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Time Warner vs. CBS Prompts a Showdown of Old School Meets New Tech

Sometimes the irony of life is too delicious for words, but since words are our business here we will put them to use for the latest comical sideshow in the epic battle between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and CBS that has resulted in both CBS owned and operated TV stations as well as Showtime and other CBS-owned cable channels being taken off the TWC cable systems in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Ft. Worth and parts of the Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and Pittsburgh markets areas.

Sometimes the irony of life is too delicious for words, but since words are our business here we will put them to use for the latest comical sideshow in the epic battle between Time Warner Cable (TWC) and CBS that has resulted in both CBS owned and operated TV stations as well as Showtime and other CBS-owned cable channels being taken off the TWC cable systems in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Ft. Worth and parts of the Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and Pittsburgh markets areas.

In the now close to three week battle over retransmission authorization payments between CBS and TWC, the TWC side is fond of stating that “CBS has declared war on Time Warner”, using a statement from CBS’s Les Moonves as the source for that. On one hand the idea of writing about what some are calling a “war” conjures up the names of great and true war correspondents such as Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Morrow and many others. In this ginned up battle, however, to fully report one may need to look at it more from the vantage point of other reporters along the lines of Hunter S. Thompson or, even better, “Uncle Duke”, the Doonesbury character said to be based loosely on him. Or, another Doonesbury ace reporter, Roland Hedley.

Watching the parries back and forth between the sides perhaps the image that most often comes to mind is Sylvester the Cat when he gets all lathered up over something and exclaims in an over-exaggerated, slobbering lisp: “THITH ITH WAR!” or comments on something absurd by saying: “IT’S DESPICABLE!”

Yes, indeed, all of the above. Consumers simply want the channels they pay for with the reception quality that is the reason “cable” came to be in the first place. It was at the dawn of the TV era in the early 50’s that TV dealers in rural Pennsylvania and upstate New York realized that they couldn’t sell sets if no one could receive the signals from stations that were in the big cities over 50 miles away, often on the other side of high hills and mountains.

To solve the problem, the stores and communities put a master antenna on the highest spot in the area and ran, yes, cable to everyone’s homes and charged a modest fee for the service. For that reason the industry was called “CATV” for many years as an acronym for Community Antenna Television. The value proposition was rather simple: replace the rabbit ears on top of your TV and the need to dance around with them for anything approaching decent reception for a cable drop-off, a pole, and a few dollars a month.

Of course, times have changed. That once modest charge can now be a monthly bill between $150 and $200 in many cases. Yes, many other channels and services are provided by the cable companies including a wide range of specialty channels, pay channels, pay-per-view, more recently home security and automation, and, most importantly, high-speed broadband data service.

So here is the irony for today in the latest chapter of the RTA saga. Guess what the latest piece of high tech equipment I picked up today at the local TWC office. No, not a cable modem. Indeed, to save money I bought my own a few months ago and turned the leased modem back to TWC. No, not a new DVR; I’m waiting for a review sample of the new TiVo Roamio. No, not the home security package; that’s a story for another day.

Give up? As promised in an ad containing a letter from TWC’s president Glenn Britt that ran last week on the back page of the main section of the LA Times and in the NY Times main news section, TWC said that they were “…making antennas available so you can watch CBS shows over-the-air.” That’s right, Time Warner Cable is distributing the one thing that the cable industry was invented to do away with: set top antennas! No way I could resist that, and it was off to the local TWC store I went.

Imagine my surprise when after verifying my account the clerk behind the counter handed me something that looked like it was last used by Ward Cleaver, Ozzie & Harriet, Lucy & Desi, or perhaps sat on top of the magical TV set George Burns always watched to see what Gracie was up to. Thus, ironic as it might seem, I am now the proud owner of a genuine set of “rabbit ears” courtesy of a company that prides itself on state of the art digital technology.

Yes, the letter in the ad also promised an Amazon gift card and I’ve already seen a rebate on my most recent cable bill, but the rabbit ears take the cake. As I have previously reported about the use of indoor antennae as a temporary way to get key CBS channels for your customers so that they can watch local channels for key sporting events (football in NY and Dodger games in LA) I couldn’t wait to get it home and see how this very basic antenna would perform against the more modern designs detailed earlier in this blog.

Surprisingly, despite the retro look and feel of the rabbit ears the big surprise is that in some situations the free antenna performed almost as well as some of the more modern models tested earlier. For testing purposes both the rabbit ears and a more modern design antenna with a claimed range of “up to 50 miles” and were first connected to a simple set-top ATSC tuner left over from the digital transition as well as to an original D-Link BoxeeBox with the optional ATSC tuner dongle. To boost the signal a bit a Mohu Jolt in-line amplifier was also used. This may seem like a very basic installation, and it is so on purpose. This set up is in daily use specifically to time-shift off-air digital sub-channel content to a DVD recorder since the TiVo Premiere cannot do both ATSC and “Cable” at the same time. 

