Skip to main content

Rediscovering Off-Air Television

There is increasing evidence that the number of people using off-air TV has stopped declining and is now increasing. Every week I see new articles describing how people are dropping cable and satellite TV and turning to a combination over-the-air TV and Internet video services such as NetFlix to save money.

Two stories appearing this week were particularly interesting.

The New York Times article Rabbit Ears Perk Up for Free HDTV by Ben Garvin has comments from people who dropped cable TV and now rely on free off-air TV, supplemented by shows downloaded or streamed from the Internet. The article notes that from April to September, cable and satellites companies had a net loss of about 330,000 customers.

Richard Schneider, president of Antennas Direct, is quoted saying he expects to sell 500,000 antennas this year, up from 385,000 in 2009.

Gavin notes, "Some viewers who have decided that they are no longer willing or able to pay for cable or satellite service, including younger ones, are buying antennas and tuning in to a surprising number of free broadcast channels."

TMCNet contributing editor Susan J. Campbell was one of the writers who picked up the NY Times article and commented on it.

In her article Over-the-Air TV Gaining in Popularity she asks, "Is this the new trend that will change the viewing landscape? We may not know for sure until we start to see subscriber prices come down and broadcasters demand changes. As long as they benefit from more viewers--paid or free--they can still drive ad dollars, which won't help cable or satellite partners, but could keep free TV growing."

In an opposing viewpoint, Scott Woolley posted an article on Who to blame for your dropped calls: Try local TV in which he blasts the FCC saying, "The FCC continues to paper over the fact that the American system of free television actually guarantees no level of service and is wildly inefficient."

He argued against must carry and spectrum for broadcasting, saying "America's reliance on a patchwork of ground-based TV stations means fewer channels for viewers and fewer airwaves for modern uses."

Woolley's conclusions were not supported by most people commenting on his post. Many comments were from people in rural areas who depend on broadcast TV. One said "Since OTA has gone digital it's better than ever." The commenter added "Shame on you for thinking about your greed when so many people are out of a job in this bad economy. May a herd of ravaging fire ants find your sock drawer."

One commenter near Houston complained about poor reception on portable TVs (mobile DTV should improve that). Another said, "Great idea-why not shut down TV altogether? There's nothing but garbage out there anyway! Oh wait, that's the Internet, too."

Whether or not this reported increase in off-air viewing shows up in ratings will depend on whether it's large enough to overcome normal sample "noise" and the mix of households used to collect the ratings. It will be interesting to see the trend when we hit the two year anniversary of the analog shutdown.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.