Cord-cutters come in all shapes and sizes, but not everyone cutting out the middle- man—aka the cable company—from the
live linear media consumption transaction is eager or even willing to hand their hard-won additional discretionary funding directly to another
middleman, even in the form of apps offered directly by the premium content providers whose
channels form the backbone of basic cable.
The reasons why—convenience, catalog, and
cost, in that order—should be a wake-up call to
Let’s first consider the convenience factor.
Sometimes it’s just hard to watch linear content
on a device other than a traditional television
hooked to a cable box. While writing this article,
I clicked on a link from Fox.com to watch live-linear Fox content, the same content I would
watch if I were a cable subscriber. Instead of video, though, I got a cryptic message: “Sorry there
was a problem accessing your video on Fox.com.”
Clicking on a help link ( ask.fox.com) brought
me to an equally cryptic and highly confusing
page, which offered no less than six steps—
including restarting the computer, with the helpful
advice that “in most circumstances, this … allows
the video to load”—and an additional five steps
to consider if I am using Safari as a browser.
If I actually took the time to follow all 11 steps,
it would probably take about the same time as
would be required to unpack, mount, and automatically program an HDTV digital antenna.
If I had taken the time to plug in the digital
antenna, though, I might have been as pleasantly surprised as Forbes’ Scott Kramer, who
recently reviewed two different digital HDTV
antennas from Antennas Direct and Mohu.
(One is from a company that says it has enjoyed double-digit compound annual growth
in digital antenna sales over the past 5 years.)
Kramer gave a balanced review, stating that
he was able to pull in around 50 stations from
his rural home between San Diego and Los Angeles. When he watched the content, he was
impressed by the quality of over-the-air (OTA)
broadcasts of sports content—quality that sometimes surpassed what he found on cable.
The channel-changing speed on the digital
antenna, though, left a bit to be desired—it took
4 seconds between channels. Still, 4 seconds is
about one-third the time of changing between
apps on an internet-streaming set-top box, and
the latency of actual OTA delivery is on par
with or slightly better than what most cable
Kramer wrote that he got about 50 channels
in his review test, with fewer in the evening—
albeit at more consistent quality—and more
during the daytime. The basic stats from the
National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), an
organization championing the continued use of
OTA spectrum for broadcast purposes, indicate
that most digital antennas can pick up channels
in a 50-mile radius as long as these paper-thin
internal HDTV antennas can be mounted in a
window facing in the general direction of television broadcast towers.
That brings us to the catalog question, or
what exactly a cord-cutter would watch if a
cord-cutter could watch … whatever he liked
One reason Kramer received almost 50 channels was due to the rise of what is being called
the diginet, which is short for digital networks.
These are the subchannel-only stations one finds
when programming an HDTV digital antenna.
They are designated by the “- 2” or “- 3” that
comes after the OTA station’s channel number.
In other words, if the traditional OTA station was
Channel 9, the main station would be 9-1, while
the diginets would be 9-2, 9-3, and maybe 9-4.
Typically, these subchannels are broadcast in
720p with the understanding that the standard
19.2Mbps that was originally reserved for MPEG-
2 Transport Stream (M2TS) single-channel 1080i
broadcasts can be subdivided into three 6Mbps
subchannels broadcasting in 720p.
Typical cable channel broadcasts hover
around 5.5Mbps, which may account for Kramer’s quality perception difference: He was,
indeed, more likely watching better-quality
(higher-bitrate) content over the air than he’d
been used to on his cable television set-top box.
What types of content do these diginets provide? Until recently, it’s primarily been reruns
or syndicated content. The major players in this
space went by names like Antenna TV, Bounce
TV, and Me TV. Most played content like classic Batman episodes, The Beverly Hillbillies, or
even The Twilight Zone.
Prime Time for Prime Time?