Monday, April 22, 2013

Free TV blogging -- results may vary

[Update: you really should check out the comments at the end of this post.]

It's always a bit of a shock when you're reminded that people do occasionally read your blog and even more of a shock when someone actually follows your suggestions. That was the case recently when, in response to a post on free TV, Andrew Gelman tried plugging an antenna into his set and couldn't get much of anything.

As a proponent of free TV and a reasonably honest  blogger, this forces me to confront an uncomfortable fact: some people need cable or satellite to watch live TV.

There are some caveats (you might improve your results with an amplified antenna; you can almost certainly do better with an external one) but there's no way to get around the fact that people who live in certain areas are going to get crappy results from terrestrial television.

NYC may be one of those areas. Most of my experience with over the air television has been in LA, a city of short buildings and tall mountains, obviously not the best proxy for the big apple. I believe NYC was one of the leaders in cable back in the Seventies and Eighties. I had assumed that the reason was density and infrastructure, but it could also have been due to the difficulty TV signals had making it through that famous New York City skyline.

But, even though it may not pay off, I still recommend testing out a set of rabbit ears if you haven't already, partially because you might find that what you can get for free is better than what you're paying thirty a month for, but mainly because over-the-air television may pay its biggest dividends for the people who don't use it.

In a healthy, competitive market, suppliers are under constant pressure to provide the best possible product at the the cheapest price, innovators find fertile ground and forces tend to align to keep people honest. In television, the market is anything but healthy. Content production is dominated by a small number of producers and channeled through a tiny handful of providers. Competition is severely limited.

As long as awareness of terrestrial television remains low, a Time Warner can overcharge for low quality product and force customers to buy bundles of mostly unwanted channels, safe in the knowledge that most people won't go to the trouble of switching as long as the TV packages provided by Dish, Direct and the local phone company also suck.

Free TV throws a huge monkey wrench in that business model. If a significant portion of of cable customers know that they can get fifty to a hundred digital channels for free, "We suck less than ATT" no longer works as a marketing slogan.

What if you're one of those people who can't get those fifty to a hundred channels? That might be the best part, because your cable company doesn't know who's in what group and even they did, it would be difficult, both in terms of implementation and PR, to set up a pricing system that selectively gouged people who got bad reception. The result is that no customer gets screwed.

And after all, that's how efficient markets are supposed to work.

1 comment:

  1. I'm on the other side of the of the midden pile from Gelman (UES) and I use an antenna solely for my television viewing. Moreover, I am on the north side of the building so there is no direct LOS to Empire State (where all the NYC transmitters are located), and in a 3rd floor apartment surrounded by 20+ story buildings. Mind you, I have to re-orientate my small "powered" antenna to get the local NBC station (Turn it 90 degrees) and occasionally lose signal due to multipath signal off the East River from passing barge traffic. TV signals are surprising robust and their wavelength was chosen for its ability to penetrate urban landscapes.
    Yes, TWC sucks cable internet less than Verizon DSL (old building and telephone wiring barely supports 500 Kb/s) which is why I have that, but free OTA is comparable to $$$ cable so...