February 5, 2023

A rooftop tv antenna with a nice pigeon on it, April 26, 2009. (Photo: Peter Roberts)

Permanently fractured media landscape means no more 'everyone's watching' programs

New Rochelle, New York based Horowitz Research recently published an eye-opening report titled The State of Over the Air: U.S. Antenna Penetration Grows 38% Year-on-Year. It notes substantial Over the Air Antenna increases from several demographic groups from 2020 to 2021, citing Black Households: (+45%) from 27% in 2020 to 39% in 2021; White/Non-Hispanic Households: (+72%) 25% in 2020 increasing to 43% in 2021 and, revealingly, Households with Adults 18-34, a younger demographic group, jumping (+110): 20% in 2020 to 42% in 2021. Given that cord cutting is the presumed reason for has increased over the air tv antenna usage, I looked for cable in the report. I didn’t see the word in any section’s heading. But a different section of the Horowitz report caught my eye.

“Reasons MVPD Subs Got an Antenna and Using Antennas to Replace Cable Boxes.” MVPD? I searched and found Multichannel Video Programming Distributors. It sounded like a technologically correct acronym used at conference lunches to replace “cable company.” Cornell Law defines MVPD as, “an entity engaged in the business of making available for purchase, by subscribers or customers, multiple channels of video programming.” In other words, a cable operator or direct broadcast satellite service. But you’d think these cable systems would be trying to get leaner, abandoning their current retransmission hardware and replace it with anything to lower their monthly bill.

Way back in 1994, the author wrote to Broadcasting and Cable magazine to question Bob Iger’s assertion that broadcast tv would strengthen even as cable grew.

Years ago, I worked conspicuously with my partner, NBC Sr. V.P. Paul Klein, to sell advertisers higher ratings at lower prices than ABC, CBS, NBC (and FOX) by stringing together 30-second  cable spots starting on Thursday nights in the first commercial position after 10 pm. We saw viewers exercising their new channel options and shifting to cable from broadcast. We tried to make it as easy for studios to buy cable’s side of the dial for Friday’s movie releases as NBC’s Thursday night lineup. Cable ratings would grow at broadcast’s expense, we asserted. In time, stringing cable ads together would be higher rated and cheaper for every brand’s target audience. (One prominent consultant wrote that the broadcast networks should do it, too.) Agents and clients who resisted that notion would be scrambling to catch up to the new paradigm.

Yet, 20 years since getting spanked for picking up on the audience shift, here I am still in my same workspace quantifying TV’s audience, now divided in four sections: Over the Air, MVPD, Roku (Digital Media Players) and theSubscription Streaming Services. But look at how much live sports there is every night and day alone; every man’s and woman’s college sport in every conference ready to be programed when and wherever works best. According to Horowitz, 38.5% of U.S. TV viewing Adults 18+ within Nielsen’s total Household estimate of 121,000,000 have an Over the Air Antenna in their primary residences—48.4 million total U.S. Households.

I happen to have cut cable once Covid hit. But, before that, a prominent Syracuse alum, ABC’s and Warner Brothers’ Eddie Bleier, said that general interest cable channels wouldn’t survive. He singled out USA Network, but he followed up, “ESPN’s, CBS’, NBC’s and Fox’ live Sports Networks give potential cable cutters second thoughts.” Every day, an overwhelming cornucopia of content is shifting to four waystations. Soon all content will be always available on all platforms. But surfing today’s channels should make you realize that there are too many channel options to ever deliver advertisers a 4.5% rating, the last  statistically significant number (since it rounds up to 5%). Today’s plethora of channel choice has disabled TV as a mass communication medium. If Homes Using Television is 65% on Monday at 8pm in January, and 50% U.S. have Digital Media Players, or 1,000 channel options, what’s the highest rating FOX’s upcoming Fantasy Island can get?

When I was at ABC, Finder of Lost Loves bumped Fantasy Island on Saturday. But you remember “dee playne, dee playne” because on Saturday after Saturday for four years, the original Fantasy Island got nearly one third of TV’s audience . Whether or not Digital Media Players are included in the ratings, they create so many new programming options that the idea that there’s not enough content is silly. Many of Roku’s monthly movie options were box office hits: Moonstruck, Lethal Weapon, Unforgiven, Full Metal Jacket. What I wouldn’t have given for those titles when I was selling broadcast syndication movie packages. Given each broadcast antenna, MCVP, DMP’s and the major branded streaming services, NBC’s old “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you” promo was fair enough. According to Rich Tunkel, a Nielsen V.P. (and another S.U. alum), the biggest viewing mass, on average, remains Broadcast, Cable and Satellite. But only the streaming services know exactly what’s playing in whose home at what time.

Another bewildering part of this TV of 1,000 channels is its remote. I bought a TCL, a Chinese company, via Walmart.com. I later learned that Walmart is heavily invested in TCL. For the first time, I saw no numbers anywhere on the remote control. There’s no “favorite” option, either. The remote operations couldn’t be more compact. It’s small, easily lost down the sofa. One must punch a command button 13 times before it allows one to start entering the first favorite channel. (It’s one of many choices and if a distraction prevents the operator from entering further favorite channels quickly, they have to punch the 13 numbers again.) If 60 of 1,000 live channels are the operator’s favorites, one has to individually punch them in from the first favorite channel 2…5…11…13 along with the other 56, one can’t go from 5 to, say, 55, one has to go through the others one by one. When I questioned TCL about this befuddling inconvenience, the technician suggested I select fewer favorite channels. Another annoyance came when my finger slipped. I suddenly had a female voice announcing every channel change. The remedy didn’t come under “Sound” no matter how many times I pressed Normal. It had happened before and they helped me after who knows how long waiting. This time I waited on the phone for an hour. I hung up and phoned again. Half hour later, a light went off in my head. Google got rid of the lady before TCL called back.

Speaking of being called back, almost 40 years ago, Bob Iger wrote a piece for Broadcast & Cable Magazine arguing that TV’s audience would stop inching to cable from broadcast. But his then Cap Cities Annual Report didn’t back that up. I saw TV’s audience shifting to cable at broadcast’s expense when the report claimed ESPN2 would grow. (From where? More channels doesn’t mean more viewers). His piece surely didn’t anticipate streaming content, but the fact is that Beauty and The Beast’s 30th Anniversary ran on ABC in Primetime and was not available to his pay per view customers on Disney+ until the next day.

1 thought on “Cable’s Slow Death Doesn’t Predict New Life for Broadcast

  1. Barry Diller, just in conversation with Margaret Hoover, used the term audience shift to streaming services. This implies no increased total TV usage. Nothing dissed the Academy Awards more than his impulsive reaction. But he thought it should be only for industry people.

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