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Today, the average American home pays $103 per month for cable TV. Add on a Netflix subscription ($8), a Sling subscription ($20), and one or two other bespoke services, and you’re looking at a serious amount of cash.
Recent years have seen a rebellion against the high costs. Cord cutting is becoming increasingly popular, and the rise of piracy is well-documented.
But what if there was an easy, cheap, legal, and reliable way to gain access to many of the big networks? You’d probably lap it up.
Well, it turns out there is! Step forward the trusty TV antenna. (Admit it, you’d forgotten they even existed, didn’t you?) Let’s take a closer look at how a TV antenna works and what you can watch by using one.
A Brief History of Cable
Cast your mind back to 2005. Nobody had high-speed internet, Twitter was just a glint in Jack Dorsey’s eye, and Netflix still only delivered DVDs through the mail.
How did you watch television? If you were lucky, you had a cable subscription. If you weren’t, you used an antenna.
Go back even further: in the 1970s and 80s, cable TV was a luxury. In 1980, only 20 percent of American homes had a cable connection. Almost everyone received their entertainment fix by using an over-the-air (OTA) antenna.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that a majority of homes had a cable subscription. According to a 1989 New York Times article, 300,000 new households were signing up every month. Oh, and the average cost back then? A mere $24.26 per month.
Fast-forward to today, and cable is ubiquitous. Only 12.9 percent of American adults have never signed up to a cable or satellite TV service.
The Millennials’ Rebellion
If you were born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, you’re a millennial: the oldest members of the cohort are in their mid-30s, the youngest are in their early 20s.
If you’re a millennial, you face the highest education costs (and debts), the most expensive housing, and the toughest job market in history. You came of age in the uncertain post-9/11 era and were probably just entering the workforce as the 2008 financial crisis hit.
Therefore, for lots of millennials, cable TV has once again returned to the status of “luxury” item. Indeed, even subscriptions to comparatively cheap services like Netflix are too expensive for many. Of the 12.9 percent of adults who’ve never signed up to cable, the majority are 35 or younger.
The young are also watching less TV. Whether it’s a cause or a symptom of the decline in cable subscriptions is debatable, but immaterial.
Research from Visual Capitalist claims that as recently as 2011, the average 18- to 24-year-old watched 25 hours of TV a week. Today, the figure has dropped to 14 hours. If you’re under 24, Netflix is now your preferred viewing method. On average, you spend as many as four hours a day watching YouTube and only one hour watching traditional TV.
Suddenly, the prospect of spending $103 per month on something you’ll use for just 30 hours looks hugely unappealing.
The Return of the Antenna
And so, back to the antenna. There are countless reports that traditional antenna sales on are the rise. The Denver Post interviewed one antenna technician who claimed he was now twice as busy as he was three years ago.
The American Consumer Technology Association agrees with his anecdotal evidence. It says that in 2007, about three million antennas were sold nationwide. In 2016, the figure jumped to 7.6 million. And in 2017, it predicts the market will grow by a further 9.7 percent.
Which Networks Can You Watch?
Although millennials are driving the sales, there’s undeniably been a widespread rediscovery of the decades-old technology. The National Association of Broadcasters says a scarcely-believable 29 percent of Americans weren’t even aware that local and network TV was free to watch.
So, what exactly can you watch?
Much of it depends on your location. The quality of signal can vary widely from place-to-place. Remember, we’re now in an era of digital TV antennas. Unlike analog antennas, which could still deliver something resembling an on-screen image even if the signal was poor, digital antennas with bad reception will constantly be cutting out and thus make broadcasts virtually unwatchable.
If you’re not sure what the signal is like in your area, check out the Federal Communications Commission’s free tool.
Broadly speaking, if you live in a large town or city, you’ll definitely have access to NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and The CW. All five commercial networks reach 97 percent of American homes. PBS reaches 96 percent.
Other networks which can reach more than 70 percent of American homes include PBS Kids, Create, MyNetworkTV, MeTV, Antenna TV, Escape, Grit, Laff, This TV, Bounce TV, Ion Television, and Ion Life. There are hundreds more smaller networks, many of which can comfortably reach more than 50 percent of homes.
What Content Can You Watch?
As any seasoned cordcutter will know, the two biggest obstacles you’re likely to face are the availability of news and sports broadcasts. Both of which need to be shown live to actually mean anything.
But don’t be disheartened. OTA television offers both. The five big networks offer more than 200 region-specific channels, many of which are local newscasts.
The best thing about yesterday's Superbowl game is that we got to watch it for free in HD with our digital antenna. #truth
— Krystal Yee (@krystalatwork) February 6, 2017
Sports-wise, the selection of content may surprise you. In the last 12 months, antenna viewers have been able to enjoy the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, the U.S. Open, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the UEFA Champions League final, the French Open, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and almost endless NASCAR races and MLB games.
Note: Some of these events are region-specific. You may suffer from blackouts when your local team is playing.
How to Get Started
If you’re thinking about buying a TV antenna, you have two choices: either a roof-mounted model or an indoor wall-mounted model.
Unsurprisingly, exterior antennas have better reception. If you live in a low signal quality area, an antenna on your roof is your best bet.
If you want a roof-based model, you need to speak to a professional. However, some guidelines can give you a rough idea of which antenna you’ll need. The Consumer Technology Association has paired up with AntennaWeb.org and produced a handy guide. Visit the site, enter your address, and you’ll see a list of which channels are available in your area.
More importantly, they’ll be color coded according to the signal strength. Yellow or green means a standard antenna should suffice. Blue, red, or purple means you’ll need a more powerful model.
Interior antennas are cheaper but less powerful. In the major cities they should be fine, but in rural areas, you might not be able to enjoy the full range of channels.
There are lots of models to choose from, but one of the most widely-recommended is the Mohu Leaf. It costs $39.95 on Amazon.
Are You Joining the Antenna Revolution?
OK, let’s sum things up. Over-the-air channels are free to watch, require a one-time purchase of a suitable antenna, and provide access to all the largest commercial networks. They’ll give you access to news and sports, as well as the usual primetime diet of comedy, chat shows, and movies.
Just one question remains: why are you still paying $103 per month for cable?
Have you joined the antenna resurgence? What has your experience been like so far? What do you miss about cable TV? As always, you can leave your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to share this article with other cordcutters on social media. If they don’t know just how much free TV an antenna offers then they’ll thank you for clueing them in.
Image Credits: Vladimir Curcic/Shutterstock