Cord cutting -- the practice of ditching traditional pay TV (i.e. cable, fiber and satellite) in favor of getting programming from lower cost and free sources -- has been getting a fair bit of attention of late. For example, we talked about some of the alternatives in this post. That said, the popularity of this trend is the subject of some debate, and often conflicting research. A recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) that downplays the cord-cutting phenomenon is one example of that. However, another take-away from the CEA's research has touched off a bit of a firestorm in some quarters. Quoting the findings, CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro tells Multichannel News that while free, over-the-air (OTA) TV was once essential, "using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense."
Free TV viewership is down ... or is it up?
The reaction to Shapiro's comments -- and his suggestion that the government set up voluntary auctions of at least some of the current free TV spectrum to open up bandwidth for other services, namely wireless broadband -- has been passionate and fierce. Citing the CEA's research, Shapiro notes that the number of broadcast-TV-only households is small (8 percent, according to the survey) and getting smaller. However, in the same article, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) fires back, saying that according to research by Knowledge Networks, the number of homes now relying exclusively on OTA TV is not only higher (more than 14 percent) than claimed by the electronics-industry trade group, but that it is also on the rise.
The NAB, which has set up an informational web site on the issue, isn't alone in defending the current use of the TV broadcast spectrum -- or in questioning the CEA's research. For example, HDTVExpert.com suggests that the research is "self serving" in that it conveniently dovetails with the CEA's push to have more slices of the TV broadcast airwaves put up for auction. HDTVGuru.com is even more scathing, both in its original comments, and in its reactions to a response from the CEA. CNET has set up one of those unscientific Internet polls that lets visitors vote on whether or not ending free HDTV is a good idea. At last look, I was not shocked to see that only 6 percent said that it was.
But do we really need broadcast TV?
For practical reasons and for philosophical ones, most experts say yes. For example, at DVICE.com, Michael Trei opines "Over the air HDTV is one greatest free things we have left in this country."
At HDGuru.com and elsewhere, the argument is made that even just taking slices of the current broadcast airwaves could reduce the number of free channels available to viewers. In addition, by limiting available bandwidth, it could reduce the image quality of over-the-air HDTV -- currently considered to be among the best of all sources, including most traditional pay-TV sources.
In any event, regardless of whose numbers are right, and no matter how relatively small they appear when represented as percentages, millions and millions of households would still be negatively affected if free broadcast TV is limited or eliminated. And, as is typical in situations like this, some groups would be hurt worse than others.
Knowledge Networks' findings that certain demographic groups rely more heavily than others on broadcast TV should come as no surprise. Among those, of course, are families with lower household incomes as well as certain ethnic groups. Households headed by younger people (34 years old and under) are also more likely than average to feel the effects of reduced or eliminated free TV.
Finally, not measured in either survey is the number of households that get some of their TV elsewhere but that still consider broadcast sources as an important part of their total TV viewing experience. That would include those that have cut the cord with cable and other pay TV providers in favor of streaming Internet video, but use OTA broadcasts for things like news and other local programming, and for more unfettered and more timely viewing of network programming than is currently available from the web, as noted in our earlier post.
Given other research, and the CEA's stated desire to re-purpose at least some of the TV broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband, it's easy to see why some have accused the association of "cooking the books" in their survey -- and shame on the CEA if that's what happened. On the other hand, the organization is not necessarily wrong. The use of wireless broadband for smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices has increased dramatically these last few years, and the spectrum space allotted for that is quickly becoming woefully inadequate -- especially in metropolitan areas. If wireless broadband is to continue to grow, it needs the room to do so -- and there are precious few places left to find the needed frequencies outside of what's currently allocated to over-the-air TV.
In the end, it all comes down to the question of what serves the greater public interest. Whether it is best to continue to use those frequencies for free TV or to re-task some (or even all) of them to allow wireless broadband to grow is a debate worth having. But let's make sure we have that debate on a level playing field.