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How Over-The-Air TV Could Save The Networks

Last week an attempted sale of Hulu was aborted.

The broadcast networks don’t make money from it, but they are not quite ready to give up on it.  They know that streaming is the future of TV, but do not know how to use Hulu to future proof themselves. Instead of looking towards new technologies and platforms, their salvation could be something from their past: over-the-air broadcasting.

All the major networks still broadcast over the air, and it remains a severely underutilized resource. It’s the ultimate service for price conscious cord cutters because it’s completely free. There’s no subscription fee, you don’t need an internet connection, or a Roku. All that’s required to pull in HD broadcasts in 5.1 sound is a $10 pair of rabbit ear antennas.

If I were an executive at one of the networks, I’d be touting the benefits of over-the-air TV vs. cable; I’d go as far as to give away antennas to encourage people to see just how good the picture and sound quality is.

I suspect that over-the-air gets a bad reputation from memories of how awful it once was. My family switched to cable TV in the late-1980s because despite having an antenna on the roof of our house, some channels barely came in.

One of the few memories I have from when I was five years old was being able to suddenly watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in crystal clear picture after school. Channel 57, which carried it in Philadelphia, was always a snowstorm of static. So the switch for my family wasn’t made because there were shows and movies on cable TV we wanted to watch — cable was a wasteland at the time — it was more about basic functionality.

I’d wager that this is still a driving force behind why many people get cable TV — they think the over-the-air situation is still as bad as it was in the 1980s. For example, of the 105 million TV households — 90 percent of which pay for TV — 77 million do not subscribe to HBO. So in other words, few people are paying for cable to watch Game of Thrones. They’re getting basic programming, and most of the content they watch is on the broadcast networks, not Sharknado.

The bottom line is that if more people knew how good over-the-air TV was (in terms of picture and audio quality), I think the number of cord cutters would increase.

Trying to create a renaissance of over-the-air TV makes good business for the networks. It gets people back to watching TV commercials, which is what pays for everything. The reason Hulu is always on the chopping block is because there’s no good way to monetize streaming unless you charge a subscription.

Of course my scheme hinges on people returning to pre-DVR/on-demand days — there being no way to pause TV.

But I think people will deal with it — we continue to put up with them with live TV, like sports. And I find being forced to watch commercials during TV shows broadcast over-the-air is far less offensive than online. I personally cannot stand the ads with online streaming content. Without the ability to channel surf during an ad, I feel more locked in to watching them, and in turn, more oppressed by them. I cannot stand Hulu for this reason.

At the end of the day, free is free.

But the broadcast networks seem to have forgotten that they can provide you with that best deal of all.  The infrastructure is already in place; it’s just a matter of marketing.

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