If you live in a rural area or if you are over 40 years of age, you probably remember when TV was free or are still experiencing broadcast television for free. In fact, according to Knowledge Networks’ 2011 Ownership Survey and Trend Report, "… 15% of all homes now just depend on free TV, up from 14%.", that number is no doubt a combination of people that predominately utilize free broadcast TV by choice and those that have cut their cable cords by their own volition (whether desired or not).
There was a time when free broadcast TV was the only game in town for television. The consumer had the big three of ABC, CBS, and NBC, alongside PBS on his VHF channels. On his UHF channels the viewer received a couple of local or independent channels which were much lower budget than the big three, and if you lived near a major metropolis you could also probably pick up an additional channel or two on your TV. Although the choices were relatively few there was enough variety to suit nearly everyone and whether you were in school or at the office, there was always going to be at least one person who had watched the same show at the same time as you did.
The consumer today who pays for cable or satellite is given a multitude of channels, perhaps 200 or more, but he also pays for the privilege of doing so. Besides his TV, today's viewer can still access media in a variety of formats and ways, some of which are free, some relatively low-cost, and some via the pay-per-view method. I am often surprised though, how often the television consumer doesn't at least consider his free and low-cost possibilities first before purchasing his paid subscription, as the cost differential over a year's period of time can be quite meaningful.
How valuable a cable subscription is situation specific and it is also virtually impossible to compare plans and services in an easily recognizable way. Additionally, it just seems to be a truism that the channels that one person likes are wholly different from their significant other's choices and therefore you have to migrate up to a higher paid plan in order to accommodate both parties, as I am unaware of any cable provider that allows you a la carte choices.
This brings me back to free TV and the big three which has since been joined by Fox, which is now available for free on broadcast TV, and for most people there is also the further choice of CW. So free channels on broadcast TV have actually increased over the last generation and while these channels are overwhelmed by the variety and complexion of what cable and satellite providers have in their arsenal, they are free with no contracts and no commitments.
However, there is a disturbing problem, while we can still get free broadcast TV depending on our location, our sophistication, our TV, and our antenna, the major broadcasters are not in our corner. People that receive free TV broadcasts don't pay a dime for them, whereas cable and satellite providers must pay retransmission fees to ABC, CBS, and the like for providing these stations to their subscribers. The difference then breaks down as follows: for the cable/satellite viewer the major broadcasters get paid through those subscriptions. For the free broadcast viewer, the major broadcasters just get paid through advertising revenue.
As I said, TV use to be free, enjoy it while you can.