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

antennas for free broadcast tv make a comebackTV 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.

"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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Ray Ray

I met this Guy the other day he gave me his business card and told me to look at his online store front for all essential services, i Took the Card to be nice but I decided to LOOK and Wow i was amazed it was awesome. mediaone.acndirect.com I was able to ditch comcast and get better service thru direct or dish and a few that wornt in my area , and got a special discount.it has alot of other services that he offered. Thank you Mike for the Card. MEDIAONE.ACNDIRECT.COM or MEDIAONE.ACNREP.COM. He brokers electric and natural gas thru the site to.

Thx for reading R.R

November 11 2011 at 12:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

antennas are for squids....just sayin

November 05 2011 at 2:45 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to KING OF WORLD's comment

Squids don't have antennas. Insects do.

November 05 2011 at 10:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Rabbit ears? Put your hat on and no-one will notice.

November 04 2011 at 9:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am 53 years old and NEVER bought a TV in my life. We have three old CRT TVs. Two are freebies from my father-in-law and one was rescued from a dump eight years ago (still works, too!) I do have cable, but now Comcast is putting up these messages during some programs "If you can read this message, your TV might not work when we go all-digital" or something to that effect. Of course, Comcast gives to two free DTAs (digital transport adapters) as of this writing they do not work. Supposedly they will send someone out to help you [we haven't tried that yet] get them to work, but a year ago, after Comcast demanded ID when I went to PAY THEM MONEY, I told my wife that if she wanted to continue doing business with Comcast she would have to deal with ALL OF IT.

November 04 2011 at 9:05 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I hate my cable since everything went digital , weak pics and lots of breakups and freeze ups , the cable co. just say's Sorry . My mom has a 20 year old antena on her house and a PERFECT pic on her TV . . With todays phones , who needs tv cable ? And yes , you are able to watch I Love Lucy on your phone

November 04 2011 at 8:38 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Gary's comment

your mom sounds like a terrorist. just sayin.....

November 05 2011 at 2:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Netlix = $15.00 a month to watch/stream more than I can keep up with.

Cable=$80.00 a month, same ol' stuff, no availability for listening to a director's commentary on his/her movie.

Why would I pay another $65 a month for no added value?

November 03 2011 at 7:25 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Greg's comment

its ok....youre proud being a 50 year old virgin, good for you sir. take care brutha

November 05 2011 at 2:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Quit cable when digtal tv became available in Western NY. If you go on Youtube and search tv antenna,there is an easy video to make your own antenna for free ! I made one,took about 15 minutes at most using stuff found around the house.Anyhow the thing really works ! I get about 40 channels and get as far as Toronto Canada !!! PERFECT picture !!!!!

November 03 2011 at 2:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have been using brodcast TV for over 4 yrs now and i love it ! Its free! Thats the best part ! Once i seen that i only watched the same channels on cable and half of them were free . And then seen that i only used that many channels out of 120 channels . I then looked at the cable bill and seen that i was paying over what just one month of my house payment to watch TV i said thats it ! No more paying the cable companies for useless programing i never watch ! I found no matter what pakage they came out with i only used 10-12% of any of them ! Most Americans are like me . So its easy to see why brodcast TV is making a HUGE comeback . Its only going to get better ! And with my High Def Ant out side i get a way better picture than any cable company or sat can give ! The signal is not compressed to give you all them 120 channels ! < Way better picture! And when the power goes out and i hook up my gen, I still have TV when cable and sat is out! So to me its great . And i have saved a whole lot of cash ! My ant paid for itself in three mo of cable bills LOL So to antone who has cable ? Suckers....

November 03 2011 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lovely Deborah

We have been using the airwaves for about 5 years now. We watch any cable shows we want online, and have found a few nostalgia channels via the digital sub-channels. Our local digital stations include ION television, which shows Criminal Minds, Without a Trace, Monk, Flashpoint, etc. We also get "Antenna TV" which shows old 60's, 70's and 80's sitcoms and dramas. The latest one to start up is "METV" (Memorable Entertainment Television), which also airs old shows, like M*A*S*H*, Taxi, Odd Couple, SWAT, and the original Hawaii Five-O.

We don't miss cable tv at all. Too much reality programming. As for reruns, I'll stick to the old stuff. It's kinda cool to see an episode of "The Rockford Files" and see today's stars when they first started acting.

November 03 2011 at 12:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lovely Deborah's comment

how did you watch the sheen roast??? call yourself a winner huh??

November 05 2011 at 2:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Almost all HD channels are UHF. So rabbit ears may work some but the UHF inside antenna is something like a small bow tie. Your outside antenna with some of the long tubes falling off may still work as the UHF reception is the front part which is usually still intact. Boston has all UHF stations. All new digital TV's have the converter box built in. But the converter box has the signal strength indication function which is not available from the digital TV's. to my knowledge. This allows you to test various antenna locations and orientations. Yes, bending a coat hanger in the shape of a bow tie should work.

November 03 2011 at 11:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply