

The survey "found a small but noticeable number of homes that have cancelled pay TV service at their current home," KN said. Around 5 million or 4 percent of TV households dropped pay TV service "at some point in the past," and now just use broadcast reception, with the majority of those respondents citing cost. It also found that some minority groups are more dependent on broadcast than others, with about a quarter of Asian households, 17 percent of African American households and 23 percent of Hispanic homes broadcast only.

CEA released its report to add pressure to policymakers to accelerate progress on the FCC's National Broadband Plan, but taken to its logical conclusion, one can only surmise that the association wants to do away with broadcast altogether. After all, if what the CEA says is true and trends continue, the eventual number of broadcast-only households should drop to zero, right?

This is an even more radical position than the association has taken in the past. It was only several years ago that the CEA considered broadcasters "partners" in the DTV transition. If broadcasting was on the way out just a few years ago, then why even advocate for a transition to digital? Oh yeah, there was that little business of selling boatloads of DTV sets and converter boxes.

Even the FCC doesn't want to eliminate free over-the-air broadcasting. And broadcasters have never outright opposed the commission's National Broadband Plan. The industry just wants to ensure that incentive auctions are truly voluntary and that remaining broadcasters are protected from interference and can replicate current coverage. But somehow the CEA and others feel the need to rush such legislation through without carefully considering the consequences of cutting off a service that, once it's gone, would never return.

Never mind that we've just come off a particularly violent storm season where broadcasters once again provided a vital link to communities; never mind the thousands of hours of public service that broadcasters provide to their localities; never mind that during a painfully slow economic recovery, when, for many low income and minority viewers, free over-the-air broadcast is their only mode of getting information; never mind the fact that CEA's survey results ignores the thousands of businesses and institutions that still rely on broadcasting; never mind that broadcasters are rolling out mobile services that could fill the gaps when other modes of communication fail in emergencies. No, CEA doesn't want broadcast to stand in the way of selling more subscription-based devices. CEA wants you to pay.

CEA's either/or approach towards broadcasting denies current trends and refuses to acknowledge the industry's evolving role in the future of America's telecommunications infrastructure.