CEA Hates free HDTVLast week the Consumer Electronics Association released the results of a study (PDF) where they found that even though the number of US cable TV households is dropping, over-the-air (OTA) HDTV household reception isn’t increasing. In fact, it’s decreasing as well.

CEA’s opinion? Do away with OTA HDTV altogether, and sell off the bandwidth.

In other words, eliminate free television reception.


The methodology of this survey wasn’t elaborately explained. Merely that it was a phone survey (cell and landline) of 1,256 adults conducted in December 2010. The question was:

“Please think about all the different TVs in your household and the ways in which you receive television programming, such as cable, satellite, fiber to the home or an antenna that may mount on your roof or an antenna that sits on or near the TV. Thinking of all the televisions that are in your home, which of the following describes how your household receives its television signals?”

CEA claims to have weighted the data to “reflect the known demographics of the population under study. In this survey, weights were applied to cases based on gender, age, race and geographic region,” according to Chris Ely, Manager of Industry Analysis. The margin of error was 2.8%.

I’m not going to go all Nate Silver on this survey, but it’s clear that CEA’s assumption is that because OTA reception is trending downwards, that eventually it will reach zero. We at HD Guru feel that this is a false premise. To assume that everyone in this country who owns a television can or wants to pay for television service is foolish. By CEA’s own numbers, 9 million households currently rely exclusively on OTA reception. In other words, CEA would eliminate the only way 9 million households currently get TV reception.

Incidentally, CEA’s study not only has lower numbers for how many people rely on OTA, but is also the only one that finds these numbers dropping. I, for one, would like to see the demographics of the sample base. For example, here is a study by Knowledge Networks that finds 14% of US households still use OTA as their main source of TV reception. Their breakdown of demographics makes for an even more interesting story, which we’ll get to in a moment. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), their own slant decidedly pro-broadcaster, has already begun trying to push back.

Why does “pro-business” have to be “anti-consumer?”

CEA’s agenda is biased towards their members, that’s to be expected. What is surprising is the significant pro-Republican tilt CEA has developed over recent years. Think we’re making that up? Here’s a quote about the Republican tech plan from CEA President Gary Shapiro.

“CEA applauds the Republican Technology Working Group’s 2011 Technology Priorities. Providing additional spectrum for wireless broadband, completing free trade agreements and increasing the number of highly skilled workers here on visas are common-sense measures that will provide an immediate boost to investment and the economy, and will create America jobs. The troubling economic news over the last few days underscores the urgency of these issues – we do not have time to waste. CEA urges Congress to place laser-like focus on this pro-innovation agenda to give the dynamic technology industry more tools to lift America out of our economic doldrums.”

Where we at HD Guru feel the need to make a fuss is when any agenda trends on the side of being anti-consumer, regardless of what party it stems from. Asinine falsehoods about one party being the party of “business” is best left to the mindless demagogues (IMHO both parties are in the pockets of big business).

“Over-the-air TV was once the defining distribution platform,” said Gary Shapiro, CEA president and CEO. “But using huge swaths of wireless spectrum to deliver TV to homes no longer makes economic sense. Congress should pass legislation to allow for incentive auctions so free market dynamics can find the best purposes for underused broadcast spectrum, such as wireless broadband.”

Let’s be clear here. Once this bandwidth is sold, it is gone forever. The government won’t be able to ask for it back if some future need arises. If over-the-air transmissions cease, the government won’t be able take the bandwidth back and restart them.

More Issues

Eliminating HDTV has other consequences as well. Let’s start with the most obvious first. Over-the-air HDTV is vastly superior in picture quality than what’s available to most consumers with cable and satellite. A recent (and arguably un-scientific) survey I conducted of 2,400 CNET visitors found that 35% of them are dissatisfied with the quality of their HD service . With the exception of FIOS, no service provider offers the picture quality potential of over-the-air broadcast.

That’s not to say all OTA stations offer superb picture quality, it’s just that it’s possible, if the station desires. It’s easy to see a situation where an MP3-like situation of “good enough” when it comes to HD, if the bandwidth is forcibly limited.

Without a benchmark for OTA quality, what’s to stop cable and satellite providers from further reducing their quality? If OTA is eliminated or minimized, what would that do to the broadcast stations in each market? Do these “free market dynamics” mean the end of local TV stations? How much local advertising revenue will they lose when they have a smaller potential audience?

And let’s not mince words, the people left out in this situation are the poor and elderly, both of whom are statistically much more likely to rely on OTA. Also, according to the Knowledge Networks study, a third of Spanish-language dominant households use OTA exclusively.

Whether you use OTA or not, do you feel spectrum should be sold off to private industry?

I look forward to your Republican talking point comments. Please cite sources or you’ll be deleted.

The CEA responds.


—Geoff Morrison and Gary Merson

– Follow Geoff on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff
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