Cable channel blacked out? Antenna TV still free for the taking
So you’re an AT&T U-verse customer and you flipped on your TV to watch this month’s NFL playoffs — only to discover a static screen and a message that “This channel is temporarily unavailable and we are working to return it to you soon.”
You might have checked the news and learned the channel was blacked out due to a transmission fee dispute between WSVN, Miami’s Fox affiliate, and AT&T.
In a box of old computer cables and orphaned power adapters, you found a set of rabbit ears, hooked them up to your flat screen TV and in the settings menu, clicked “Scan for Channels.”
Then you watched as the scan identified dozens of over-the-air channels: From Miami. From West Palm Beach. All the network affiliates including Fox in crystal clear HD, and maybe looking better than through the U-verse box. The scan found Public Broadcasting System channels, a lifestyle channel, Spanish-language channels, religious channels, shopping channels and a slew of channels running classic programming and films.
And you might have thought, “This is plenty of stuff to watch. Maybe I can cut the cord, cancel my pay TV service and subscribe to my favorite cable channels through a streaming device.”
You wouldn’t be the first. But you would be in the minority.
Most TV consumers have been tied to cable, satellite or even streaming content over the past six years, but the world of over-the-air TV has grown dramatically. Today, multiple new channels are available to viewers nationwide who can pull in over-the-air signals from their local network affiliates.
Combined, the TV markets serving Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are home to 56 broadcast stations, many of which have up to five digital subchannels, or “diginets.” The New York City market, by contrast, has 53 stations while Los Angeles has 47, according to the broadcast television enthusiast website rabbitears.info.
Sandy Ross, owner of Miami-based installation company Antenna Systems, says his business sees a steady flow of customers willing to pay the company $249 to install and connect antennas on 24-foot poles. Lately, the company has been averaging 10 installations a week, he said.
Many are “people concerned about the high rates they pay every month for TV service,” he said. “Quite a few disconnect and watch off the antenna. Most antenna customers receive a minimum of 65 channels while others get up to 95. Some get more than 100, he said. Almost all are surprised they can get so many channels with an antenna. “It’s like a new discovery. Antennas are old but they’re new again.”
Nationwide, the number of over-the-air broadcast channels increased from 2,518 in 2010 to 6,431 in late 2014, according to an August 2015 report by the National Association of Broadcasters.
The rapid increase was made possible by the mandatory changeover in 2009 of all U.S. broadcast channels from analog to digital transmission. Although stations used to broadcast their signals over a single analog frequency, the digital changeover allowed full-power stations to broadcast their main high-definition signal and up to five separate subchannels.
The major television networks discovered the subchannels are a great way to monetize older TV series and movies that would otherwise be sitting in their vaults.
“They show a lot of the golden oldies that people like to watch,” Ross said.
• MeTV — or Memorable Entertainment Television — debuted in 2010 with content from the libraries of NBC, CBS and 20th Century Fox.
• Tribune Media founded Antenna TV in 2011 with programs from the Sony Pictures Television catalog. It runs such classics as “Family Ties,” “Good Times,” “Green Acres” and “Mork and Mindy.” In January, it began airing nightly reruns of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
• NBCUniversal rolled out Cozi TV in 2012. Cozi’s offerings include “Charlie’s Angels,” “Baywatch,” the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Munsters” and “Miami Vice.”
• CBS debuted Decades in May 2015 featuring a mix of shows and movies programmed around historical pop culture documentaries.
• Get TV runs movies from Sony Pictures. This TV, co-owned by MGM and Tribune Broadcasting, runs movies and reruns. Grit TV runs old westerns. Escape TV offers crime dramas
• Bounce TV, founded in 2011, features original and classic programming geared toward African-Americans ages 25 to 54.
• Spanish-language stations Telemundo and Univision are broadcast in HD. Spanish-language subchannels include Exitos, V-Me, SALSA and Enlace.
• Ion Media Networks, headquartered in West Palm Beach, features more up-to-date offerings, including Ion Life, and its slate of fitness, home improvement, cooking and style programs. Ion Television runs more recent off-network dramas such as “Blue Bloods,” “Criminal Minds” and “Law & Order SVU.” And Qubo is packed with children’s programming.
But for all the buzz about “cord-cutting” in recent years, relatively few households are forgoing their pay services completely and settling for a combination of over-the-air and over-the-top services like SlingTV, Roku or Chromecast, said David Tice, senior vice president of consulting for the GfK Media & Entertainment research firm, which produces an annual survey of how U.S. households watch TV.
The percentage of households that subscribe to some form of pay TV — including cable, satellite and telephone-based services like AT&T’s U-verse — dropped less than a percentage point, from 80.6 percent to 80 percent between 2014 and 2015, the company’s research shows.
Internet-only TV watchers have quadrupled since 2011, but only from 1 percent to 4 percent, GfK’s 2015 report found. Broadcast-only households grew from 12 percent to 15 percent over the same period. Low-income and African-American households are more likely to rely on over-the-air signals, GfK has found.
Tice isn’t sure how long over-the-air TV can stay around, especially if broadband Internet becomes universally available.
Cord-cutting gained steam during the recession as a way for strapped families to cut costs, Tice said, but has grown in popularity in recent years among more affluent households willing to pay for streaming bundles and the devices they require. The median household income of cord-cutters has doubled over the past four years, he said.
Ross says his customers include families who install an antenna as a backup in case their pay TV service suffers an outage or to supplement their viewing choices.
And while cord-cutting might carry a certain cachet among 20-somethings, that’s derived from their growing affinity for online streaming, Tice said.
Tice, who is in his 50s, admits to watching several shows each day on the over-the-air channels. “I watch “Adam 12,” “Emergency!” “12 O’clock High.” These are shows I haven’t seen since I was a kid. They’re neat to see.”
For Tice, that is. “My son’s 18. I keep trying to convince him how great ‘Adam 12’ is. He’s not buying it.”
But Ross believes more people would consider cutting the cord if they knew how much free content they could get. “There’s no one out there selling it. If there was more promotion of antenna as an option, there would probably be more turnover from cable.”
Cutting the cord
Websites with channel listings, antenna and DVR purchase guides:
yourfreedtv.com/MiamiDade — City-by-city guide to free over-the-air channels with separate sections for Florida’s 10 largest metro regions, including those in South Florida.
antennaweb.org — Location-specific guide to what type of antenna is needed. Enter zip code and street address to get a channel by channel breakdown of appropriate antennas.
fcc.gov/mb/engineering/dtvmaps — Enter address to get list of available channels with signals rated as strong, moderate, weak or no signal.
acrossplatforms.com — Television trade site with emphasis on digital subchannels.
antennapoint.com — Enter location to get a map with nearest digital TV transmitters. Includes band, power rating, distance from viewer and compass direction for precise aiming of directional antenna.
rabbitears.info — Detailed information on every broadcast station and transmission tower in the U.S.
tvfool.com — The geek bible for over-the-air TV setup, including user forums, mapping tools, signal locator, call sign lookups and FAQs.
gomohu.com — HDTV antennas and amplifiers. Go to “TV for Free” section and enter ZIP code to find company’s available antennas and how many channels are accessible with each.
channelmaster.com — Sells DVRs designed to work with both antenna and streaming inputs.
tablotv.com — Similar to Channelmaster, Tablo offers a hybrid DVR but charges a subscription fee for access to its detailed programming guide.