Imagine, for a moment, the unthinkable: Your cable goes out.
While you’re waiting for the repair truck, you decide to have your TV set “scan” for any over-the-air signals in the area.
And that’s when you get a surprise.
No fewer than 20 channels are flying through the Kansas City airwaves. Two were added in September alone. They feature an increasingly diverse range of programs: old-time TV shows and movies, lifestyle, cooking, home improvement, sports and programs aimed at minority audiences and kids, as well as educational, cultural, informational and inspirational offerings.
Sounds like cable, but these channels are free for the taking. They’re broadcast stations. Their signals emanate from the same towers as Kansas City’s ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates.
And as viewers find themselves making tough choices with their household budgets, these new stations are making what was once unthinkable to many — life without cable — a more appealing option.
“As people cord-cut, they are going to be pleased to find those little rabbit ears they kept in the attic bring them some pretty good shows,” said Mike Ruggiero, whose Indiana-based firm, ATV Broadcast, helped launch many of these channels.
They have names like Me-TV, Antenna TV and Create. They are heavily promoted on the bigger stations that brought them to town. But many viewers discover them by accident.
Joe Ryan of Olathe found them when he dropped his cable a year ago.
“I realized I wasn’t watching a lot of the channels that Comcast offered,” Ryan said.
Like many cord-cutters, Ryan decided to keep his broadband service. He uses Netflix, Hulu and other online services to stream TV shows and movies. The free broadcast offerings were an unexpected bonus.
As a fan of old horror and sci-fi movies, he watches the long-running “Svengoolie” on Me-TV, operated locally by KMBC at Channel 9-2.
“Most of the time when I have the TV on, it’s background noise,” Ryan said. “So this has worked out all right.”
Early signs are that the new stations are working out well for broadcasters, too.
Antenna TV, which is licensed locally to WDAF and airs at Channel 4-2, features some of the most popular comedies of the 1970s, including “Good Times,” “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” as well as chestnuts such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Antenna TV also airs Atlantic Coast Conference football games. It’s carried on all local cable lineups, which boosts its visibility.
In the eight months Antenna TV has been on the air, its ratings have grown to the point that it is matching or beating those of some primary stations in town like KSMO and KMCI, according to WDAF’s Carrie Hibbeler.
“(It) does better than many cable networks,” Hibbeler said. “Audiences stay and return for more.”
Two years ago, local TV stations were required to switch from analog to digital, or DTV, broadcasting. DTV is better known for its ability to transmit high-definition video, but it also allows a station to divide its signal into multiple channels. KCPT was the first — and for years the only — local station to do this.
Since the federally mandated switchover in 2009, however, local stations have been ramping up their multicast offerings. Most broadcasters have enough digital bandwidth for one high-definition channel — that’s where the big network affiliate goes, like KMBC at 9-1 — and up to two additional channels in standard definition, such as Me-TV at 9-2.
Last week KSMO added Bounce, aimed at African-American viewers, on Channel 62-2. Bounce will initially be heavy on classic movies such as “Do the Right Thing” and “The Wiz,” plus live sporting events featuring teams from historically black universities. Over time, it hopes to develop its own shows. Bounce’s ownership team includes Martin Luther King III and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.
“We’re here to serve the community,” said Bounce president Ryan Glover, a former cable executive. “There are 26 different networks targeting the Hispanic audience with 60 different channels. There are millions of African-American households with two channels aimed at them.”
Also signing on in September was Live Well Network (Channel 38-2), with home, cooking, travel and lifestyle programs aimed at female viewers. Owned by the ABC network, it features a lineup of shows not available on other local or cable channels.
Mike Vrabac is general manager of KSHB and KMCI, which is carrying Live Well. His employer, E.W. Scripps Co., also owns cable channels HGTV and Food Network. He sees multicast channels such as Live Well as a decent cable-lite substitute for families on a budget.
“As homes decide not to subscribe to dish or cable, they are getting a lot more content today,” Vrabac said.
But what if you like your cable? Vrabac said the station has included Live Well in its contracts with local cable companies, essentially demanding that the new channel be carried along with KSHB, KMCI and KSHB’s 24-hour weather channel at 41-2.
Time Warner added Live Well last week to its digital cable tier at channel 965. A Comcast spokesman said he didn’t know when Live Well would be added to its local systems.
Some 46 million Americans use over-the-air TV exclusively, and another 20 million homes with cable or satellite have TVs in their bedrooms or basements that aren’t hooked up to it.
Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters expects those numbers to grow.
“Young adults are cutting out the pay-TV middleman,” Wharton said. “They’re watching TV one of two ways: live, over-the-air on their local stations or with DVRs or Hulu.”
Take Sarah and Shea McGinnity, new parents living in Waldo. They pulled the plug on cable 2 1/2 years ago.
“We decided we were going to concentrate on paying off debt,” Sarah McGinnity said. “Also, we were just married and didn’t want to be stuck in front of the TV. We got an HD antenna for $20 — which we still have — and we got Netflix.”
For people wanting to stay up on the latest TV shows, however, the new channels don’t offer much, said Matt Derrick of Time Warner Cable.
“The (new) channels are great for viewers but really supplement what’s available on cable rather than replace,” Derrick said.
Besides, broadcasters need cable to spread the word about these channels. In Kansas City, 80 percent of households use cable or satellite, so without cable carriage, a new service like Live Well will be easy to find only for viewers in the 20 percent of homes that rely on rabbit ears.
“Availability on our channel lineup has been critical to their launches,” Derrick said.
While broadcasters wait for viewers to find these new channels, the owners keep their costs low. Jeffrey Wolf, who’s in charge of distribution for Bounce, said the channel will rely on movies and live sporting events for now.
Eventually, though, Bounce will produce original shows aimed at black audiences ages 25 to 54.
For the TV station, adding a second channel is relatively cheap, because most of the equipment was bought when the station made its DTV upgrade. With startup costs of just $100,000, Live Well is instantly profitable, Vrabac said.
But don’t expect the number of multicast channels to climb much higher. There’s not a lot of available space on local airwaves, and much of it is spoken for by the stations’ parent companies.
The new ‘cable’
If you pulled the plug on your cable or satellite service and put up rabbit ears — assuming your TV set was DTV-ready or hooked up to a converter box — you would have access to 19 entertainment and information channels, including local news, weather and sports. A 20th station, Univision affiliate KUKC at 26-1, broadcasts a low-power signal that may not reach all antennas.
While some satellite customers do switch over to antenna mode to watch local TV stations, most people don’t, which is why broadcasters are trying to get these channels onto cable lineups.
But anyone with a digital antenna can access these digital subchannels (if you currently use an antenna, you may have to re-scan to have some of the newer channels added to your lineup).
4-1: Fox (WDAF)
4-2: Antenna TV (classics)
5-1: CBS (KCTV)
9-1: ABC (KMBC)
9-2: Me-TV (classics)
19-3: Create (lifestyle)
29-1: CW (KCWE)
29-2: ThisTV (classics)
38-1: 38 the Spot
38-2: Live Well (lifestyle)
41-1: NBC (KSHB)
41-2: NBC Weather Plus
50-2: Qubo (Kids)
62-2: Bounce (African-American)