Broadcasters are making a dangerous mistake by promoting the DTV switch and not explaining and promoting the advantages of getting their new digital television over the air. I’ve seen plenty of broadcasting-produced DTV awareness spots that explain how OTA viewers can remain OTA viewers by buying new TV or converter box, but I’ve never seen a compelling ad explaining why I should hassle with new gear and stick with OTA reception instead of just calling up my local cable operator.
Here in the wilds of New Jersey (21 miles due west of the Empire State Building), Cablevision has been running ads for several months warning viewers of the death of analog TV, now just seven days away.
But the ads are not high-minded efforts to make sure no viewer is left behind. No, they’re aimed at encouraging over-the-air viewer to throw away their antennas, sign up for “low-cost” cable service and fatten the wallets of the Dolan family.
Cablevision is not alone. Cable operators across the country have been trying to exploit the DTV transition to pad their subscriber rolls. You may have seen similar ads in your market.
In testimony before the FCC earlier this week, the Consumer Union’s Joel Kelsey said his group continues to receive consumer complaints about “incomplete and sometimes misleading” in which cable operators push cable as a DTV solution and fail to mention other options.
He cited the Cablevision ad I’ve been seeing, which was the subject of a critical Consumers Report blog earlier this month. The low-cost cable option, the blogger reports, turns out to be $73 per month after a first-year introductory rate of $53.
Earlier this year, we reported that cable operators would pick up anywhere between 1.6 million and 4.4 million new subscribers, depending on what researcher or industry analyst you ask.
That’s quite a range, but not surprising given that there was no consensus on how many over-the-air homes and viewers there were when the TV industry began its DTV awareness efforts 18 months ago.
Not all the OTA-to-cable migration is due to “incomplete and sometimes misleading” advertising. Most of the DTV awareness efforts, regardless of source, include the other options: buying a new digital set or a D-to-A converter so viewers can continue to use their old sets.
But it’s fair to say that cable’s has picked up a lot (tens or hundreds of thousands?) of extra subscribers by presenting itself as the sole or primary option.
I’m not here to heap criticism on cable for steering OTA viewers to its CSRs. That’s good, hard-nosed business. In Cablevision’s case, it needs to offset some of the losses its suffering at the hands of Verizon FiOS.
Rather, I want to scold broadcasters for not countering cable with ads extolling the wonders of OTA broadcasting, which include better-than-cable HD, television’s best programming and NO MONTHLY SUBSCRIPTION FEE — EVER.
I’ve seen plenty of broadcasting-produced DTV awareness spots that explain how OTA viewers can remain OTA viewers by buying new TV or converter box, but I’ve never seen a compelling ad explaining why I should hassle with new gear and stick with OTA reception instead of just calling up my local cable operator.
Broadcasters’ DTV awareness efforts have been led by the NAB and its modesty in promoting broadcasting during the transition is puzzling.
Maybe the broadcasters on the NAB board now see every loss of an OTA home to cable or satellite as a gain of another $3 per year in retransmission consent fees from cable. That would make sense.
Maybe the NAB simply didn’t want to antagonize policymakers in Washington by turning the transition into a self-serving exercise.
Or, maybe, as some broadcasters believe, the NAB is not really representing the best interests of the TV broadcasting industry these days. The TV board, the critics say, is studded with executives of companies that have significant cable interests — Disney, NBC, Cox, Post-Newsweek, Hearst-Argyle.
Whatever the reason, broadcasting is diminished by the loss of each and every OTA home. The never-say-cable OTA faithful are what distinguishes broadcasting from cable. They are what distinguish NBC from USA.
As I wrote last October, broadcasting’s universal reach gives broadcasters the edge over cable in advertising. It alone has access to the total audience — an attribute still highly prized among mass advertisers.
In emergencies, TV stations can reach all the people with critical — and sometimes life-saving — information, while, in many cases, operating off the power grid. Because of this, broadcasting is given extra points in Washington during the incessant legislative and regulatory battles.
Losing OTA homes further fragments the broadcast audience and strengthens cable and satellite as competitors. The more subscribers they gain, the more money they spend on programming and the more viewers and ad revenue they take from broadcasting.
As you know, the transition doesn’t really end next Friday. The inhabitants of millions of homes will wake up on Saturday morning, turn on the tube and wonder what happened. They’ll finally be forced to take action to restore their service.
So, in the weeks following June 12, expect broadcasting to lose hundreds of thousands more OTA viewers to cable and satellite.
Even after all those losses, broadcasting will retain its edge. Based on the numbers I’ve seen, I’m guessing that 10 million-15 million of the 114 million total TV homes out there will still rely solely on OTA reception. And many millions more will still rely on it for the sets around the house that are not hooked up to cable.
That’s a narrow advantage for broadcasting, but an important one.
With the transition winding down, broadcasters should now resolve not only to stop the erosion of OTA homes, but to reverse it.
They can do it by taking at least some of the money they are now spending on DTV awareness and using it to remind people of the many, many benefits of free, universal over-the-air television.
It would be nice if the next time I turned on my TV I saw nice-looking, middle-aged fellow telling me why I should buy an antenna rather than telling me I should trash the one I’ve got.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may e-mail him at mailto:[email protected].