Free TV

by YES! Staff

Remember’  when TV was free?

If you were born after 1985 or so, you likely don’t. But before the cable companies began tearing up roads and laying line to build up their nationwide network, TV signals used to travel through the air — which was owned by the people — and anyone with an aerial on their roof and a screen in their living room could watch just about anything that was on, which back then included all major sporting events, movies, news, local shows and whatever the Big Three networks programmed during primetime.

It was free because the stations used the people’s air to get their messages out; in return for this custodianship — and the profits they earned from it — they had to adhere to government standards of decency and broadcast items “serving the public interest,” according to the pact with the FCC.

True, there were a lot fewer choices, and sometimes you had to stick a wire hanger wrapped in aluminum foil into your set to get a good picture. But it was simple and free, and something that united the country in a way that we have lost since private television has’  bombarded us with hundreds of channels and the internet further splintered the viewership.

But for us old fogeys it’s hard not to think back to this halcyon era of television when news comes across that the local cable monopoly, Time Warner, is no longer airing WXII, the local NBC affiliate, which has been serving the Triad since 1953.

It has to do with carriage fees paid by the cable company to the TV station — WXII wants more than Time-Warner wants to pay — and the kind of leverage that near monopolies like to exert on entities they perceive to be vulnerable.

But none of that matters to the people who watch WXII through Time-Warner Cable, which has begun running the NBC affiliate out of Irving, Texas, more than 1,100 miles away.

Truth be told, there’s not that much difference between the stations because network television has become homogenized over the decades that have passed since the medium’s beginnings. You can still catch the daytime shows and primetime NBC comedies and dramas, and the late-night talk shows as well.

Ironically the only real difference is in the “public interest” portion of the Wilkes-Barre station’s service agreement with the FCC — which in this instance is nullified because the station is not being sent over the people’s airwaves. News and weather from northeast Pennsylvania certainly does not serve the public interest in the North Carolina Piedmont Triad, but that is not Time-Warner’s problem. It is ours.

You can still watch WXII on satellite TV and the internet.

But if you want to snatch the station through the airwaves, you’ll have to have a digital antenna. The wire hanger thing doesn’t work anymore.

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