Satellite delivery of TV signals made it possible to receive television stations from anywhere in the country, no matter where you live.
Broadcasters said it wasn't fair to make them compete for viewers with stations from outside their market, and Congress agreed. So it's against the law for satellite companies to sell you network TV signals from, say, Seattle, if you have an affiliate of the same network available to you over the air.
Now the law has been changed slightly, allowing satellite customers to receive "significantly viewed" stations via satellite... here in Houston County, that amounts to a couple of stations in Columbus, GA. But the network stations in Macon retain the right to force the satellite companies to block the Columbus stations during network programming.
Basically, the laws have been written to favor the local station. Prohibiting people from viewing network programming via any but their local affiliate... but only if received from satellite. Cable companies can carry any channel they want, subject to the same programming blackout rules, though.
That's all been well and good... for the local network affiliates. They've got exclusivity, if you want to watch their network, you have to watch them, and their commercials.
In the past, if you should happen to want to watch another network affiliate, you could... with your regular old TV antenna. But the signal was likely to be less than stellar, so you'd get ghosting, video noise, etc. So very few would do that.
With the advent of digital signals, it becomes possible to watch 2 or more network affiliates of the same network, if the viewer has their outdoor antenna system all set up correctly (amplifiers, rotors, etc). But it's a digital signal. If you can receive it, it's good video... no ghosts, video noise (unless introduced in transmission), etc, etc.
So network affiliates need to do one of two things... they either need to provide the same video quality that other network affiliates in their region provide... or they need to find some other way to keep the eyeballs watching *their* video, and not another affiliate.
In middle GA, we have two cases of network affiliates that can't/won't provide HD programming on their digital feeds.
WMGT-DT, the NBC affiliate, has the *ability* to send HD when NBC has it. But frequently, they "forget" to switch to it. Unlike the CBS and ABC affiliates here, WMGT doesn't have automated equipment to do the switching, and they depend on the master control operator remembering to switch. Watching NBC's HD is painful many times.
However, if one is inclined, one can watch WXIA-DT from Atlanta. They have (every time I've watched) gotten it right every time.
The other case in middle GA is WGXA-DT, the Fox affiliate in Macon. The station doesn't have the equipment to bring high definition TV to middle Georgia.
But, if one wants to see HD programming on Fox, it's possible to watch WAGA-DT from Atlanta.
Admittedly, HD viewer numbers are miniscule (when compared with the number of folks who watch the analog NTSC signal, either over the air, on cable or satellite)... so HD isn't a priority for the stations. It costs a lot of money for a minimal return in viewer numbers (aka ad revenue).
But, as more and more people replace aging television sets with digital/HD sets, those numbers will grow.
So, under the current premise that a TV station has been serving an area as a monopoly, essentially, with a certain network, and therefore has the right to legal protections to keep that monopoly in their area (ie the satellite and cable laws regarding programming blackout, etc), it stands to reason that it is unfair to expect local stations to compete for viewers with out-of-market affiliates of their same network.
If local affiliates actually care about the numbers of local viewers, they will either upgrade their facilities to provide the same video quality as stations in surrounding markets.... which 2 stations in the Macon market have done... or they would get on the horn to their legislators to get laws crafted to regulate what you can legally receive over the air.
Getting laws passed would easily be the least expensive method for local affiliates. Upgrading facilities is terribly expensive.
I fear that's what we'll see. I half expect NAB to start lobbying for market exclusivity requirements being built in to digital/HD receivers.
Personally, I'd like to see the gloves come off, take out all those silly market exclusive rules, and let people see whatever they wanna see, without restriction. If a local station can't provide anything people wanna see... oh well. Sell the license to someone who can/will. The whole notion that any business has any "right" to continue to exist, if necessary with laws to protect their business, is, to me, just downright stupid.
OK, done with the rant. Let the flames begin!