Free, Wireless Television Makes a Resurgence

We continue to see rapid changes in the way television may be delivered to viewers, and some of the research on what interests viewers in this respect is revealing—even surprising.

A recent e-mail survey study reports that a large number of respondents are interested in viewing television on a mobile phone. Currently, more than 60 percent of mobile TV subscribers are men, about half of whom are under the age of 35. Interest in mobile TV among those surveyed, though, was about equally divided between male and female respondents. Moreover, more than half the respondents who were interested in mobile TV expressed a willingness to watch commercials in order to see free programming.

About half of potential subscribers expressed interest in local news, dramas, movies, and sitcoms. Does all this sound a little familiar? The cost of mobile TV service was a primary factor cited by respondents. Those interested in this new television service want to receive it the way their forebears received the older types of television service—free, sponsored by commercial advertisements.

Speaking of older types of television delivery, there appears to be some bad news and some good news on the broadcast television front. First, the bad news. After stability over the past two television seasons, broadcast television ratings have shown some erosion this season; sufficient erosion to cause concern. Only a few broadcast network primetime shows have actually shown ratings improvements this season.


There is some perplexity about where these missing viewers are going. They do not appear to be going to cable programming. One place they might be going is to a digital video recorder. One report says that of the 14 percent of U.S. television households that have DVRs, about 40 percent use them for time-shifting, and this phenomenon by itself is said to be capable of causing a drop in ratings of 5 percent or greater.

On the other hand, a recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association revealed something quite interesting. At the end of April, The Associated Press ran a story describing how viewers might use simple off-air antennas to avail themselves of HDTV pictures that are superior to those offered by cable and satellite services.

We know that this is entirely possible, because the cable and satellite telecasters frequently transmit digital pictures with rather low bit-rates in order to conserve bandwidth on their systems. This, of course, has the unfortunate effect of reducing the quality of the pictures the viewer sees on the new, expensive, big-screen HDTV set.

The regular reader of this column might remember a report from a year or two ago stating that there was a strong perception, among professionals in the advanced display industry no less, that cable and DBS delivered better HDTV pictures than those delivered by terrestrial broadcasters. This perception was 180 degrees out of phase with reality, but it appears that the public is wising up.


The AP article generated a flurry of traffic on the CEA’s Web page that provides information on antennas for off-the-air reception. The day the article ran, the URL reported 86,000 inquiries compared with its normal Sunday traffic of 6,000, and its average of 100,000 inquiries a month.

Neither are these merely hits, in which the page is simply viewed, because an inquiry requires that one fill out a form in order to get specific information based on the inquirer’s geographical location.

This certainly is a good sign for the future of terrestrial television broadcasting. We have mentioned the recent appearance in U.S. neighborhoods of new UHF antennas on the rooftops.

This only makes sense, to a broadcaster at least, as the viewer can take advantage of the best HDTV pictures available, and the delivery medium is free, digital, and wireless. How 21st century is that?


The above account is indicative of what broadcasters need to do in order to make their future as bright as possible: get the information about free over-the-air HDTV out to the public. There has long been considerable confusion in the public’s mind about all this, which is not so surprising in light of all the misinformation and missing information that circulates. Educational efforts obviously pay off.

The broadcast networks are doing their part in the respect that they continue to offer increasing amounts of HDTV programming in all dayparts, and the local broadcast television stations are also airing an increasing amount of local programming in HD, as we notice daily in the trade journals.

The more the public knows about all this programming, including the fact that it is available to most of them free of charge if they but put an antenna on the roof, or possibly, on top of the TV set, the brighter the future for terrestrial broadcast TV.

One of the big drivers of HDTV among the viewing public is big-screen displays. It will be pretty difficult, to say the least, for a program distributor to send anything comparable to broadcast HDTV pictures to a cell phone, and we are well aware what the effect will be when such signals are output from the cell phone to a big screen. But that’s a topic for another column.

Randy Hoffner