The F-Word Reconsidered

When a spokesperson for NextGenTV, the broadcasting standard also known as ATSC 3.0, appeared at a recent tech expo, he used the F-word frequently.

“Free is a very powerful term,” he exclaimed. He then looked into the camera and spelled out F-R-E-E. “There’s no better language than free. And the great thing about this is it’s a free over-the-air service.”

I heard the same pitch — coincidentally from the same dude — 25 years earlier when he was doing public relations for RCA. The company had launched a line of TV sets with a free, two-day electronic program guide (EPG). Up until then, a subscription for the StarSight Telecast service available on certain competitors’ TVs and VCRs would run you $46 a year.

It was worth every nickel. Instead of fumbling for TV Guide or the listings section of a newspaper, an interactive grid appeared directly on your TV screen. You’d use the remote to highlight a title and get details for shows up to 14-days out. You’d use the EPG to change the channel or program your VCR with one press of a button. Purely informational, the EPG wasn’t cluttered with advertising. It was point-of-need knowledge and control — everything a viewer required to stay comfortably ensconced on the couch.

In my review I dismissed the set as a degradation of screen real estate due to its Times Square-like amalgam of ad panels and banners, leaving little room to display guide information. A viewer might as well have been reading descriptions through a mail slot, requiring frequent scrolling to get anywhere. Since this was well before jumbo-size screens and the crisp text of high definition, users needed to work much harder during those analog years.

When that review appeared, the magazine’s ad reps were livid. They claimed they had been so close to getting RCA to sign a multi-page contract. “How could you ignore the fact that the guide was free?” they said to me, parroting the company’s sales pitch.

I didn’t want to come off as an elitist then and I don’t want to now when getting free over-the-air TV is still a good thing in 2024 despite the pervasiveness of broadband and 5G. Nevertheless, I also know that free really isn’t free — past or present. As always, consumers need to factor in what they’re giving up. Today, viewers are faced with a multitude of streaming services. Some are entirely commercially supported like Tubi and FreeVee. Others offer viewers a discount for allowing commercials into the program stream. These two-tiered services include Netflix, Hulu, Peacock and Paramount+.

I’ve been around long enough to remember when TV viewing was controlled entirely by the broadcaster. We were a captive audience for content and commercials alike. When the VCR came along, its record-first-and-fast-forward later capability set that traditional relationship on its head. The DVR’s quick-skip button further strengthened the viewer’s upper hand. In my review of an early DVR, I delighted in its ongoing gift to be able to “watch 60 Minutes in 45.”

Streaming has reversed the relationship, landing the content provider in the catbird seat once again. Except during live TV, I have not witnessed a commercial since the Eighties. But now with advertiser-supported streaming services, seizing the remote can be an exercise in futility. You helplessly watch as a counter in the corner of the screen ticks down. One minute 30 seconds might elapse before the program begins again. You’re trapped by an ad for Hyundai, another for B’eau Collagen Water, then a promo for an upcoming show you’ve seen ad nauseum. Is this any way to count down your life?

Admittedly, the difference between seeing the same streaming service with commercials versus watching it ad-free is not insignificant. For example…

  • Netflix’s ad-supported plan costs $6.99 per month, while its ad-free plan is $15.49.
  • Peacock supported by commercials is $5.99, but watching ad-free will cost an additional $6 a month.
  • Paramount+ is $5.99 with ads, $11.99 without.
  • Hulu with ads is typically $7.99 a month versus $17.99 without them.
For all of these services, you can save money by paying a year upfront. Also, a service may run a limited-time promotion — especially if you’re a former subscriber the company is trying to woo back. I succumbed to Hulu’s Black Friday promotion. My plan does contain commercials, but it costs only 99 cents a month for a year.

To be sure, the commercial blocks in streaming aren’t as onerous as those on cable TV, and the countdowns during streamed breaks let you better plan runs to the kitchen and bathroom. Still, once you realize that immortality is a myth, it’s a no brainer that your time is more valuable than saving a few bucks by inviting more commercials into your home.

The Author
Michael Antonoff is a freelance writer specializing in AV technology and industry trends. He was a senior editor for Popular Science, executive editor for Video magazine, technology editor for S&V, and a tech columnist for USA Today.


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rjmedich's picture

Hi Michael!

So, yeah, I too skip commercials whenever possible (especially given how horrible and unimaginative they've become—sad). But at the end of the day, they do subsidize the content. Of course, if you're already paying for the content and you still have to watch commercials, well, that sucks.

The one thing that does piss me off is that—even for full subscibers—networks like Hulu still leave a brief dead space in the slot where the commercial would go. So, in other words, the show ends the scene, you see black for a second or so, then the next scene comes on. I mean, if we're paying top-tier money, can't they give us an edited version where the content doesn't come to a stop where the commercial would be? I mean, geez!

Old_Ben's picture

We recently ditched our Tivo boxes for Firesticks and started using YoutubeTV. We live in an area where over-the-air broadcast isn't really feasible and YouTubeTV has been pretty good. One thing I do NOT like are repeat ads. There are some shows that we have discovered in their fourth or fifth season and YouTubeTV will "record" all back episodes of the show to your library (i.e., DVR). These "recordings" often times include commercial breaks that cannot be skipped. No big deal on its own because the breaks are usually short and there are fewer of them. However, it is the same two or three ads repeated over and over again. That gets old really quickly.