Late last year, the flatmates and I had grown tiresome of our cable company’s inconsistent service with our internet delivery, sometimes shoddy equipment boxes and seemingly fluctuating monthly bill despite being on a ‘price lock.’ We won’t tell you which company because that would be indiscreet.
So we decided to cancel our Time Warner account (oops). As I was really the only one watching the TV anyway, we decided to simply get high-speed internet from another provider and I would make do with an antenna to pick up terrestrial television.
Since the US went all-digital in June of 2009, there has been a silent revolution of sorts in how terrestrial television looks and feels. Namely, it’s gotten bigger. A lot bigger.
Take my home of the Dallas-Fort Worth region. A decade ago, there were just the basics: Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS, and PBS, UPN (now an independent station, WB (now CW), an independent station here or there, some Spanish-language stations, and some religious channels. Typical fare for a metropolitan area.
Today there are no less than 70 stations licensed to broadcast in the DFW region. How did this happen. More to the point, why did this happen?
The answer, in a word, is multicasting. In the ‘olden days’ of analogue broadcasting, a station’s bandwidth was extremely limited. In other words, the frequency the FCC granted a station to operate on was almost entirely used up by the signal of the one station.
With the advent of digital broadcasting, stations are allowed much more bandwidth on which to broadcast a signal. This also offers stations more flexibility on which to program. You could theoretically use all this bandwidth to provide a pure, 1080i HD feed of your one channel, and end it there. But even if you did that, you still have a lot of digital bandwidth available for things like closed- captioning (subtitling), alternate audio feeds, and additional video.
Thus, most stations nationwide are choosing to ‘multicast,’ offering an HD channel on a main station, and smaller, lower-definition options on subchannels.
Let’s take, for example, the ABC-owned station in Dallas, WFAA. WFAA is actually a pioneer in digital television, offering the first public high-definition broadcast ever, to attendees at the State Fair of Texas back in 1997. The station started regularly broadcasting in HD a decade later. Broadcasting on channel 8, you actually get a three-for-one: 8.1, which is the main channel offering local news and the ABC network; 8.2, which is called ‘News 8 Now,’ offering pre-taped news and weather segments along with weather radio audio and live radar, and 8.3, a new offering called the Live Well Network, lifestyle and healthy-living programming.
The NBC station in Dallas, KXAS, multicasts in this same way, the main channel on 5.1, 24-hour radar and audio on 5.2, and the NBCUniversal Sports Channel, a 24-hour feed of live and archival sports coverage.
Other networks currently multicasting nationwide include ThisTV, offering up MGM movies round the clock, RTN - Retro Television Network and AntennaTV, both dedicated to classic sitcom reruns (including Benny Hill), and Qubo (pronounced Cube-O), an all-day children’s channel with vintage cartoons like He-Man during late night.
It seems that I suddenly have no need for The Weather Channel, ESPN, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, Lifetime, or a premium movie channel, since all these digital networks are free-to-air. Even if there are a few shows that I miss not having cable, most of the cable channels now offer their shows 24 hours later on Hulu or Netflix, both of which I can access from a gaming console or Blu-Ray player onto my HD set.
As mentioned earlier, the Dallas region has no less than 70 slots available for broadcasting, which may seem like overkill. Only one of these stations however, a religious network, multicasts five different streams of programming at one time. That still does not take full advantage of the capability of the digital stream.
That distinction goes to WANN-LD, operating out of Atlanta. Where you can find…
The MTV station for Latino audiences (32.1)… A TV listings channel, complete with programme grid and promos (32.2)… ThisTV (32.3)… a locally-selected movie channel (32.4)… public-domain monochrome movies (32.5)… Latino entertainment (32.6)… men’s sports and entertainment (32.7)… Home shopping by day, religion by night (32.8)… more home shopping (32.9)… 24-hour news (32.10)… and six local radio stations (32.21 - 32.26).
Notice those gaps? There’s still room for more video and audio feeds should the channel choose to do so. With a large portion of these subchannels filled with infomercials at late night, home shopping, or public-domain programmes, advertising revenue turns into straight profit if enough people tune in.
Cable will not go away, that is for certain, with mainstream hits on the premium channels and critically acclaimed series coming up all the time on the niche channels, but it’s nice to know that if you have access to a high-powered antenna to pick up the low-powered local stations, you can find a cheaper alternative to paying high-dollar for equipment and programming fees.