Will we really see the end of television by 2040?

Over-the-air broadcast television is the oldest form of live video. Live television was first demonstrated in this country in 1939, and 1950 was the “tipping point” year where people really started to embrace it.

Since then, other contenders have arisen, but it’s only been in the 21st century that there has been a real contender to replace TV. Antenna broadcasts now coexist with cable and satellite, but it’s only recently become possible to think that over-the-air broadcasts could completely fade away.

Here’s one prediction

In 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired its season finale highlighting three people who had been asleep since the late 20th century. They naturally asked about television, and were famously told,

That form of entertainment did not last much beyond the year 2040.

I saw the episode live, which will come as no surprise to many of you. At the time, none of us could imagine the technology that would supplant television. Now, with 2040 only 19 years away, it’s very obvious.

Could this actually happen?

There are a couple of “nightmare scenarios” which could result in broadcast television simply going away. Some are unfortunately very easy to imagine.

Scenario #1: ATSC 3.0 fractures the market

There’s a new broadcast standard on the horizon. If you remember how you had to buy a new TV in the ’00s, you remember the last time that the US changed broadcast standard. At that time. the government authorized a lot of money to help make the transition less expensive for average users. That, combined with the allure of large flat TVs, made for a smooth change.

This time around, Congress is less likely to authorize billions of dollars to help people make the change. While some will look forward to the potential of 4K television, most won’t care.

The move over to a new television technology could backfire. Average consumers, faced with the requirement for a new TV, will simply give up. With a major decline in use, it may be impossible for broadcasters to continue broadcasting

Scenario #2: Live video just falls out of favor

By 2040, today’s “Zoomers” will be 30-45 years old and will be among the dominant market groups. Those born after 2010, who as of yet don’t have a generational name, will be the other dominant group. Neither group really embraced live television as children. Instead, they have grown up in an “on-demand” world.

So many of us form our habits as young people and if you don’t grow up thinking about live TV, you just won’t think about it as an adult. This could cause an implosion in live television as that dominant “18-34” market moves away, leaving only Millennials, GenX, and Boomers, the youngest of which will be 50 years old by 2040. Folks, I don’t make the rules but for the most part advertisers treat people over 50 like they’re invisible.

Scenario #3: The cellular crunch

Cellular services have already taken a lot of broadcast space that once belonged to television. There’s a possibility that it’s not done.

We know that some 5G services are moving to a very high band where it’s possible to get incredibly fast speed. But, there are some limitations to “millimeter-wave” 5G that could mean it doesn’t get really wide adoption.

Unless there are some new technologies on the horizon, cellular services are going to need an ever-increasing share of the spectrum that used to belong to television. This crunch could see the number of channels reduced again from the current 35 to 15 or fewer. This could mean fewer stations per market and an overall decrease in television coverage. It’s very possible.

Scenario #4 (the most likely): The economy strikes back

Television broadcasting is an incredibly expensive business. Start with a 100,000 watt tower broadcasting 24/7. Add all the electronics and people it takes to do local news and sports, and the cost of acquiring all of that programming. It adds up to a lot.

No one really thought about this much when television was an incredibly profitable business. But, as other factors come into play, it just may be too expensive to operate a TV station. The cost of power, of land, and of maintenance could just overwhelm owners.

Sadly, this is very possible in the United States. In other countries, television broadcast is subsidized or outright run by the state. Here in the USA, it’s a cash business, and if the cash isn’t there, forget about the business.

What can you do?

Be an advocate. Promote television watching whenever it makes sense. Tell people about the quality the’yll get from over-the-air TV watching, how it’s immune to most outages, and how low the cost is. Tell people about the dozens of different programs you can watch for free.

And, of course, tell people to shop at Solid Signal for the antenna they’ll need!

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.