Going in to this with more than a heavy bit of sarcasm, the surprise was that the old-school rabbit ears, though admittedly with some help from the Mohu Jolt amplifier, pulled in 20 RF signals with Digital Stream brand tuner and 21 with the BoxeeBox/tuner dongle combination. As one might expect, the modern design, high-gain antenna ClearStream 2 from Antennas Direct pulled in a total of 24 off-air channels across both the VHF and UHF bands on the tuner and 23 on the BoxeeBox.

If the difference doesn’t sound great, it is important to note that the test location is within 30 miles of Mt. Wilson, where the vast majority of the television transmission facilities for the LA area are based. Were one to move further out it is unlikely that the rabbit ears and higher gain antenna would perform as equally.

In the first test, however, neither the obviously large ClearStream 2 or the rabbit ears would fit in a more elegant situation than our already messy office with shelves to put either antenna on, so that it is out of the way. Remember, the rabbit ears may look cool and retro but where they once easily sat on top of the old bulky CRT sets of past decades they certainly couldn’t sit on top of today’s flay panels. To make fitting them in during this temporary channel loss one also has to remember that when the “ears” are extended the wing span could be as much as four feet, and don’t forget all the dancing around to properly position the thing to get proper reception.

In the hey-day of analog, twisting the rabbit ears or other indoor antenna around wasn’t a big deal. First, the size of the top of the TV masked the need for the “antenna dance.” Second, if not positioned just right you could at least see a signal that might be poor or snowy, but at least it was there if the thing wasn’t pointed just right. As we all know, that isn’t the case with ATSC. In the digital world of today the picture is there and it is spectacular or it simply blocks and freezes, or just plain isn’t there at all.

That leads us to the “Your Mileage May Vary” aspect of using indoor antennas when there is a channel blackout because a client’s cable or satellite provider is having a hissy fit with one of the broadcast station owners. It isn’t just the gain of the antenna, its proper positioning and the distance to the transmitter. A final cog in this gearbox is the sensitivity of the tuner. Some are better, some not so good, and you or the client are hard pressed to know what the sensitivity figure is. You often see it quoted for the FM tuners in an AVR, but when did you last see it quoted for a TV set?

To bring things into reality we next tried a three-way test using a basic Westinghouse LCD TV in a kitchen setting where the antenna had to be more compact lest, as your mother might say, “Someone’s eye will get poked out with that fool thing!” The rabbit ears would have had a hard time fitting in to the kitchen, and it’s a good thing. They only pulled in 11 RF channels and almost DID poke someone’s eye out! Moving to something a bit more modern and certainly easier to fit in to the décor, a Mohu Leaf was able to pull in 22 RF channels, and the figure increased to 24 when Mohu’s compact “Jolt” in-line amplifier was added. The same figure of 24 RF channels was achieved with Mohu’s larger “Sky” antenna that comes standard with an amplifier that seems identical to the Jolt.

Given these results, the Leaf with an amp seems to be the big winner given its relatively low cost and paper-thin form factor. We’d recommend it with the amp not so much for the few added channels, but for the fact that the signal boost overcame occasional freezes and channel drops without it. And, again, one presumes that if the test bed were moved further out from the transmitters the performance of the Leaf or the rabbit ears would drop off while the Sky would hold up by trading a larger form factor and depth for higher gain.

For this to be a true test we’d need to use signal strength meters with the antennae in a wide variety of positions or with a number of different tuners in various TV sets. Indeed, this test proved that, as they say in the car ads, “Your mileage may vary”, as the same antennae produced different results with different tuners. For example, it is likely that the internal TV tuner and the set-top have better sensitivity than the dongle tuner on the BoxeeBox. That is perhaps something to keep in mind if you are thinking of using a dongle tuner with a computer for temporary off-air pickup.

At the end of the day, TWC’s goal was presumably to give consumers a way to pull in the CBS channels, albeit in a way that might be an annoyance to some. Remember, it required driving to the TWC Office to pick the antenna up. Beyond that, remember that the modern antennae performed better and were less sensitive to placement particularly when used with an in-line amp. The rabbit ears were much more finicky and getting them to perform well required dancing around their position just as if you were in a ‘50s sitcom. However, “mission accomplished” in that they brought in both local CBS channels on both devices, something the modern design could not do with the BoxeeBox as it only pulled in KCBS, but not the all-important KCAL to see some of the Dodger games.

