The Surprising Second Act Of The TV Antenna

Oct 23, 2015

Jim Petty with an antique antenna at Laramie's transmitting station.
Credit Miles Bryan

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 says. “And I never cared about having hundreds of channels.”  

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

But when I visit Bishop its Sunday afternoon, football time. The game is playing on network TV and it looks great, crystal clear.  That’s something Steve Jobs has nothing to do with--it's thanks to Bishop’s over-the-air TV antenna. He bought it for fifty bucks and that is all he will ever pay. Well, except for the mounting cost.

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

Jordan Bishop and his antenna.
Credit Miles Bryan

While they aren't usually the rabbit ears you might remember anymore, TV antennas are surprisingly popular these days. The number of homes in the US that get network TV over the air and don’t have cable or satellite service has gone up about 17% in the last five years, according to the media research company Nielsen.

That’s been a surprise to 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 wifi, or cable, or satellite,” Petty says. “These things [antennas] will be pointless, and we should just stop doing it now.”

But then, free, over the airwaves TV got a facelift.

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 like this one 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 good on broadcast TV as it does on cable or satellite. As more people have realized that over the last few years Jim Petty says 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.”

Richard Schneider runs a company called Antennas Direct, based in the St. Louis suburbs.

“Last month, I think we shipped 70,000.”

Jim Petty outside Laramie's transmitting station.
Credit Miles Bryan

When Schneider started the company in 2003 it was a tinkering project designed to serve fellow home theater enthusiasts. But since then its sales have exploded: going from 13 million dollars in 2013 to 20 million  last year. Schneider says 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 says. “People we talk to aren't even aware that you can get digital TV for free.”

The thing is, 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.”

Just like every other media company, 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 says 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 that has the network in their package. Broadcast networks do  not get 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 says. “But I think all of the networks are going to look for options to shift the costs to the consumer, in a different way.”