Lloyd “Sonny” Crile traded his satellite TV service for a regular antenna last summer and says there’s no way he’s going back.
“To get the TV channels we wanted (on satellite), we had to take a package giving us about 200 stations,” said Crile, of Oxford. “When we really took a look at what we were watching, other than regular TV, it was only three or four of the 200.”
So on a neighbor’s advice, he ordered a standard broadcast antenna from the local Radio Shack, had it installed in his attic, and was blown away by how much programming he got.
“Everything was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “Except for Fox Sports 1 and ESPNU, I’ve got just about everything else I want.”
If you haven’t hooked your TV to an antenna lately, you might be surprised to see just how much programming is out there free for the taking.
Where Wichita once had about a dozen channels broadcast over the local airwaves, it now has 42.
In fact, there are now just about as many channels being broadcast over the air as there are on basic cable.
The new broadcast channels cover a wide array of programming from the big four networks to specialty channels focused on movies, classic shows, science fiction, family programs, minority-oriented programming and other themes.
The explosion of new channels came via the miracle of digital broadcasting, a more efficient means of coding signals that allows stations to pack as many as 10 channels of programming into the same broadcast bandwidth that once accommodated only one channel.
In an effort to free up bandwidth for mobile phones and other services, the federal government required all full-power stations to switch to digital broadcasting in 2009.
42Number of stations that broadcast over local airwaves
Low-power channels were originally scheduled to go all-digital by Sept. 1 of this year, but that deadline has been pushed back to March 29, 2016, according to a Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman.
Wichita’s low-power stations have already switched over in anticipation of the deadline and almost all of them have added extra channels.
Likewise, the full-power broadcasters carrying ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and Fox on their main channels have all added at least one secondary channel to their lineup.
Movies are huge in the secondary channel world.
Companies such as MGM, Sony and others have opened their vaults and flooded the airwaves with films. It’s not unusual to have 10 or so movies to choose from at a given time.
Reruns of popular shows are also a big deal, running the spectrum from contemporary hits to classic TV series from the 1970s, ’60s, ’50s and even earlier.
There are numerous specialty channels dedicated to news, weather, real-life crime, how-to, comedy, game shows, hunting and fishing, performance cars and music videos.
Want to see what Canadians, Britons and Australians are watching? There’s a channel for that. If you like science fiction, there’s a channel for that, too.
The new broadcast channels carry a wide array of programming from the big four networks to channels focused on movies, classic shows, science fiction, family programs and minority-oriented programming
Two channels are broadcast in Spanish and another specializes in African-American-themed movies and shows.
Nobody has taken more advantage of the digital switch than the locally owned Great Plains Television Network.
That company has expanded to 16 channels 10 on KGPT-TV, channels 26.1 through 26.10, and another six on KSMI-TV, channels 30.1 through 30.6.
“The two top channels of this whole digital infusion of networks are MeTV and Bounce,” said John Pappert, general manager of Great Plains Television.
MeTV, KAKE-TV’s secondary channel at 10.2, specializes in classic shows such as “I Love Lucy,” “M*A*S*H” and the original “Batman” and “Star Trek” series.
Bounce TV, KGPT’s offering at 26.2, aims squarely at the African-American audience, anchored by movies starring black actors and reruns of shows like “The Hughleys” and “The Bernie Mac Show.”
KGPT’s most recent addition to its lineup is the Western Channel, which, as you may have already guessed, specializes in westerns.
“That has gotten more interest than I ever expected,” Pappert said. “Seniors love those old Westerns.”
While major broadcast and cable networks constantly gear their programming to the advertiser-coveted 18-49 age demographic, the secondary networks have the freedom to cater to baby boomer and senior audiences and many of them do.
I mean, it’s fun TV. You don’t have to think about it. You know it’s safe to watch. Grandma and the baby can watch it.
John Pappert, general manager of Great Plains Television
“Who wouldn’t want to watch ‘Murder She Wrote,’ or ‘Magnum’ or ‘Miami Vice?’” Pappert said. “We have a huge following for ‘The Munsters,’ of all things.
“I mean, it’s fun TV. You don’t have to think about it. You know it’s safe to watch. Grandma and the baby can watch it. You don’t have to worry about anybody being offended, for the most part.”
The low ratings pressure on secondary channels also opens airspace for small-time sports and local public affairs programs.
While the big broadcasters are focused on major college football powerhouses, KGPT airs Friends University football and Friends and Newman University basketball games.
And blogger Bob Weeks’ self-produced television show, WichitaLiberty.TV, has found its broadcast home on KGPT.
TV’s latest evolution
Secondary channels also known as dot-twos, dot-threes, etc. have actually been around for years, said Brad Moses, general manager at KAKE-TV.
It started small. Network affiliates would put a 24-hour weather graphic on the air interspersed with local taped forecasts from the stations’ meteorologists.
“It was easy, it didn’t take a lot of extra effort, you didn’t have to hire new bodies, things like that,” he said. “Not very profitable; the Weather Channel kind of owned that area.
“But it was still very, very valuable when it came to community service during severe weather and things like that. There were a lot of benefits to doing it.”
In fact, KWCH-TV in Wichita still does that with its 24-hour “Always On Storm Team 12” channel at 12.2, and KGPT has dedicated its 26.8 channel to all-day AccuWeather.
But with the proliferation of secondary channels available, the market started evolving when the major networks dipped into their libraries and started packaging subnetworks out of their past hits. It makes for some strange bedfellows.
