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Guest opinion: Local television builds community, and it must be saved

By Robert Bishop - | Nov 21, 2023

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Robert Bishop

Did you know that the only way residents of Alpine can get local television reception is to subscribe to a pay-TV service like cable or satellite? Ten years ago, residents could get local TV free over the air using an antenna, but not after they moved the transmission tower. Did you know the same is true for many other parts of Utah, especially rural Utah? Today, local TV reaches fewer and fewer people.

In its heyday, 95% of U.S. households had access to local TV. Now, 53% have either left cable or satellite pay-TV or never had it. Cord cutters say it’s too expensive. Younger “cord nevers” only know streaming. And, “cord cant’s” have no antenna reception.

Most Utahns who don’t have local TV get their information from social media platforms, which polarize and divide the public through disinformation and manipulation and are controlled by individuals with personal agendas. The simple fact is that we need more community and less meddling. Local TV programming builds community in a way that social media cannot.

How did we get here?

Broadcasters use public airwaves at no cost on the condition that local TV channels be broadcast for free. That’s the deal. When cable was deregulated in the 1970s, cable companies began charging subscribers for local TV channels along with other channels in various programming packages. Soon thereafter, the government required that cable companies pay a retransmission fee to include local TV channels.

These monthly retransmission fees have skyrocketed more than 8,000% in the last decade or so. With the proliferation of the internet and the invention of streaming, other options for TV entertainment have become available. As streaming services ballooned, national broadcasters turned their attention to paid streaming platforms like Peacock TV and Paramount+.

Can it be saved?

Here’s the conundrum … with fewer viewers, local TV ad revenues decline. Local channels prop up the loss with increases in monthly retransmission fees. These increases are then margined and passed down to subscribers. The higher costs create more cord cutters and time passing creates more cord nevers (as youths become adults). And the cycle repeats over and over. It’s not sustainable.

This was clearly demonstrated this July when Nexstar Media Group forced the nation’s largest local TV outage after demanding more than double the current viewer fees from DirecTV. This affected 68% of all households in the U.S. Not surprisingly, DirecTV capitulated shortly after the NFL season began. However, during this 76-day feud, consumers were locked out from receiving the local channels they pay for. As expected, a few weeks after the new agreement, DirecTV announced new, higher pricing across the board — for the second time this year. How messed up is that?

What do broadcasters say?

Broadcasters have been touting ATSC-3, an updated over-the-air TV standard, as a possible solution, but it’s not backward compatible and would have the same limitations in reach. How can anyone expect the over-the-air crowd to run out and purchase a new TV? I don’t know about you, but my crystal ball says that by the time they implement this (if they ever do), the whole thing will be moot. Paid internet streaming will have won. In fact, LG announced that it is going to stop making ATSC-3-compatible TVs; Samsung and Sony may not be far behind, and Vizio was never on board.

There have been a few attempts to modernize free consumer access to local TV and each ended a burned-out cinder from lawsuits. I hope this gets resolved before it’s too late. I’d really be sad to say goodbye to local TV and the community ties that is builds. On the other hand, social media icons Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and probably the national TV networks would love it if we just stayed the course.

What can be done?

I’ve spoken with several state legislators and state officials and the consensus is that local TV should remain free and be accessible to all Utahns. So, what do you think would happen if everyone had unfettered access to local TV for free and our local broadcaster’s audience size suddenly got a whole lot bigger? Do you think that might pull them out of the death spiral they’re in?

Robert Bishop characterizes himself as a serial tech entrepreneur, family man, traveler, movie lover and avid cyclist. He has started, scaled and exited five tech companies. He’s a cord cutter and the father of eight cord nevers.


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