To add fuel to the fire, after the first set of ads offering free antennas, our now prized rabbit ears, TWCs ads the next day in the Sports section of the LA Times and as a market-customized version in the main section of Friday’s NY Times again mentioned the availability of a “limited quantity” of free “basic indoor antennas” but also upped the ante. TWC has joined with Best Buy to offer a $20 discount towards the purchase of an indoor antenna. This, too, is a limited time/quantity offer, though neither was quantified. As is the case with the free antenna this is a one to a customer offer that in the case of Best Buy requires presentation of a TWC cable bill, so you can’t go down to the local cable office or Best Buy and get a bunch on behalf of your customers.

When we visited a local Best Buy store we did see more people in the “antenna aisle” than we’ve ever seen and most of them looked totally befuddled as they had likely never purchased, or perhaps even owned an indoor TV antenna. However, if this one store is any indication, it appears that more than a few people, perhaps your clients among them, are taking advantage of all of this to watch football, Dodger or Texas Rangers baseball or other popular shows such as Judge Judy. The department manager further confirmed this when, in response to our question, he said that he had sold more antennas in the past week than in the past three years he had been in that store serving a reasonably up-scale suburban neighborhood.

At the end of the day, the point is once again that as the TWC vs. CBS insanity drags on those in affected markets will have to do something to provision the missing channels for their clients. The start of the fall TV season and new shows, regular season football and, hopefully for those of us who have suffered through the past few years as Dodger fans, the continuation of their winning ways may be the straws that break this camel’s back. Until then, you need to be proactive in making sure that clients are not left without these signals. It’s a small price to pay for showing clients you really do provide the personal touch. Our antenna suggestions may or may not work in your clients’ specific locations.

Factor in their distance to the local TV transmitters. Invest in a few of the many choices from vendors such as Terk, RCA, Antennas Direct, Mohu and others to see which products work best and fit in to any specific installation situation where an antenna is needed. After all, we’re certainly not suggesting that you actually put rabbit ears in a client’s home unless they have a retro/mid-50’s modern interior design. Clearly a modern antenna will be the better choice and will almost certainly produce better results.

As a final note, even though this specific battle between TWC and CBS will be settled sooner or later, it is unlikely to be the last such incidence of this type of situation. Even now, in addition to their fight with CBS, TWC is also experiencing “channel pulls” in other parts of the country from other station owners. As contracts with the other networks and stations and other suppliers including DirecTV, Dish, FIOS, U-verse and all the other cable companies come up for renewal it is a sure bet that this will happen again. Not only should you be prepared to assist clients with temporary indoor antenna solutions while the corporate giants battle one another, but you should also make sure that your company includes the right range of vendor/suppliers for antennas, make sure that your design and installation staff brushes up on their skills regarding outdoor antenna selection and installation, as well. When doing a new or re-fit job, it won’t be difficult to point to the news about all of this in the popular and business press to justify the installation of a good high-gain antenna, even if it is out of view in the attic.

Need one more side benefit for all of this? In addition to providing a back-up to cable, IPTV or satellite, an antenna is more than just a case of “everything old is new again.” OTA reception not only pushes the home into the world of “cord cutting” by delivering off-air channels for free it also opens the door in most market to a wide range of ethnic, foreign language, religious and other interesting programming options such as METV and AntennaTV not always available other than off-air. Hook the antenna up to a TiVo Premiere or the new Roamio model with an ATSC tuner and you have a DVR that, at least in our personal opinion, bests anything the cable companies provide in terms of User Interface. TO be fair, other off-air recording options are available but our space here is limited and we’ll get to them in the future.

Oh, and more thing: Close any sale on OTA reception with the fact that since you are dealing with a direct feed, presuming you’ve selected the proper antenna, without the compression and processing inherent in retransmission, there should be a noticeable improvement in picture quality. Watching Dodger games directly off-air on KCAL rather than on cable as was the case up until the past few weeks, the clarity of image is absolutely better.

Who would have thought that a battle over the cost of cable services would have led to what might be a re-birth of over-the-air reception?

One update to our last report on this: We noted that Dyle service does not include KCBS in Los Angeles, only KCAL. That would be great as it would let us use a portable Dyle TV from RCA or the Escort MobileTV and an iPad to watch the Dodger games and the bi-weekly “high speed chase” on KCAL. Curiously, the folks at CBS seem to think that the main channel programming is more important and they have switched the feed to KCBS. Great for football fans, not so great for baseball fans.

That’s our report from the front for now. Let’s all hope there is a truce soon!

Sherman Oaks, CA-based editorial contributor Michael Heiss is a respected technology consultant and CEDIA Fellow.