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What’s Below a Subchannel? In Some Cases, Cable

Back in 2009 the television industry was in the full throes of opening up a fully-digital broadcasting spectrum, giving birth to a multitude of digital subchannels.  At the time, there was concern that broadcasters would have to struggle to justify their dominion over this additional bandwidth.

It turns out to be a needless worry.

Not only are many of the digital subchannels surviving, in many markets, they’re thriving.

Generally speaking, many of these subchannels are airing locally produced original content such as news, weather, and lifestyle information.  But in many markets, the digital subchannels are where you’re likely to see programming from smaller networks without affiliates in the DMA — My Network TV, ME-TV, and Ion, for example.  And it’s from these networks in particular that the digital subchannel platform is making some serious free-TV noise.

When you regularly review local market program rankers and notice household and even adult demo ratings that are often in 2’s and 3’s for many of the digital subchannels, it becomes something to pay attention to.  Audiences are not only finding these new dial positions, but they’re tuning in, often beating Primetime cable programming in the process.

Much of the content airing on these networks are “classic” TV programming such as “M*A*S*H”, “Twilight Zone”, and even “The Rifleman”.  But these programs are having success in many markets.  For example in Jacksonville, “Star Trek” on Fox digital subchannel EAWS delivered a 1.7 A18-49 Prime rating in November, beating such notable Prime cable programming such as USA’s “Covert Affairs” and FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.  1.7 also happened to be the average A18-49 rating for another high-profile cable program you may have heard about: “The Daily Show”.

In Meridian, MS, where ABC affiliate WTOK airs My Network TV programming on its ETOK subchannel, “Without a Trace” delivered a 3.8 Household rating.  In fact, were ETOK a cable network, it would be the second-highest rated cable network in the Meridian DMA.  So there are some markets where the subchannel content is having an even bigger impact than just in some of the prime programs.  In some markets, from sign-on to sign-off, the subchannel as a whole is competing against — and beating — many cable networks.

Many of the subchannels are offering mostly original content, such as ABC’s Live Well and NBC Non Stop.  Each delivers lifestyle information, as well as national and local news and entertainment content.

As more and more viewers begin to discover these free-TV extensions, networks may find more creative ways to bring additional content to viewers that would offer a real alternative to cable.  ION offers Qubo children’s programming, for example.  Could network movies come back?  Are we seeing the birth of a new, free vertical content stream?

Perhaps it’s time that buyers take a closer look at these digital subchannels as a stronger option to local cable.  They’re available in 100% of TV households, deliver higher ratings and more reach than many top tier cable networks, let alone the smaller niche verticals, all for lower CPMs.

The first digital transition set the stage.  The next digital (subchannel) transition will deliver the goods.

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