I call it the gift that keeps on giving.
I refer to the unintended consequences of a TV event that happened in 2008.
During a contentious dispute with Channel 4 that took the CBS affiliate off the air for 26 days, Time Warner Cable gave rabbit ears antennas to subscribers.
It was TWC’s way of telling subscribers that they could get Channel 4 for free over the air.
I could use the antenna this afternoon to get Western New York’s newest over-the-air digital channel, GetTV, and watch the classic film “From Here to Eternity” with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra.
I could also turn to Bounce TV on my antenna this afternoon and watch the basketball film “Glory Road” or “Malcolm X” with Denzel Washington,
The $3 antenna has allowed me to watch Buffalo Bills games on Channel 4, which comes in much clearer on the digital channel than on TWC.
In the last several months, the antenna has enabled me to get several over-the-air digital channels that primarily serve the 10 percent of households that don’t have cable, satellite dishes or FiOS.
WNYO-TV, the Sinclair Broadcasting station on Channel 49, recently joined the over-the-air explosion by offering GetTV, the new 24-hour channel from Sony Pictures, on Channel 49.2.
WUTV, the other Sinclair station, already carries a country music channel on Channel 29.2.
WNLO-TV, the local CW affiliate on Channel 23 owned by LIN Media, carries “Bounce,” which calls itself the first African-American broadcast network, on Channel 23.2.
WGRZ-TV, the local NBC affiliate on Channel 2, offers the 24-hour Weather Plus, on digital channel 2.2, and a classic television channel, Antenna TV, on 2.3.
A newcomer in the digital channel business is retired Lockport Police Officer Steve Ritchie, who offers classic television programs via Cozi TV and another channel on low power channels 56.1 and 56.2.
I doubt that many cable, dish and FiOS subscribers will drop their expensive services and rely on the broadcast channels and their digital channels for all their TV entertainment.
But some people might.
The local stations offering the extra channels really aren’t risking much. They don’t pay for programming and don’t need to hire a staff because they already have one for their regular channels.
They aren’t adding the channels to get rich or even make any money at all.
WNYO General Manager Nick Magnini and WIVB General Manager René LaSpina said the corporate owners of their stations made the deals to carry GetTV and Bounce, respectively, and they don’t have much to do with them.
Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner, whose station is owned by Gannett, has been the most aggressive in programming the digital channels and has even been able to get his two on Time Warner Cable and FiOS.
Magnini expects Sinclair to try to get GetTV on cable.
“Why wouldn’t you?” he asked.
“Bounce” which hasn’t been promoted much, if at all, locally, is available on WNY’s smallest distributor, FiOS.
“Its unique programming helps us better serve the large percentage of African-American households in the community,” wrote a LIN spokeswoman in response to questions.
She added that the channel is a great fit, has advertisers and is carried by FiOS in Buffalo.
Actually, FiOS is carried in Western New York suburbs and not Buffalo. The spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions about why Bounce isn’t on Time Warner, which services the city, where most African-Americans live.
Toellner has proven that getting the digital channels on cable – which expand their audience – can be done. He acknowledges that WGRZ isn’t making a lot of money on the extra channels, even though they are on cable.
So why is he carrying them?
“It is branding, it’s capacity, it’s serving our customers,” he said.
It is difficult to make money now because Nielsen doesn’t provide ratings for advertisers to see because the cost to the stations might be higher than the revenue the stations would bring in.
But Toellner believes he has evidence that people watch such Antenna TV offerings as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “All in the Family” and “Barney Miller.”
“Anecdotally, we get a lot of people; a lot of Canadians watch it,” Toellner said.
“If Antenna TV goes off the air, if we have a technical problem, we get a lot of phone calls or emails.”
He added that the station received numerous complaints when he took down a weather channel distributed by NBC.
Weather Plus, which Channel 2 carries on 2.2, does have some costs. The station adds local content from its weather staff to the national reports. Additionally, the traffic department has to put together the logs for the day that detail when and where the commercials air.
“Hard costs aren’t real high, but they are enough to make you think,” Toellner said.
The chief benefactors of the digital channels – besides viewers – are movie and television studios.
“All the studios are trying to monetize their libraries because they are not too successful in syndication anymore,” Toellner said.
Ritchie figures that his costs are about $20,000 a year, primarily for the rental of a tower and electricity. He also pays $25 to $50 to carry episodes of certain programs on 56.2 and charges between $5 and $10 for a 30-second commercial to pay for them.
“Right now, I’m still taking a little bit of a loss,” said Ritchie.
He is getting an education in the business. Some of the programmers don’t want to put their shows on digital channels unless they get on cable, he said.
“I’ve been told that you can’t carry Antenna TV unless you are on cable,” said Ritchie, “which is ironic because it is called Antenna TV.”
He had no such problem making a deal with Cozi TV, which is owned by NBC Universal and carries such classic programs as “Bionic Woman,” “Maverick” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
He isn’t expecting to get rich. But for Ritchie, there is a priceless aspect to running TV stations.
“I am enjoying it,” he said. “A lot of people email and tell me they are watching TV over the air now and got rid of cable and they are happy there are so many more choices now over the air.”
And he is happy to see competition from GetTV.
“I welcome it. It gives more choices over the air, so maybe it will bring more people to watch TV over the air,” Ritchie said. “As cable prices go up and up, people are looking for some other way to cut money, and it might be a choice.”
In other words, it is a potential gift for everyone.