Rabbit Ears Redux: Antennas for Free Broadcast TV Make a Comeback

antennas for free broadcast tv make a comeback
antennas for free broadcast tv make a comeback

TV lovers hit by the weak economy and fat cable bills are going old-school. More and more people are using antennas to get free programming. That's right: The pair of rabbit ears that your grandmother jiggled to tune in I Love Lucy can still receive dozens of digital channels on HDTVs and other flat screens. The picture is better, many swear, and there are plenty of updated options to harness those gratis airwaves, starting at around $10.

Unplugging wouldn't put you in a freakish minority. The number of Americans relying solely on over-the-air TV has risen from 42 million to 46 million in the last year, according to Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group and union for the over-the-air TV and radio industries. "The recession has prompted people to review whether pay-TV services are affordable in a down economic time," he told DailyFinance.

Antennas Direct, a St. Louis manufacturer, recently staged a 45-city tour to give away its most popular antenna -- the $99 Clearstream 2 -- to unemployed people who could no longer afford cable or satellite TV services. More than 3,000 lined up at a Toyota dealership in Dothan, Ala., last week to get one. "You would think we were giving away cars, these people were so grateful," Antennas Direct President Richard Schneider said. "But paying $1,200 a year for cable is a lot if you're struggling."

Antenna TV has become a default for many. A recent New York Times report said that cable and satellite providers, while holding their own against online streaming platforms such as Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu (AMZN), are losing tens of thousands of customers to poverty. Time-Warner Cable (TWC), one of the nation's largest carriers, reportedly lost 128,000 accounts last quarter.

Demand for antennas has been so intense that electronics giant J&R has run out of many models, a spokesman said.

A Surprising Number of Broadcast Options

Martin Brockmann of Sacramento, Calif., joined the antenna set in March. He dropped his $85-a-month DirecTV (DTV) contract for a one-time investment of $75 in a roof antenna that fit right into the brackets where his satellite dish had been mounted. He now receives 25 channels, including the networks. The picture is as clear as what he had, he says. Augmented by an $8-a-month Hulu subscription, he now pays $96 a year for viewing entertainment, a huge savings over the $1,020 he had paid annually for satellite.

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"I wasn't mad at DirectTV or anything," he explains. "It's the money. You've got an abundance of channels you can get with a good antenna and there's so much content online. Basically I could get all the stuff I was already using and ditch the rest."

Analog television broadcasts may have died two years ago, but free broadcast TV is alive and kicking ... and expanding. The digital spectrum allows the transmission of three or four programs at the same time on what was once a single channel, creating subchannels that multiply viewers' choices. Many of the new offerings are foreign-language shows that cater to Hispanic and Chinese audiences, which make up a large fraction of the over-the-air viewing audience, according to Wharton. One in four Hispanic families and one in three Chinese households uses an antenna. Among the nation's major urban centers, Los Angeles offers up to 90 free channels and New York City 70. (St. Louis has among the most limited choices at 20 channels.) Local network affiliates, public stations and UHF are usually available in most markets.

Here are a few tips to tune into the antenna TV movement.

Old could be new again:
Search for any old antenna you might have lying around -- it might work. Rabbit ears were invented in 1953, but the technology hasn't changed radically. If the conditions are right, you'll get reception. "You can potentially get HDTV with a coat hanger," Schneider says.

Location, location, location. To get reception with an indoor antenna, you'll probably have to be within 35 to 40 miles of a transmitter. For an outdoor setup on the roof, you'll get reception up to 70 miles away. That means most of us are covered, unless we're living in a remote desert canyon somewhere. Visit antennapoint.com and enter your zip or address to see the nearest transmitters, plus the programming menu. Cable companies often say that digital broadcasts are more sensitive than analog, but Wharton disputes that. However, topography and building materials (metals are a buzz-kill for digital signals) still play a role in reception.

Room with a view: As common sense would dictate, placing an indoor antenna near a window works best.

To the vectors go the spoils: Some things never change. You will have to experiment with positioning the antenna to get the best reception. Again, antennapoint.com can help you align your antenna in the direction of the most powerful signal.

Set on "antenna": When you attach the cable from the antenna to the television input, make sure you slip it in the "Antenna" terminal. You'd be surprised how many people forget to do that.

Stay within your budget: If you're switching to broadcast TV because the financial crisis has hit you hard, don't squander what you have. Consumersearch.com's top three antennas are all low-priced: RadioShack Budget TV Antenna ($13), Terk HDTVa ($45) and Antennas Direct DB2 ($35).

Like an old pair of rabbit ears, cheap is always in style.

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