- By MATT RICHTEL and JENNA WORTHAM - The New York Times - December 5, 2010
Julie and Anthony Bayerl of St. Paul, Minn., love watching prime-time shows on the sleek 50-inch television in their bedroom. They also love that they pay nothing for the programming.
The only thing they do not love is how a low-flying plane, heavy rain or just a little too much movement in the room can wipe out the picture.
“If someone is changing in there, it messes up your reception,” said Ms. Bayerl, a legislative assistant. “We try to stay very still when we watch television.”
The Bayerls are using an old technology that some people are giving a second chance. They pull free TV signals out of the air with the modern equivalent of the classic rabbit-ear antenna.
Some viewers who have decided that they are no longer willing or able to pay for cable or satellite service, including younger ones, are buying antennas and tuning in to a surprising number of free broadcast channels. These often become part of a video diet that includes the fast-growing menu of options available online.
The antenna reception has also led many of these converts to discover — or rediscover — the frustration of weak and spotty signals. But its fans argue that it is tough to beat the price.
“My husband’s best friend thinks we’re big dorks for having rabbit ears and not cable,” Ms. Bayerl said. But when their introductory price for cable TV and Internet access expired this year and the bill soared to $150, the couple halved it by cutting TV. “It wasn’t something we were willing to pay for,” she said.
Many pay TV customers are making the same decision. From April to September, cable and satellite companies had a net loss of about 330,000 customers. Craig Moffett, a longtime cable analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein, said the consensus of the industry executives he had talked to was that most of these so-called cord-cutters were turning to over-the-air TV. “It looks like they’re leaving for the antenna,” he said.
Neil Smit, president of Comcast Cable, acknowledged in a recent call with investors that some customers had dropped cable for free signals. Company executives also said they expected business to rebound with the economy.
Last month, Time Warner Cable fought back with a lower-cost package that it said might appeal to people who are feeling the economic squeeze. For $40 in New York, or $30 in Ohio, customers can get a slimmed-down set of channels.
To be sure, around 90 percent of American households still pay for cable or satellite television — a figure that in recent years has been slowly and steadily rising. But American’s relationship with television has recently been in flux, in part because of the switch last June to digital broadcast signals.
That initially gave pay TV providers a group of new subscribers who had worried that their old sets would not pick up the new signals. But analysts say some of those subscribers have since gone back to free signals.
Another big change is the rise of Internet video, which can ease the pain of losing favorite cable channels.
Bradley Lautenback, 28, who recently moved to Los Angeles to work at Disney, found enough alternatives to allow him to turn back the technological clock on his TV.
“I’ve always had cable. It’s the thing you do when you move to a new place: call the company and set it up,” he said. Not this time. Instead, he got an antenna and now watches over-the-air news and sports, complemented by episodes of shows like “Entourage” that he buys from iTunes. “I don’t miss cable at all,” he said.
Industrywide figures on antenna sales are hard to come by, so it is difficult to tell how widely they are being adopted. Antennas Direct, a maker of TV antennas in St. Louis, expects to sell 500,000 this year, up from 385,000 in 2009, according to its president, Richard Schneider.
The company’s digital TV antennas, like others on the market, are a far cry from the wire-hanger versions of old. The sleek circles encased in plastic look more like mouse ears than anything belonging to a bunny.
Mr. Schneider said that based on customer support calls and feedback from retailers, his customers were 20-somethings who pair over-the-air and Internet programming, people forced to make choices by a tough economy and others who, he argues, have long been eager to sever ties with their pay-TV provider.
“Over-the-air is the new basic cable,” he said, arguing that free TV and Internet alternatives “are giving people the rationale they’ve been looking for to end a bad relationship.”
Broadcasters, far from being troubled by the trend, believe it benefits them, according to Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. He said broadcasters did not mind the move to over-the-air programming because those viewers were also potential audience members for the ads that support programming.
Modern antennas, which cost $25 to $150, pick up high-definition signals that can actually be crisper than the cable or satellite version of the same program, because the pay TV companies compress the video data.
But compared with analog broadcasts, which occasionally showed static, digital signals are less forgiving of interference and more likely to blank out altogether. At a World Cup viewing party in a Brooklyn apartment last summer, the hosts encouraged guests to limit trips to the kitchen and the bathroom to avoid too many interruptions of the signal.
The new antennas do pull in more programs than your grandfather’s rabbit ears, because of new channels that broadcasters added during the transition to digital signals. The broadcasters can fit multiple digital channels into the same frequencies that used to carry one analog channel.
In St. Paul, for example, where Ms. Bayerl lives, there are extra channels from ABC and NBC with local news and weather, four public television channels and a music video channel. Big markets like Los Angeles have 40 or more channels, according to Nielsen.
Given the new options, Chris Foster, 29, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, and his wife decided to forgo a $35 fee for basic cable. They watch movies and older shows through Netflix on the Internet and use their antenna for sitcoms and the news.
Mr. Forster concedes he misses cable news stations, but over all, he is satisfied. “It feels more like a step forward than a step back,” he said.