Will subchannels survive the FCC “repack?”

Things are changing in the world of television.

In case the news hasn’t gotten to you, the FCC has approved a change which will see all UHF channels above 37 going to cellular data. (Channel 37 is already used for radio astronomy.) That means about 1,000 channels will be changing frequencies and getting a lot of new equipment. This gives station owners the chance to really think about what they are doing and make some tough decisions.

One of those decisions concerns subchannels. A subchannel, in case you don’t want to follow the link, is a separate programming source that occupies the same frequency as the main channel. If you have cable or satellite, you may have never seen one, but if you have an antenna, you know that even though there may only be 6-8 broadcasters in your area, that could mean 20 or more different programs.

Subchannels were one of those great ideas that never quite got the praise and affection it deserved. It takes very little hard cost to have two, four or six additional programs on the same broadcast frequency; the only cost is actually getting the programs themselves. So it should have been great for educational use, for foreign language programming, and even for “bonus” programming. Imagine watching your favorite program and getting a second view behind the scenes at the same time as you might get from a Blu-ray disc.

The problem, as it always is, is money. With more than 8 out of 10 people getting TV exclusively from cable or satellite, broadcasters would only have been able to succeed with subchannels if they could get pay-TV companies to pick them up. And let’s just say, they haven’t. Period. Hard facts aren’t available but the best I can see, fewer than 5% of subchannels are available on cable or satellite. This means that the content that’s there isn’t being seen, and that spells trouble for broadcasters who rely on advertising to get the money to pay for their operations. After a few years of trying different strategies for subchannels, today the subchannels you’ll find are largely part of one of four categories:

Government-sponsored educational programming: Your local PBS station might have a bunch of subchannels as they try to serve the educational needs of the community. Unfortunately the current political climate has many people believing that PBS is no longer necessary or relevant.

Foreign language/imported programming: Regions with high ethnic populations are seeing stations broadcasting programming from people’s home countries. This is a great use of subchannels but unfortunately as more people jump on the streaming bandwagon they’ll find that a lot of that content is available from Android TV and other channels.

Religious programming: This is one form of subchannel that is likely to survive, as it is privately funded and not dependent on commercials.

“Retro” TV: Most subchannels fall into this category, playing old TV shows and movies in standard definition to cater to an older audience. There are several networks and most of the ads are sold nationally so even though the audience may be small in one city, it adds up nationally. Most of the Retro TV stations are owned by broadcasters themselves, so costs are even lower.

So, when 1,000 stations start moving their equipment around, will they continue to bother with subchannels? There is no doubt in my mind that you’ll see some subchannel programming stop, but the good news is that most networks on subchannels are owned by large broadcast groups like Sinclair and ABC/Disney. This means that the programming gets national exposure and will probably continue.

I noticed that the Comet TV network is now available on some streaming boxes, and it made me wonder whether all subchannel content will eventually move to streaming. I doubt that, but Comet’s experiment is certainly interesting. They stream their live feed for about half the day and offer no on-demand programming. You can’t skip the commercials, it’s just like watching TV. That could be the future, I just don’t know.

The good news, though, at least in my opinion, is that if you got into TV antennas because you were interested in the subchannel content then you have nothing to worry about from the “repack.” Some other force may kill subchannels, but it won’t be this one. I predict that when channels move, they’ll keep all the same content they had.