CBS VS. Time Warner Cable – What Ever Happened to Free TV?

Three days ago the cable provider Time Warner Cable (TWC) dropped CBS from the channels customers have access to.  As the various major analysts weigh-in on which side is right, and how this could benefit companies like Dish and Fios, I’m wondering how did television come to this? How has everyone come to believe you need cable or some other device requiring high monthly fees just to watch a normal broadcast network?

creative commons license//Flickr

Remember Watching TV’s in the 1990’s? (creativecommons/Flickr/davidyoung

The fact is, you don’t need anything but a twenty-dollar antenna – yes the old-fashion “rabbit ears” – to watch any broadcasted television network.  I went over to Best Buy and with the help of a lovely saleswoman discovered that along with the traditional antennas there were many new kinds that were much smaller, more like flat metal disks.  Hook any of these up to your HDTV and the broadcast stations CBS, ABC, NBC, CW, PBS, plus your local stations are all available for you.

There are also a large amount of channels that parallel the cable stations: ION runs older movies like Pay it Forward and syndicated shows like Criminal Minds & Law and Order – just like cable stations TNT and USA do.  QUBO is a children’s channel that you might actually prefer your kids to watch over Disney and Nickelodeon.  COSI shows classic TV series and movies (There’s having a Alfred Hitchcock marathon in September!).  These stations, and many more like them are ones you’ve probably never heard of – for the same reason you’re currently not getting CBS.  Unless it’s worth it to the cable companies to spare the bandwidth, the stations don’t come through cable – because your cable providers have the signals scrambled.  Yet, these are free channels.  The hilarious thing is this: cable will make you rent a box for “basic” cable to unscramble the signal, but all you need is an antenna!( )

You would think it would be CBS mentioning these facts in every volley to TWC,  they put out, but it’s not so simple.  Despite the fact that cable and broadcast seem to be completely at odds, the two have financially become so entwined that were people to stop using expensive devices to access broadcast content, networks like CBS would lose money – a lot more than what they’re losing now.

Here’s the deal, what CBS and TWC are fighting over is how much money TWC has to pay CBS to “broadcast” their network over cable.  It’s a double win for CBS because they get the advertising money plus the money from cable for them “rebroadcasting” their signal to subscribers – which is fair.  After all, affiliate stations have to pay to have access to the broadcast signal.   The reason cable has been willing to do this are:

  1. The idea that having cable blocks you from what you should be getting for free would be abhorrent to consumers. (Ironically, that’s exactly what’s happening).
  2.  The more content companies like TWC have the more reasons consumers have to keep cable, which helps their bottom-line.

However, with 95 percent of the country paying to watch TV, it’s obvious that the idea of “free TV” has been largely banished from the American mind. (  How did we all become convinced that you couldn’t have access to television without cable?  The big change in thinking started with the 1999 HBO hit series, The Sopranos.  Between levels of talent and production values that rivaled movies and smart, funny, stories having levels of sex & violence beyond anything broadcast could allow, everyone suddenly wanted to have HBO.  With the success of The Sopranos the cable industry saw that people would pay for movie-like content – not just movies that had been in theaters.  With no Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer to and no advertisers to please, they had the license to create  content that rivaled many films.  Furthermore, they didn’t need a lot of these series shows. While a movie is a one-shot deal, movie-like stories keep people coming back – and keeping their cable subscriptions.

Even with that, I think that cable got some extra help in changing the perception from being a television extra to a TV necessity.  It came from the Emmy Awards.  When the Emmy’s decided that cable’s high budget, and comparatively leisurely paced productions could directly compete with broadcast television shows for awards the expectations of what television was supposed to provide began to change.  Cable content was said to be “better” than the shows on broadcast television – despite the fact that the two were as alike as apples and oranges.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate cable shows.  However, like many, I tend to watch them in clumps. Binge-watching has become the new catchphrase for waiting and watching the episodes all at once.  My view is that unlike things like procedurals and sitcoms – which at their best are individual snapshots of characters lives strung together to tell a story – these shows are really extended films telling one long story with seamless construction.  As such, I’d rather not watch it in weekly hour-long pieces. With services like Netflix aroundI don’t mind waiting for a season to complete to then watch it all at once.

In recent years the whole idea of being able to DVR a show and watch it whenever we want is taken for granted – but to a lesser degree we were able to do the same thing with the practically obsolete VCR.  you don’t need to start digging through stuff in your basement or garage to find one; there are lots of alternatives to having  a DVR through your cable provider.  For instance, the Tivo will work with your antennae as well as it does with cable.  A March 2013 article lists 20 different ways to get video content, including something called Areo, which lets you watch and “DVR” broadcast content over your computer (

As for internet access, there are many providers that aren’t connected to cable.  While in New York City the idea of reasonably priced high-speed internet access may seem unreal, with the introduction of 4G, companies such as Clear have cut the cost down to about 35 dollars a month – which no contracts.  Plus, it’s portable so that if there’s an electric outlet and it’s in range, you can have internet access when you travel. (Don’t get me started on internet access.  If you’re interested in how the US consumer is suffering, click here.)

However, if all you want to do is be able to go home, turn on the six o’clock news, and see the game, all that’s needed are rabbit ears.  Free TV never left – but cable sure has consumers believing it doesn’t exist.  This CBS/TWC battle could be the best thing to happen for people who mistakenly thought that TV going HD meant you had to have cable in order to watch basic channels.  If you think physically dismantling your cable and setting things up for free TV is too complicated, I found is a great page to help walk you through it.  Also, if you’re wondering have I ever not had cable, the answer is yes.  Until I potentially had to start reviewing cable shows – which meant having to watch them as they aired – I didn’t bother with it.

Now comes the hard part…what are you going to do with all that extra money?

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