Cutting the cord - Why local TV matters

So you've been hearing about people going back to using an antenna for local TV broadcasts and you want to know a little more about how things have changed since the introduction of digital or "HDTV" broadcasting. There is a dizzying amount of history that you could aquaint yourself with that for the most part is unneccessary unless you really want to know. This article tries to inform you of the most salient points very breifly and to give some food for thought on why you might want to consider "cutting the cord" with your Cable or Satellite provider.

It is important to note that the new digital broadcasting technology is a significant improvement over the analog broadcasts of old.

Some have touted it as:

"The most important technical innovation in television brodcasting since the introduction of Color TV."
Color TV was first introduced in North America circa 1953 but was not widely adopted until around 1965.

Broadcast Television

In the beginning... the Internet did not exist, neither did cable and satellite monopolies, VCR's, Laserdisks and Bluerays were void and the world was in "black" and "white".

From Wikipedia: "The beginnings of mechanical television can be traced back to the discovery of the photoconductivity of the element selenium by Willoughby Smith in 1873, the invention of a scanning disk by Paul Gottlieb Nipkow in 1884 and John Logie Baird's demonstration of televised moving images in 1926." Read more on the histroy of TV here

Broadcast Television really came of age during the 50's 60's and 70's. Advertisers (sponsors) had access to willing viewers and could flog their wares to an audience rewarded and hypnotized with easy access to Local News, Weather, Sporting Events, Entertainment and The Emergency Broadcast System.  At first everything was live even the commercials. It was great! And it was the only game in town.

Analog broadcasting did have some frustrating technical limitations. To get a "good picture" you needed to have a well installed antenna that was highly "directional". If your antenna was not aimed more or less straight at the tower you would get "snowy" or "ghosted" pictures and weak signals often sounded as bad or worse than they looked. Ask your grandparents about having to stand in a "special" part of the room holding the antenna "just so" to get a watchable picture or if they had one, move the mechanical "rotor" to repoint the antenna. The lengths gone to for a decent picture were often hilarious and occasionally hazardous to your health.

Broadcasting Over The Air depends upon "line of sight" transmission from a local tower to your antenna. The range is limited by the power of the signal at the tower, the curvature of the earth, buildings, trees, flocks of flying squirrels, etc.  This "line of sight" limitation has an upside - It creates a local enviroment that guarantees that most content you receive is relevant to the area in which it is available. OTA broadcasting made sense in the beginning and it makes sense for the same reasons today. The news that matters to us most of the time is local and it goes without saying that emergency weather information like tornado or huricane alerts need to be local. Community content and even advertising also benefits from broadcasters. There are a lot of good reasons "Local TV Matters". The best news on the technical side is that while digital broadcasting is still limited by "line of sight" it overcomes the worst problems analog had. No more snowy or ghosted images and poor quality sound. With digital, if you get the signal it's HDTV perfect and truly amazing, or you don't get it at all.

But isn't cable or satellite "the best" way to "get it all"?

That depends on where you live and how much money you want to spend. Cable companies grew up out of the hazards and limitations of analog broadcasting at least in markets where it was practical to string up (or under) all that cable. Even now if you live in a remote area satellite is the only viable option because at best your antenna might be close to only a small number of towers. You might get 2 or 3 stations at best.

Cable and Satellite provide, for a fee, reliable clear access to not only local broadcasts but additional "specialty content" and "On Demand" content not available over the air.  They put up their array of antennas and dishes and distribute that "highly compressed" signal to their subscribers. If you want HDTV uncompressed (more or less) you pay extra. If you want "On Demand" content you pay extra. If you must have the specialty content provided by cable or satellite then they are your only albeit most expensive option.

Questions worth asking about your cable or satellite service:

  • Am I getting good value from what I am paying for?
  • Do I really have time to watch the 300 stations I pay for?
  • Can I get the "specialty content" I want from another source?
  • How much of what I watch most frequently is already available via OTA?
    To help answer this last question click here for a guide on how to check and see exactly what is available to you in your area.

The argument for getting an antenna:

OTA broadcast signals recieved with an antenna are uncompressed and in this sense they are "the best". If you happen to live in a metropolitan area or better still near more than one, you can be sure of a good selection of content and past the cost of your antenna, it's free - for the lifetime of your antenna install - easily 25 or 30 years or more.

Specialty content - Enter the Internet

The Internet provides access to a mind-numbing array of content of all kinds, we can truly watch whatever we want, whenever we want, and get that content from whomever we choose. (And there was much rejoicing!). As wonderful as that is, there are certain disadvantages to getting all of your content over the internet. Local content has to be searched for and not everyone wants to become their own content provider or at least not all the time. This is where broadcast tv starts to make sense all over again.

And as broadcasters have adopted the new digital format the hazards of poor picture quality have pretty much been eliminated. With HDTV broadcasts you either get a great picture or nothing at all ( a black screen). If you are getting a picture, the quality is astounding and justifies the money spent on that 50" plasma television more than satellite or cable can. The new format also opens up "sub-channels" within one broadcaster. Digital broacasting provides the bandwidth a "station" or "channel" needs to offer additional programming. So, for example,  Channel 2, can broadcast different content on a "sub-channel" which are picked up by your TV as channel 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 all from the same tower. This sets the stage for each television station to provide more than ever before, and some of them have jumped on the opportunity.

