CBS Blackout Should Ignite Free TV Debate

Digital TV

The retransmission fight between CBS and Time Warner cable shows no sign of abating, but it is triggering some interesting discussions over how consumers and regulators should handle the standoff. Dave suggests that Time Warner subscribers pick up a Mohu Leaf antenna to amplify over-the-air CBS signals while cable access is cut off.

On the regulatory front, GigaOM points us to a blog post by Harold Feld, attorney and Legal Director for Public Knowledge. Among other suggestions, Feld recommends that the FCC should bar CBS from blocking Time Warner subscribers from accessing its content on The theory is that CBS can choose what programming it makes available online, but it can’t discriminate against a specific group of viewers.

Meanwhile, I’m left wondering why no one seems to bring up the obvious discussion point. Should we still have free TV? Broadcast networks now rely heavily on retransmission revenue, and that’s why negotiations with cable companies are such a big deal. But retrans fees trickle down to consumers, which means people are paying for free content just to get it through their cable provider. Is the idea of free TV dying out as business models evolve? More importantly, should we be trying to save it?

I believe there is a role for free television, but not necessarily in the way it exists today. (Those one-hour dramas are hard to subsidize with ad revenue.) More importantly, as more content producers move to IP delivery, we have to consider how free access to critical content makes its transition to the Internet-powered world. If we want to keep a free TV service, eventually we’re going to have to relocate it to the web.

I don’t know the answers here, but it’s a debate we should probably start. Do we want free TV in the future? And what should it look like?

16 thoughts on “CBS Blackout Should Ignite Free TV Debate”

  1. I like the UK’s BBC model… Of course, it’d never work here. And Freeview is sort of like getting prescription drugs in Canada – US subsidizes the rest of the world.

  2. With the cable/satellite industry shooting itself in the foot by ever increasing rates, and the channels helping kill themselves with ever increasing commercial content, I’m really surprised that oldschool OTA TV hasn’t caught on bigger and faster than it already is. My wife and I cut cable in 2005 and don’t miss it AT ALL. When we found ourselves in front of the TV and turning to each other to ask, “what show are we waiting for to come back on?” because the idiot commercial breaks are so long… that was the killing blow for cable. We refuse to ever again pay to watch commercials – especially 22 minutes per hour. It is bad enough getting them for free.

  3. Bent, part of the problem may be related to reception issues and the “digital cliff” after the digital transition and broadcasters flipped frequencies. Also, I assume some of it is ignorance. Of course, at some point if enough people go OTA and enough people pirate, maybe the powers that be stop making compelling content since there’s not enough revenue to support it. We’re definitely in an interesting period of transition. I will say I’m DVR-ing less and Netflixing more these days. Also, things like the Internet and Xbox occupy time once spent watching television.

  4. I believe that telecommunications are a utility and should be treated as such (think electricity and water). But I don’t believe that the products they enable are necessarily a utility. So I wish we would divide the two industries to prevent utility providers from tying their essential services to non-essential services.

    If this were the case, then video providers could choose to offer free services, delivered via the utility, in return for providing emergency communications, etc. Essentially, we remove the broadcast channels from OTA, and at the same time, basic cable would be free with your telecommunications service. In other words, free basic cable comes with your internet/phone service.

  5. I’m for keeping free tv, in it’s current form. If/when money gets tight, I want to be able to still have access to free OTA television. I can supplement that with OTT entertainment for low cost.

  6. I think @Bent has it correct. If you were to go back to TV from 1970 (go find a show on Netflix) you’ll see it’s 52min in length. That’s 8 mins, spread across the hour, of commercials. Now you get, at best 40min of content for an hour. How is it that they were able to produce 52min of content back in 1970 for 8min of commercials but now they can only barely give us a little over 1:1 on content to commercials?

    I think network TV has been devaluing it’s product for 20+ years. Reality TV is cheap to produce. No actors, just chumps who’ll act like monkeys for a while. There’s no replay value there. No one goes back and thinks, “Oh, I want to see that memorable episode where Gilligan meets Amelia Earhart…” (Yes, people used to watch reruns).

    Further, it always seemed backwards to me how the local channels approached the cable companies. The cable companies are doing you a favor by delivering more eyes to your advertisers (TV is about delivering the product (consumer eyes) to the advertisers). No, instead they bitched and said, “we want to be paid for you doing us this favor!!!” Really? The whole reason cable started was to share an antenna and get people watching your broadcast TV when they otherwise couldn’t..

    I think local TV / Network TV are their own worst enemies.

    Why is it that USA, Comedy Central, FX, etc. can produce entertaining things that I want to see and they still make a profit but NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX struggle and can only show me the next Big Brother / America’s Got Talent show?

