Buy an Antenna. Watch the News?

 

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Let’s say you’ve got the urge to watch a classic game show. Or one of your favorite old sitcoms. Perhaps a movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Or maybe you just need your nightly Sipowicz fix from NYPD Blue. Where do you go?

You’re forgiven for automatically thinking GSN/TBS/AMC/TVLand or some other cable or satellite channels, or paying for Netflix/Hulu/Amazon and searching endlessly.

Here’s a better… and less expensive… idea:

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Hook up those old rabbit ears (more on that in a minute), switch back over to broadcast TV and check out the expanding list of “diginets” or digital networks attached to nearly every regular channel on the dial.

Here in Los Angeles, for example, channel 7 is the ABC station. But channel 7.3 is Laff. All comedy, all the time. More sitcoms, like M*A*S*H and All In The Family can be found on MeTV (channel 56.3) and AntennaTV (5.2). CoziTV on channel 4.2, attached to the NBC station, shows everything from Roy Rogers to Starsky and Hutch. Game shows like Match Game and Super Password abound on Buzzr, channel 13.2, while Sipowicz and the rest of the Blue crew hold forth twice nightly on Heroes & Icons, two decimals over on 13.4.

Quietly, and in my opinion, delightfully, production companies have capitalized on all the additional broadcast space made available by the switchover from analog to DTV in 2009. (Just about every station has room now for at least one or two lower-definition subchannels, and a few have subdivided their on-air real estate into as many as ten channels or more.) For now, producers from Sony to FOX to Gannett to Tribune and others have been content to repackage old TV shows (they’re relatively cheap to license) and create niche channels for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the good old days.

But it won’t stop there. It never does. Early cable TV looked just like this (remember when HBO was mostly old movies?) Then cable moved on to develop new programming, often targeting a specific demographic.

Diginets will follow that pattern. BounceTV, for instance, caters to African-American viewers and has begun investing in original fare, just as BET did on cable. Spanish language diginets are multiplying. Even PBS is finding new ways to fill its extra space.

Then there’s my favorite, Decades.

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The Decades formula is a simple but brilliantly clever mix of old and new. Six hours of programming each day (repeated 3 times to fill the 24-hour cycle). Five of those hours are taken up by old shows and movies that share one thing in common: the calendar date! So on say, October 12 you’ll see a film that first premiered on that day in another era (“decades” ago…), a TV drama whose star was born (or died) on that same date, and so on.

But it’s Hour 6 that truly sets Decades apart.

A documentary called Through The Decades pulls together all the significant events that took place on that day in history. Hosted by Bill Kurtis and drawing generously from the CBS News archives, this show is an astounding achievement, considering the daunting logistics of creating just one well-produced documentary hour. The Decades folks do one every single weeknight! Most stories are collections of old news clips from the CBS Evening News, nicely strung together. But when little footage exists, the TTD graphics folks get creative. Look what they did for the DeLorean’s debut, and the origin of our Time Zones:

Through The Decades got me thinking about the next possible diginet frontier, something quite close to my news-junkie heart.

Some smart, forward-looking folks need to get together and do a 21st century Ted Turner: launch a 24-hour, all news digital network channel. A “point-2” CNN, if you will.

It’s not as crazy or financially suicidal as it sounds. Some random ideas:

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CBS bypassed cable and created CBSN, its internet-based streaming news service. It looks good and it’s doing well. How hard would it be to offer CBSN to every CBS affiliate for one of its subchannels?

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Al Jazeera America is shutting down and hundreds of people are losing their jobs. Couldn’t a way be found to save those positions, keep the infrastructure in place, buy the dang channel (which did terribly on cable), change that awful name, and turn it into a diginet? Wouldn’t one deal with just one station group dramatically multiply AJAM’s anemic audience?

Or how about this: Does anyone do nightly news better than the PBS NewsHour? Does anyone do investigative journalism better than Frontline? PBS already possesses the bones for a truly great all-news effort. Why not create a national non-profit all-news entity that lives on a subchannel at every PBS station! Non-profit news works for NPR. It’s being tried in Philadelphia with the Inquirer, the Daily News and Philly.com. It’s worth a try.

Oh, and about those rabbit ears:

Toss them. There are way better alternatives out there now: Small, sleek, thin, inexpensive and virtually invisible devices (like the Mohu flap, my personal choice) that will pick up every local station, and all its subchannels, perfectly. You may never go back to cable.