Let's consider the cost of an antenna vs a cable subscription:

Average cable package: Basic cable plus a few upgrades - $50.00 - 75.00/ month $600.00 - $900.00/year

Cost of professional antenna Installation: $500 - $1000.00 (less for the brave who want to DIY) depending on location and complexity.

So its quite simple: An antenna pays for itself in roughly the first year.

At the end of 10 years the owner of an antenna has spent between $500.00 to $1000.00  The cable subscriber has coughed up $6000.00 to $9000.00. So for those of you who like percentages the OTA option over 10 years is roughly 92% cheaper, which is as close to free as you can get unless you buy a house that already has an antenna.

While OTA provides excellent access to the major broadcast networks such as CBC OMNI CBS NBC ABC FOX CW TVO PBS  etc, and to some specialty Networks such as ION and MyTV or others depending on the market you are in, OTA does not provide access to all of what cable and satellite offer. You can mitigate this in most cases and very economically with services such as Netflix, Hulu and Youtube as well as a variety of alternative sources. So the best way to get it all depends on where you are and whether you are willing to go to the internet for some of the specialty content you want.

There is a renaisance occuring with Broadcast TV.

To summarize here is why:

  • From the point of view of quality of picture and sound OTA is the best way to watch TV.
  • Local TV OTA has the distict advantage of providing relevant content and access to major TV networks.
  • When used to supplement OTA the internet provides most if not more content than cable or satellite.
  • Over 10 years the average cable or sateliite subscriber will save between $5,500.00 and $8,000.00 with OTA.
  • Over the life of an antenna those savings can be as high as $24,000.00 or more for an average subscriber.
  • Digital broacasting opens new opportunities for local broadcasters to provide additional content thereby generating additional revenue through the tried and true method of funding recieved from commercial advertising.

If Broadcast TV of the 50's 60's and 70's were the Gold and Silver ages of Broadcast TV  then with the advent OTA digital broadcasting we have truly entered the "Platinum age".

You might ask yourself well : "does not this opinion come from a clever merchant who sells both antennas and the expertise to install them?"

Sure and you would be correct. However this clever merchant found himself reflecting thusly one day:

"Hmmmm... so I have a 40" television and it's great for watching DVD's but! most of what's on TV is crap and I am spending a lot of money for something I don't really use very much. Still... I like to have it,  though I have gone without it for extended periods. I wish there was a way to get a decent picture without a cable subscription... Hmmm... wait a minute I heard that some channels are broadcast in the new digital format, I wonder what that is like... I mean I remember antennas perfectly well, we all gave up on that years ago. Still I'll give it a try."

So with nothing but an indoor UHF antenna circa 2004 I was able to get about 5 stations in digital and they were stunning, i mean I had never seen such a good picture. 3 years later I discovered that the "transition" to digital was to occur. That is to say, all broadcasters in markets of 300,000 viewers or more were required to change to the new format. It got me thinking.

I have been a carpenter/contractor for most of my life building houses and even worked in sales for commercial and residential roofing, so I had already logged many hours climbing around on houses. I also worked as a Rigger, Stagehand, and AV technician in the Corporate Audio Visual world for decades. If you've ever been to a Car Show or a large corporate event at a hotel or convention center and wondered who put up all the technical smoke and mirrors, sound, lighting and video for "the show", that's what Riggers, Stagehands and AV Techs do. If you've ever worn a wiresless lapel microphone, or stood in front of a video wall that towered over your head, or marvelled at the lighting effects created by data driven robotic moving light, we were they guys building it, making sure it was working and putting it away at the end. It's a shadowy world of highly skilled misfits and weirdos clad in black who can handle the hours. (shadowy only because it all happens in the wee hours, in subterrainean convention centers and hotel ballrooms).

I even spent 2 years working as the lead for a team of a dozen computer specialist who were responsible for baby sitting the transcoding farms for Digital Media Operations for NBC Universal. We were transcoding video content for something new called Hulu (NBC's version of Netflix) and for a variety of internet based content delivery systems. It was a 24/7 operation and it was intense. Prior to this I was involved in another new thing - "webcasting" in this case for an investor relations firm. These gave me a unique window into what was happening with Digital Media. It also helped me see that media companies, just like newspapers were finding the internet challenged most of what they had come to expect as immovable.

2009 came and I decided it was time to build a rooftop array of 2 stacked 4 bay antennas and stick them on the roof of my home. I did this because signal reached my roof from 2 distinct directions and I wanted to get them all! I ended up getting 33 useable and reliable stations. To be fair I was in an ideal location in East York on the heights of what is called the "upper beaches". This is a great location for an antenna. This is evidenced by the fact that in this area you will still see many antenna towers with older antennas on them some of which were likely installed in the 50's and have provided even good analog reception to till now.  I was absolutely thrilled by the results and the smile has yet to completely dissappear from my face. To get such glorious HDTV reception for nothing more than a good antenna install and moreover to never have to open another cable bill, was really, really fun.  That's when I decided to start doing this first for friends and family and finally anyone else who wanted one. I have never regretted it and I have never looked back. I have found peoples resistance, in my view, "to seeing the light" a little perplexing. But cable and satellite companies have after all spent millions if not billions on convincing us that we wont be happy without them.

My wholehearted advice!

Take the plunge, cut the cord! - and start enjoying Free HDTV from thin air!

With the savings you can probably afford to buy good tickets to the occasional concert or game at the "Skydome"  ....and buy everyone there a hot dog.