The Future of the Local Broadcast TV

By Jim Long, CEO of Didja, which launched local, live TV streaming service LocalBTV in October

 Jim%20LongEvery day, headlines remind us that the entire television ecosystem is experiencing a massive change. And yet, among the layoffs and mergers, local broadcast television is having a renaissance. By local broadcast, I mean all the channels you can receive in your city by using an antenna, often as many as 60-100 channels. These typically include 8-10 major networks, such as NBC and Univision, and hundreds of independent stations featuring music videos and programming in a myriad of languages, all serving local communities across the country. Antenna-TV uses a wonderful public national asset called the public airwaves, some people think are every bit as precious as our national parks.

So what is changing? Audiences are increasingly demanding more from their viewing experience, from more high-quality content, greater choice and convenience. And for the first time ever, we have the technology that has the potential to satisfy these demands for years to come. But it’s been a long road to get here.

Thirty years ago the only way to access TV was through antenna-TV, giving us 10 to 15 channels over-the-air for free. We then decided what to watch either by “channel surfing” or using the TV guide magazine we bought at the grocery store. In the 80s and 90s, cablesystems began offering a low-cost way to get better reception of local channels, particularly UHF stations. Soon, new cable-only channels started to appear and households started paying for TV to receive ang a bundle of both cable channels (not available by antenna) and a subset of the antenna TV channels. Cable companies were later joined by satellite and phone companies to offer such cable-bundles, and by 10 or so years ago such a PayTV cable-bundle was used by about 85% of all households with about 10% using antennas.

More recently, the web/internet has become capable of distributing high-quality video, and a third way to watch TV blossomed – streaming-video-on-demand (svod) services like Netflix & Hulu, not to mention new video sources like YouTube and Facebook-Live.

While cable was growing, the country began getting away from visiting local mom-and-pop stores and restaurants to large, national chains. But now the pendulum is swinging back to local services with farm-to-table movements, shop local initiatives, and back to local broadcast TV.

Thanks to cord-cutting and newly formed homes not paying for cable (who never paid cable bundles), cable-bundle homes are now down to about 77% of all homes even with the new cable-bundle services like SlingTV and YouTubeTV, and is projected to drop to 65% or less in homes within the next five years.  This means about 40 million homes in the US will be ‘cord-free’ and will either watch antenna-TV or not receive any live-linear TV at all. 

Bet on the former. Antenna sales have been booming the last couple years and Millennials are discovering the simple fun of antenna-TV. So why is this happening?

  1. We all love the amazing new programming coming from the broadcast TV networks and the new suppliers like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu.‘Binge watching’ has become the newest way to watch TV and the country is watching more ‘TV programming’ than ever before. The availability of SVOD services is one reason for cord-cutting. But while we love binge watching, it is not a casual viewing experience. It has to be planned and often feels like a commitment. 
  2. Across the nation, communities are looking more and more to local services such as farm-to-table food shopping and local businesses are taking more  pride in their local city and local neighborhoods. We now see how local and national complement each other. This is true for TV too. Local broadcast is ‘farm-to-table’ TV as it not only has national network programming but local news on those network stations and many purely local, independent stations. Stations cater to local bilingual households which like both English and foreign language TV.  And antenna-TV often has better picture quality than cable or internet TV.

So what is the result?  

  1. Millennials and others are discovering the casual fun of channel surfing to discover new programs and be entertained without the commitment of binge watching. How about just a little TV before bed or while in the DMV line.
  2. While the web has become a major source for news, more people see that live local news is a critical piece too, especially for timely critical information. Yes, Millennials are realizing this too.
  3. TV stations are adding more interesting broadcast TV channels featuring more than just reruns and serving specific audiences with lifestyle content or science fiction and yes, once again, it’s Millennials are discovering it all.
  4. Businesses are also realizing the public airwaves and broadcast are valuable resources that complement the Internet.  It’s pretty obvious that if  one million households in Chicago are watching the Super Bowl, a broadcast signal is much more efficient and practical than one million separate high bandwidth internet streams.  Not long from now, the local broadcast infrastructure will be used to deliver data to devices all over the community (so-called internet of things, IOT), and sending the same data to many phones and laptops at the same time. (see ATSC-3.0)

So broadcast TV and broadcasting is not going away soon, and probably never will. By my estimates, it will likely rise from 10% of households 10 years ago to 25%+ 10 years from now, particularly as it gets modernized via smartphone apps that allow easy access to antenna-TV via smartphones, tablets and laptops.  I suppose that is why, even though many smart folks think it is going the way of the “buggy-whip,” the value of broadcast stations has not gone down much over the years and is currently getting stronger.

Cable-bundles will still be a big part of TV but as audiences seek greater choice and control over their viewing, they are rediscovering local broadcast and its low-cost, and easy convenience. How fortunate we are to have antenna-TV as a terrific part of our buffet of video programming.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words and in targeted Q&As, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at [email protected].

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