  7. The “digital cliff” remains a problem with OTA.

    Internal antennas, even if powered, often aren’t good enough to get all the locals.

    I can get the stations broadcast 15 miles away (NBC, PBS) with nothing more than a length of coax, but everything else (transmitters 35 miles away) requires either an attic-mount or external antenna.

    Fortunately they’re all UHF so my 2-bay external antenna is only about the size of a 11″x17″ sheet of paper.

  8. The easiest way to “save” broadcast/free TV is to change the FCC regulation that says says the lowest tier of cable service (broadcast channels + some extras) is a required tier for further service.

    The FCC screwed the pooch on that one. When they started allowing cable companies to scramble the broadcast tier to “save money on truck rolls and help prevent service theft”, they should have also changed the ruling on the broadcast buy-through tier. Yes, the FCC changed a rule in the interest of large corporations, completely ignoring consumers. Shocking!

    If broadcast channels were broken out as an optional tier of service, theoretically, people in most major metropolitan areas would have the option of putting up an antenna, saving $10+ a month, and never ever having to be a pawn in the retransmission game for a broadcast channel.

    If broadcasters like Leslie Moonves want to continue down the road where retransmission money is a huge payday, CBS should be forced to abandon the broadcast spectrum and affiliate model, and provide one or two feeds to cable companies on a national level… like cable channels do!

  9. The reason that there used to be only 8 minutes of commercials per hour is because the supply of programming was very limited – in many markets there were only four or five broadcast channels (and no cable or satellite) – and the broadcasters could charge high rates for commercial time. Now there are hundreds of channels available, and the number of eyeballs watching a given program is less. So the advertisers are no longer willing to pay the high rates, and the broadcasters need to sell more ads, and supplement their revenue by charging retransmission fees, selling ads on their web sites, etc.

    All of these costs and fees are eventually passed on to the consumer, whose cable/satellite bill is spiraling upwards out of control. And because of the package deals that the networks are forcing onto the cable/satellite companies, we consumers are paying for more and more channels / programming that we have no interesting in watching.

    My wife and I fed up with this. We just ordered an outdoor OTA antenna, and if all goes as planned we will cut the cord by the end of this month. We’ll supplement the OTA programming with our existing Amazon Prime subscription and one or two additional streaming services.

    It’s time for consumers to take back control of their televisions.

  10. If Aereo ever comes to DC, and isn’t shut down by the broadcasters, and Roku gets an ESPN3 app, I could conceivably cut the cord with the help of Netflix and Amazon VOD.

  11. The problem with OTA isn’t on the revenue side, it is on the cost side. Take a look at what it “costs” to produce a show now versus in the 60s, 70s, & 80s and you will understand.

    When shows like Friends started paying each actor a $1,000,000 per episode the big networks locked themselves into a cost structure that is ridiculous. My take is simple – bring the cost structure back down and in line with what advertising will support.

  12. @Dave,

    As long as you don’t follow your local NFL team, or can live with watching it after its over…

    I guess I don’t know how this will all work out in the end, but if OTA ceases then we the public want our spectrum back, thank you very much.

    BTW, the number of people getting their TV OTA has been going up rather dramatically. Last numbers I saw from 2012 had it rising to 17% or so.

    If it were up to me the FCC or congress would make it illegal to negotiate deals for packages of channels. TW should be able to agree to pay CBS for that one channel alone and punt the rest of them off the air and wait for CBS to come back hat in hand begging them to carry the CW.

  13. @Dave,

    Can’t you “Chromecast” ESPN3 to your TV?

    I’m planning on doing just that for NFL games via my “Madden 25th Anniversary” game using the “Sunday Ticket” code the $99 version offers.

  14. Haven’t tried it, but I really don’t want to have a laptop on the couch with me to beam a Chrome tab to the television (and use said laptop as a remote when I want to pause the action). However, I assume MANY smartphone apps will gain native Chromecast capabilities over the next few months. Google sold too many of them, the platform can’t be ignored.

  15. Free OTA really came about as an extension of Free Press. the idea was to use the public spectrum for the good of the public in presenting news and educational shows (PBS). It was an easy concept back in the lower tech 60’s and 70’s. I recall having an antenna and cable hookup to the TV for OTA and premium cable shows.

    the problem now is how to split out entertainment from the original concept and for the Govt. to keep the original concept alive. However Govt. has changed in that time as well and corporations like ABC no longer have journalistic integrity as a motivator of their corporate mission and Govt. worries more about economy and corporations as the goal of public good these days so umm yeah… this wont be solved

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