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The Fate of Broadcast TV in 2015: Last Gasp or Second Wind?

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In my January 2015 column, I mentioned the rise of streaming sticks such as Google Chromecast as a replacement for “smart TVs” in the consumer electronics universe. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas in January, I was on the lookout for technologies that could shrink those sticks to mere toothpicks. Alas, we’re not quite there yet.

This month we’ll be back in Vegas for the annual broadcast confab known as the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show. This time, I’ll be looking for signs of an uptick in live television viewing.

I can hear your question now: “What? Isn’t television viewing declining?”

It turns out that television viewing may be actively growing, if recent data on over-the-air (OTA) viewing and cable subscriptions is any indication.

On the cable front, according to research firm TNS, it turns out that those who use streaming services are more likely to upgrade their viewing packages with their cable service provider.

“While streamers are more likely than non-streamers to downgrade their level of traditional Pay TV service (9% vs. 6%), they are also more likely to upgrade their level of service (16% vs. 6%),” the report states.

It goes on to say that service upgrades are considerably more common than downgrades among these households, at least when compared to the general cable viewer.

On the OTA front, there’s also some good news: For those who downgrade their cable subscriptions, the number of OTA channels has increased. Even those who use streaming as their primary form of entertainment media consumption may also use the OTA channels on their television to view live events, such as breaking news and sporting events.

Of course if these cord cutters don’t have a cable subscription, they can’t watch OTA channels on their tablet or handset or even laptops, since the majority of free-to-air broadcasters—such as ABC, CW, Fox, or NBC in the U.S.—restrict their TV Everywhere viewing to cable subscribers.

But OTA options are growing, not declining, and multiple channels are now available in the numbers traditionally reserved for a single digital broadcast channel.

Which leads to the final point on which I posit a potential Golden Age of Television starting in 2015: The NAB is finally standing up to the Federal Communications Commission’s forced auction of broadcast spectrum.

According to a blog post by Gary Epstein, the chair for the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force, the FCC continues to “march toward implementing the incentive auction.”

Yet, the NAB has filed a lawsuit that has thrown a wrench into the FCC’s plans to auction off the “underutilized” spectrum to cellular service providers in mid 2015.

“Court challenges to the auction rules by some broadcasters have introduced uncertainty,” Epstein writes. “Final briefs are not due until late January 2015, oral arguments will follow at a later date yet to be determined, with a decision not likely until mid-2015 ... We now anticipate accepting applications for the auction in the fall of 2015 and starting the auction in early 2016.”

In other words, broadcasters have bought themselves a bit more time to accomplish two important ends: First, to showcase just what it means to deliver content over the air to consumers, potentially lowering overall data consumption needs. Second, to prove once again the criticality of legislative and market support of dedicated broadcasters in the fluid landscape of increasingly fragmented media content delivery and consumption. Both arguments must be made to establish relevance, both to the consumer and to lawmakers.

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of Streaming Media as "Broadcast TV in 2015: Last Gasp or Second Wind?"

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