TV Is Still Free (Part 1): ABC-Cablevision Battle Shows Public, Media Unaware of Free Over Air TV

TV Is Still Free (Part 1): ABC-Cablevision Battle Shows Public, Media Unaware of Free Over Air TV

March 15, 20105:25 PM MST

HD over the air freeTV could make a comeback.

The public has always been able to receive over-the-air (OTA) television free of charge. This was true in the 1940s and 1950s when commercial TV first became popular, and it is equally true now. Any television set equipped with the appropriate antenna can access a variety of channels, including the local affiliates of the major networks such as ABC, NBC, and PBS, as well as local independent stations. In 2009, the traditional “rabbit ears” antenna was replaced by a new antenna designed to receive the new high definition transmission signals mandated by Congress.


Evidently the existence of Free-TV is news to the nearly 3 million Cablevision subscribers in the New York-Tri-state area. As a result of a feud over transmission fees, Cablevision stopped carrying the New York ABC broadcast early Sunday March 7th. This meant Cablevision would not be televising the Academy Awards program in NY. The complaints of Cablevision customers and their enablers in blogs, newspapers, and radio talk shows made it clear that most of the subscribers believed that their only access to ABC was via Cablevision.


Given the fact that free over-the-air TV is available to all, it is certainly a curiosity that most people share the Cablevision subscribers’ perception that the only TV is PayTV. I include in the PayTV category any entity that charges a fee for TV access: Cablevision, Comcast and DirecTV, as well alternate Internet providers such as iO and FIOS. (While HULA and other online television sites are nominally free, access to the Internet carrying these websites costs upwards of

$50 per month.)


This lack of awareness of the free OTA TV alternative was evidenced in the

very columns purportedly advising Cablevision customers on the various methods to get ABC and watch the impending Academy Awards program. One columnist suggested that readers switch to a satellite provider or turn to a variety of Internet-based video-streaming sources. He also advised they visit a local theater for a “cushy seat” at the Oscars for $150.


But the columnist, like most media gurus, failed to mention free over-the-air technology as the most obvious solution to cable blackouts of stations. One reader was so exasperated at the writer’s omission of the OTA alternative that he bluntly told the writer that “Your post makes you look foolish, you should apologize and excuse your ignorance.”


However another reader’s response to this comment demonstrates that the columnist was only reflecting the public’s confusion over available television technologies. The reader did indeed attach a new HD antenna to his television set, and was receiving all his free-TV channels except ABC! The reason his TV was not receiving ABC is quite simple—these newfangled antennae have to be correctly position to receive all the stations in broadcasting range. This reader did not realize he simply had to redirect his antenna properly to receive the ABC station’s signal.


The reader, obviously believing otherwise, wrote:

The antenna's not working. We can get all free channels BUT ABC. I believe they've dropped their signal out of the ENTIRE cablevision area, so even if you use an antenna, you still can't get the station.”



This person seems to believe that a TV station, operating with a valid FCC license, can suddenly stop transmitting whenever the mood strikes. In fact, the FCC requires Class A stations to “broadcast a minimum of 18 hours” per day. ABC’s New York Channel 7 was broadcasting its programs over the air as usual during the Cablevision blackout.




The question, of course, is how does an entire technology, one that is still used by 11% of the American people, and which is considered superior in many ways to cable and satellite broadcasts, literally disappear from public consciousness?




In Part 2 of this article, we will examine that question, and also consider the possibility that the recent ABC-Cablevision feud and other such media turf battles might be laying the groundwork for the resurgence of free over-the-air TV in the U.S.





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