Scripps CEO on why he’s bullish on OTA TV—and what he wants out of set manufacturers

Newsy positions itself as a thoughtful, more traditional alternative to a cable-news environment that’s too often shouty. (Newsy)

E.W. Scripps is moving from new-school distribution to old-school to expand the audience for its Newsy channel: On Oct. 1, the news offering that's available today via OTT apps will go on the air in Scripps’ 41 broadcast markets, reaching some 80% of U.S. TV households.

But that doesn’t mean Scripps is content with OTA TV as we’ve known it.

RELATED: Scripps plans to launch Newsy as free over-the-air channel

In a Zoom video interview, Scripps President and CEO Adam Symson explained what the Cincinnati company hopes to get out of OTA—and offered a few suggestions about how the industry could upgrade one of its oldest mediums.

“Broadcast television is the most efficient form of distribution,” said Symson. And it has the advantage of a huge potential audience, he added, pointing to a Horowitz Research survey released in February that found 40% of U.S. TV viewers aged 18 and up reported owning an antenna.

These antenna users spent about a third of their 6.4 hours of daily viewing time on OTA content. Horowitz estimated that this two-in-five share equated to about 48.4 million households with an antenna.

For those set up with antenna and blessed with good reception, Symson said, the rewards should be obvious: “You can get yourself an incredibly crisp, clear, immersive high-definition picture.”

But getting there can involve too much fiddling with cables and remotes.

“Today it’s still too difficult for most consumers to plug a digital antenna in and go,” Symson said. “We’ve got to do a better job of that.”

He blamed part of that on “this sort of generational lapse” between viewers who grew up in a pre-cable age and those who were introduced to TV as something that required an installer to visit their house.

Navigating between OTA and other content

But part of it is the fault of sets that impede navigating between OTA and other content sources, aside from “a couple of set manufacturers that have them nicely integrated.”

Symson did not name those firms but voiced some optimism about prospects for progress.

“I think we will soon move past the days of having to hit that stupid source or input button,” he said. “Ultimately, I think CE manufacturers and set-top box manufacturers should want to create an elegant interface.”

Analyst Brett Sappington, a vice president at Interpret, agreed that the industry could do better.

“A unified live and on-demand interface from multiple sources (over-the-air, cable TV, and OTT) has been the holy grail of the video industry for quite a while,” he wrote in an email. “Blending live and on-demand content in one interface is a challenge.”

Relatively few consumer gadgets make interwoven OTA and OTT viewing a headline feature; Sling’s AirTV line of media players is one exception.

As for the content of Newsy itself, Symson pitched it as a thoughtful, more traditional alternative to a cable-news environment that’s too often shouty.

“We think there’s a position for the continued expansion of objective, quality journalism,” he said. “In television, particularly cable television, we have seen the cable networks really move into polarizing zones.”

Symson also remains a believer in traditional local TV advertising as a business model: “There is no advertising stream that is as reliable to get cars off lots, to get cash registers to ring, as television.”

Scripps spent $2.65 billion last year to buy ION Media and its local stations, a major vote of confidence in broadcast.

The company has also invested substantially in ATSC 3.0, the upgraded broadcast standard also known as NextGen TV. Scripps was among the first companies to go on the air with ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, and Symson said he thinks its interactive possibilities could make OTA more appealing to OTT regulars.

“The consumer interface looks much more like an OTT interface,” he said. ATSC 3.0 also brings a bit of parity with OTT on the back end with its support for addressable advertising.

“Broadcasters, marketers and perhaps some users will love the targeted advertising that ATSC 3.0 enables,” emailed Tammy Parker, a senior analyst with GlobalData. But she added that she suspects more viewers will follow such content as sports-to-streaming-services than will be drawn by upgraded OTA fare.

Symson, too, wasn’t prepared to predict ATSC 3.0’s addressable ads would become a major additional source of revenue.

“The nation isn’t there yet on ATSC 3.0,” he said; the new standard will have to become more than a step-up feature on a small segment of the hardware lineup. “I think it’s going to be a little while.”