Cable TV (CATV) was originally added for remote communities that were out of reach for the ‘over the air’ analog TV stations. CATV first came out in 1948. It primarily carried the traditional network affiliate stations of the nearest city (ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS). There really were not any other options for TV coverage, in these remote areas. Over time, additional channel selections were added, above and beyond these local affiliate channels, such as sports and movie channels. Cable providers also included local TV stations from other cities; WOR (New York), WGN (Chicago), and WTBS (Atlanta).
This bigger selection of TV channels made Cable popular, and became available in many major cities by the early 1980’s. In addition to the bigger selection of channels, it also eliminated the need to constantly adjust the ‘Rabbit Ears’ antenna for each channel. A few years later, Satellite TV became another similar option.
By the early 2000’s, we were seeing a lot of consolidation within the Cable Industry. Additional bells and whistles were added to the service, including On Demand and DVR. Now, with less competition and higher prices by the various Cable TV networks to re-transmit their services, prices for Cable and Satellite have been going up yearly and getting quite expensive. Some of these providers also charge extra, to receive the HDTV version of the channels.
While you can buy packages of services, there has typically not been an ‘ala cart’ option for channels. This is now changing with a new service of ‘Streaming Media’ of pay TV networks by companies, such as; Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (just to name a few). They offer smaller numbers of ‘packaged channels’, for a lower rate. While it is cheaper than Cable or Satellite TV, the fewer channels that you get with Streaming Media, are actually more expensive on a per channel average. To use Streaming Media, you also need to make sure that you are using a high-speed network (15mbs or higher), particularly for HD content.
There has been substantial technology changes with ‘over the air’ (free) television in the past several years. The biggest of these has been the conversion from Analog to Digital. With Digital, a TV broadcaster can now create ‘digital sub-channels’, which is a method of transmitting more than one independent program stream simultaneously from the same TV Station on the same frequency channel. This is done by using ‘data compression’ techniques to reduce the size of each individual program stream, and multiplexing (also called multicasting) to combine them into a single signal. The broadcaster can send a single program at 19.39 Mbps. For example, using sub-channels, they can divide the channel into four streams of 4.85 Mbps, each. For example, if the digital TV channel is 14, then 14.2, 14.3, and 14.4 would be its three sub-channels. A key point is that different formats are supported for broadcast on the Digital channel, including; 480 (704 x 480 pixels), 720 (1280 x 720 pixels), and 1080 (1920 x 1080 pixels). The higher the resolution, the lesser number of sub-channels can be supported. While the primary channel program will typically be in high definition (1080 or 720), the sub-channels will typically use a lower definition. A good example of this, is the standard configuration for most of the ION-owned TV stations:
Having these sub-channels, gives you many more channel choices than with Analog TV. For example, when I run a channel scan (in Denver), I can typically pick up between 60 and 70 channels, with my indoor antenna. Of course, like with Cable or Satellite, you probably may not be interested in watching a number of the available channels, but you now have much more choices than you used to have with Analog over-the-air TV. For best reception, I would recommend using an antenna, which is Omni-Directional (without having to move it) and is amplified. I one respect, I still miss Analog TV, allowing you to at least somewhat pick up a distant station, even if it has a little ‘snow’ in the background. With digital, it is a case of ‘all or nothing’. If you cannot pull up the station clearly, you won’t get it at all. At times (if the atmosphere carries signals further), I can pick up a Cheyenne, Wyoming TV station (from Denver), which is 125 miles away. When I do, it comes in just as clear as a local station, but otherwise, if the signal is weak, I will not receive it at all. It may first appear as a checker-board pattern but then go blank. Interestingly, with Analog TV, the VHF channels seemed to have better reception than the UHF channels. With Digital TV, the UHF channels have the better reception. In fact, a couple of Denver’s TV stations which are on the VHF channels are simulcasting their broadcasts on UHF sub-channels.
Also adding to the growing number of ‘over the air’ channels is the addition of Low Power TV Channels. Cities are assigned a limited allocation of full power TV stations, to ensure there is no interference of TV signals between cities. With Low Power, additional channels can be assigned and cover a smaller metropolitan area footprint, so they can be assigned without worry of interference. Companies, such as ‘Syncom Media Group’, are purchasing these low power channels, and then lease out the sub-channels. This allows other companies/organizations to run a TV sub-channel at a much lower cost. The following diagrams give a good example of the coverage of a Low Power TV station versus the coverage of a Full Power TV station in the Denver TV market:
Low Power TV Station Coverage
High Power TV Station Coverage
Finally, going back to the original question — With the ever increasing prices of Cable and Satellite TV services, is ‘over the air’ (free) TV making a comeback? My opinion is that it is making a comeback. Again, the benefits are; it is free (including HDTV format), more channel program selections, and a clear picture without having to adjust the antenna for each TV station. While free TV may not have some of the cable channels that you like, I see additional streaming TV options becoming available to provide these specific sets of channels. This will prove to be a good cost savings over Cable/Satellite. Perhaps this will be a wake-up for the Cable/Satellite companies to change their pricing models.