The state of the economy, coupled with constantly rising cable and satellite rates, has only made it easier for the tightwads among us to dump pay television. That means relying on discs or online services like Hulu or Netflix to stay up to date with Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
It also means hooking up an antenna and getting acquainted with a whole new set of broadcast channels. When broadcasters switched to digital signals in 2009, many also began transmitting what are called subchannels, with their own lineups of programming. Some urban markets boast dozens, but antenna-equipped Madison viewers have to settle for just a handful. (Charter subscribers can find ours way up in the 900s.)
How is the programming on the local subchannels? It is a distinctly mixed bag.
One of the first to take advantage of the switchover was WISC-Channel 3's TVW, at 3-2. Already existing as MyNetworkTV on cable, TVW runs some of WISC's daytime programming, including Oprah and Dr. Phil, in evening timeslots, with cult hits like Monk and Burn Notice showing up in prime time. TVW also reruns WISC's morning news broadcast and produces a 9 p.m. news show, hosted by the affable Andy Choi, who experiments with a lot of social media during the broadcast.
WMTV-Channel 15 uses its subchannel, 15-2, primarily to broadcast wall-to-wall weather. That can be helpful when you're headed out the door.
WKOW-Channel 27 has taken a different tack, presenting the Retro Television Network at 27-2 and This TV at 27-3. Both specialize in old shows and movies, with fitful success. It's often fun to stumble across Adam 12 (4 p.m. weekdays, on Retro), but shows like Magnum P.I. were never meant to be seen every night. This TV's reputation as the crappy movie channel is well earned, with the Bette Midler vehicle Jinxed on tap for Sunday, Jan. 2 (4 p.m.).
WMSN-Channel 47 has opted for the music-video route with theCoolTV at 47-2 and the Country Network at 47-3. Both mix videos from current artists with productions from music television's earliest days by relics like the Human League. But just when you're hoping to switch over and catch 30 seconds of Taylor Swift, there's inevitably a commercial. Or, worse, Trace Adkins.
The best of the lot is WHA-Channel 21's Wisconsin Public Television block. The Wisconsin Channel (21-2) is often plagued by dull videotaped lectures from campus. But Create (21-3) offers a collection of how-to and travel series, past and present. Starring is its lineup of cooking shows like America's Test Kitchen and Simply Ming, while vintage Julia Child reminds viewers how the genre got its start.
Create is also the place to find episodes of The Joy of Painting, with Bob Ross. Even the most tightly wound among us can't resist a grin when Ross is adding some "happy little clouds" to his landscapes.