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A new generation discovers the good old TV antenna

by Miles Bryan October 14, 2015

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When 25-year-old graduate student Jordan Bishop moved into his apartment near the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, he bought a television and signed up for broadband internet. But cable? No way.

“I always just knew it was going to be too expensive, so I didn’t even look at setting it up,” he said. “And I never cared about having hundreds of channels.”

Instead, Bishop got Apple TV. He watches his favorite shows with Netflix and uses Apple’s streaming movie service to rent movies.

But on Sunday afternoon, it's football time. The game is playing on network TV, and it looks great, crystal clear. That’s thanks to Bishop’s over-the-air TV antenna. He bought it for $50, and that is all he will ever pay. Well, except for the mounting cost.

“It’s taped up on my wall,” he said, laughing. “It just hooks right back into the TV.”

Modern TV antennas don’t look much like the rabbit ears you might remember. But the TV antenna is making a comeback.

The number of homes in the U.S. that get network TV over the air and don’t have cable or satellite service has gone up about 17 percent in the last five years, according to the media research company Nielsen.

That has surprised Jim Petty, who works as a volunteer to maintain the TV broadcast infrastructure in the Laramie area as part of the Laramie Plains Antenna TV Association. He says back in the mid-2000s, he was ready to shut his operation down.

“There was that whole era of inevitability — everything is just gonna go to Wi-Fi, or cable, or satellite,” Petty said. “These things [antennas] will be pointless, and we should just stop doing it now.”

But then, free over-the-airwaves TV got a face-lift.

In the summer of 2009, every over-the-air broadcast TV station in the country was required to switch from an analog to a digital broadcast. You might remember ads from that year, about the “digital revolution” coming to free TV. Digital quality means that with a decent antenna, the big game should look just as clear on broadcast TV as it does on cable or satellite. As more people have realized that over the last few years, Petty said they have been calling him. And that, combined with the rise of the cord cutter, has meant big business for the TV antenna industry.

“Initially, my goal was to sell 35 antennas a month," said Richard Schneider, who runs a company called Antennas Direct, not far from St. Louis. "Last month, I think we shipped 70,000.”

When Schneider started the company in 2003, it was a tinkering project designed to serve fellow home-theater enthusiasts. But since then, he said sales have gone from $13 million in 2013 to $20 million last year. Schneider said the company’s biggest problem now is reaching all the people who don’t realize broadcast TV is still around.

“Right now we are only selling to the minority that knows that over-the-air even exists,” he said. “People we talk to aren't even aware that you can get digital TV for free.”

Those people may be more likely to download a new app on their smart TV than go out and buy an antenna. Michael Goodman is the Director of Digital Media Strategies for Strategy Analytics, a technology research firm. “I think the biggest challenge is broadcast networks wanting to go to consumers direct,” he said.

Just like many other media companies, broadcast networks are getting into the streaming game. And from the other side, cable companies like Verizon and Dish Network are offering “skinny bundles”: smaller, cheaper channel packages. Goodman said this all goes back to the fact that broadcast networks make a lot of money from “carriage fees,” the roughly $1.50 they get from each cable subscriber who has the network in their package. Broadcast networks do not get the carriage fees if you watch them with an antenna.

“We are in a transition period right now when people are looking for more and more options to cut the cord,” Goodman said. “But I think all of the networks are going to look for options to shift the costs to the consumer in a different way.”

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