KAKE’s main channel is affiliated with the ABC network, while its dot-two channel, MeTV, is built around onetime hit shows on CBS.
For the big stations, “you’ve still got your primary channel,” Moses said. “That’s where most people watch. It drives your revenue for sure and it drives your news and your community connection.”
But the secondary channel is a nice addition that brings in a little extra revenue, he said.
“Things like MeTV, AntennaTV, ThisTV, all these different things, they come as a package and it’s kind of like a network deal, so you only get so much time a day,” Moses said. “I think in an hour, we get about five minutes worth of advertising time. We do have opportunities to put local programs on, and we do that whenever we can.”
At the same time networks were discovering the value of their program libraries, upstart networks started producing their own channels aimed at specialty audiences that could draw comparatively small but dedicated crowds of viewers.
That has a value to advertisers because they can target their ads to the people most likely to buy what they’re trying to sell.
KCTU-TV struggled for years to find the right programming mix with a single, low-power analog channel at 55, later moving to channel 5. Now, the station has eight channels, spanning a wide range of interests.
You can’t compare what business we did seven years ago with what we’re doing now because you’ve got eight different businesses.
Ron Nutt, KCTU station manager
“Each one of them is a revenue stream for us,” said Ron Nutt, KCTU station manager. “You can’t compare what business we did seven years ago with what we’re doing now because you’ve got eight different businesses.”
For example, most people probably wouldn’t tune in to watch a guy shoot turkeys with a bow and arrow which was what Untamed Sports was showing Friday afternoon on KCTU 43.3.
But those who do watch that show are exactly the people you want to reach if you sell high-tech arrowheads, the primary product advertised during the show.
“People are buying commercials based on the content of the channel,” Nutt said. “They’re not going to buy them on all the channels.”
The station’s most unique and possibly most popular offering comes, from of all places, Turkey. EbruTV, owned by the Turkish government, broadcasts programming from around the English-speaking world, including vintage “Dr. Who” episodes from England and the Australian hit naval series “Sea Patrol.”
But while more channels opens up more opportunities for selling ads, “On the downside, though, is when you have 42 channels in town, there’s that many more competitors,” Nutt said.
How to get it
If you have a relatively new flatscreen digital television, the only thing you need to pick up the free TV is an antenna. If you have an old-style picture-tube set, you’ll need a commonly available digital converter box.
If you still have your old rooftop antenna, that’s perfect. Hook it up to the antenna input jack on your digital TV or your converter box and you’re good to go.
You can also try one of the many commercial antennas on the market.
For most channels in most locations, point the antenna northwest toward Colwich where the primary TV towers are.
You might have to experiment with pointing the antenna in different directions to get the best signal strength because some stations have added repeaters in Wichita to boost their signal and cover the whole city.
Even the old-style, set-top rabbit ears can be effective, depending on where in the city you live. You may have to fiddle with the lengths of the elements. Some suggest keeping the rod antennas to their shortest extension and horizontal for the best signal.
Once you’ve hooked up your antenna, follow your TV owner’s manual instructions to scan through the available channels and see what you can pick up. Many TVs are equipped with signal strength meters to help you with pointing your antenna.
While some markets have 75 to 100 channels of free TV, Wichita is probably just about maxed out at 42, broadcasters say.
However, the market is still fluid and new channels are starting up all the time.
So while the number of channels may not change much, the programming on them is likely to, said Pappert, of Great Plains Television.
“I think the quality of programming is only going to get better,” he said. “Just watch.”
Wichita free-TV channel guide
Police shows, wrestling
Storm Team 12
Science fiction/cult classic
Crime shows and movies
Reality crime shows
Cowboy movies, shows
Country music video, concerts
Cartoons, children’s programming
Reruns of current shows
Turkish channel w/UK, Canada Australia
Hunting and fishing, local sports
MGM older movies
Syndicated shows and Movies
Family programming, movies
Note: Some subchannels may appear at different numbers at some times of the day. If you don’t find the programming you’re looking for, try surfing through the other subchannels in that station’s lineup.
How to find out what’s on free TV
Local broadcasters recommend www.TitanTV.com as the best place to access program listings for the over-the-air TV stations in Wichita. Unlike most online TV listing services, Titan covers full-power and low-power stations in the Wichita market and offers a fairly easy-to-use option to sort out broadcast-only listings.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to setting up your listings:
1) Go to www.TitanTV.com
2) You’ll see three drop-down menus near the top of the page. The first two show the date and time. The third menu lets you select which set of channels to display.
3) If the third drop-down menu says “Broadcast Stations,” you’re all set. If it says something else, click the arrow in the drop-down menu and select “Broadcast Stations.”
4) If “Broadcast Stations” is not an option in the menu, you can add it by clicking the plus sign next to the drop-down menu. The plus sign opens up a window where you’ll be asked to select the type of listing you want. Click on “Broadcast.” It will then prompt you for your ZIP code. Type in your ZIP code and select “Wichita-Hutchinson KS Broadcast Stations.” Click “Save.”
5) At this point, you should see a program schedule for all the stations in the Wichita/Hutchinson market.
6) The schedule will show you more channels than you can actually receive in metropolitan Wichita because it includes repeaters serving Western Kansas communities. By clicking on the red toolbox next to the plus sign near the top of the page, you can register with TitanTV and edit out the channels you don’t get.