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Digital Life Why TV antennas are making a comeback
An AirTV Player is displayed at the Dish Network booth during the 2017 CES in Las Vegas
An AirTV, from Dish, is displayed at CES on January 6, 2017. The Android-based streaming device allows Sling customers to add local broadcast stations into their guide using an external antenna. (STEVE MARCUS / Reuters Photo)
Jennifer Van Grove Jennifer Van GroveContact Reporter
When it comes to television viewing, what’s old is new again as an increasing number of Americans are dumping their cable boxes and going totally retro.
That’s right, the tried-and-true TV antenna — just digitally enhanced and minus the goofy bunny ears — is having a moment in the spotlight as people search for cheaper replacements for their cable and satellite TV packages.
In fact, since 2013, the percentage of broadband households in the nation using only antennas to watch linear TV has jumped from 9 percent to 15 percent, according to data released this week by Parks Associates.
“That's a significant increase and a steady trend upward,” said Brett Sappington, senior director of research at Parks Associate who tracks trends in TV viewing. “There is a bit of a renaissance for the antenna. For many years, the trend in the U.S. was in the rise of pay TV as a primary entertainment option for consumers. But, if you look worldwide, over-the-air broadcasts are by far the dominate way people watch TV channels.”
And, really, the resurgence in antenna usage in the U.S. isn’t all that surprising. What with some cable and Internet packages climbing well past $250-per-month, a consumer push back was seemingly inevitable.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that all you need is a digital antenna for live access to over-the-air, HD broadcasts on the local stations we all know: ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS and the CW. Plus, you can find several affordable antenna options at your neighborhood Walmart, and plenty more on Amazon.
Better still, once you have said antenna, those broadcast channels are all free. Yes, reception, obviously, varies based on your location, but a handy tool from the Federal Communications Commission makes it easy to gauge what stations have the strongest signals in your neighborhood.
The antenna’s comeback can be directly linked to the increasing cost of traditional pay TV packages, Sappington said. At the end of 2016, American households, he said, were paying, on average, $84 a month just for cable or satellite TV.
“Data consistently shows that the perceived (lack of) value of pay TV is always the No. 1 reason why people cut the cord,” Sappington said. “They say, ‘My pay TV was not worth what I was paying, and so I canceled.’”
Truth be told, the households embracing antennas probably never watched the broadcast networks all that much to begin with.
“My impression is that the vast majority of people using antennas are doing it because they've bought into some … streaming service and don't want to watch that much broadcast TV,” said Paul Verna, an Internet TV analyst with eMarketer.
Verna theorizes that these renaissance viewers are really just turning to antennas as a fall back in case of a network TV emergency — say the Super Bowl or a major awards show.
This observation aligns with the rise of streaming alternatives, which run the gamut and range from on-demand (Netflix) to live (Sling TV), and to super niche (British-TV-only app Acorn TV).
Parks Associates tracks more than 130 of these over-the-top (OTT), as in over-the-Internet, services. It turns out that half of the 63 percent of U.S. broadband households that subscribe to an OTT service subscribe to more than one
Ultimately, these streaming choices let consumers piece together their own version of the classic cable bundle. That behavior is getting easier to do with the arrival of new set-top boxes such as AirTV and Tablo. The former merges streaming services with over-the-air signals, while the latter lets users stream and record over-the-air stations. Both plug into your home’s digital TV antenna.
So, while the antenna may seem like a blast from past, it really presents a path to the future.