The lowly, unsightly TV antenna, consigned to garages or forgotten altogether when people switched to cable and satellite services for TV, is rising again.
Once known as “rabbit ears” because of their shape, antennas pull in actual broadcast signals to TVs, something that was once everyday knowledge but got lost as people for more than a generation came to rely on cable and satellite providers.
In the Twin Cities and much of Minnesota, antenna users can receive 10 to 60 TV channels, often in high-definition quality, over the air at no expense. Local antenna installers say business has been rising about 20 percent to 25 percent annually for several years.
Tom McGlynn, owner of St. Paul-based Mr. HDTV Man, noticed the change about three years ago. “It wasn’t just the traditional cost-cutter upset over the latest cable bill who was calling,” McGlynn said. “I started getting calls from affluent clientele in the western suburbs, seniors who have long resisted change, and millennials who wanted local channels to add to their streaming of Netflix and Sling.”
Twenty percent of homes in the U.S. use a digital antenna to access live TV, up from 16 percent just two years ago, according to Parks Associates market research in Texas. The Twin Cities has an even higher antenna percentage. It’s the eighth largest broadcast-only market in the country, with more than 22 percent of homes using antennas to get local TV, according to TVb.org, a local broadcast trade association.
Duane Wawrzyniak, owner of Electronic Servicing in Silver Lake, Minn., near Hutchinson, said his antenna business has doubled in the past five years. “When Dish and DirecTV came out to the rural areas in 2000 to 2005, it was a big deal. Our antenna business went away,” he said. “But people got tired of having a $100 TV bill every month for channels they never watch.”
Yet even as sales rise, the number of antenna installers in the Twin Cities is shrinking.
Installations can be dangerous work, especially on homes with steep roofs, Wawrzyniak said. He sometimes asks himself what he’s doing on a roof at age 59. “I don’t see a lot of younger people getting into the business,” he said. “They can do commercial or industrial electrical and make more money.”
Dave Fazendin, co-owner of Johnny’s TV in Stillwater, said he and his guys don’t want to get on roofs anymore. “We’d rather do home theater, “ he said. “It’s more lucrative.”
Most TV viewers can use a simple indoor antenna, priced as low as $20, that is easy to set up themselves. Others encounter problems due to trees, tall buildings or low-lying areas and will pay $300 to $400 for a professional installer.
“You’ll pay for the cost of installation in five or six months compared to the average cable bill,” said Mike Ness of Ness Electronics, an antenna supplier in Burnsville.
Some local installers such as Mr. HDTV Man and Cable Alternatives reassure skeptical customers by guaranteeing reception or they won’t charge for the visit. “If we can’t get reception on the 28 channels from the Shoreview towers, we won’t put the antenna up,” McGlynn said, referring to the sites in the northeastern suburb from which all the local TV stations transmit their signal.
Shaymein Ewer tried an antenna at his home in Richfield but couldn’t get KARE 11 and returned to a cable subscription. After moving to Crystal recently, he wondered if the reception would improve. He purchased a new antenna online, tried again and is happy so far.
“Why should I pay an extra $10 a month for HD channels when I can get them free over the air with an antenna?” Ewer asked. He pays extra for streaming services that offer most of what he wants. “Even paying $35 a month for streaming, I’m still saving money over cable,” he said.
John Brillhart, who started Cable Alternatives in Fridley four years ago, is the rare newbie in the biz. He’s optimistic considering that the number of households with antennas is increasing about 1 percent per year. That’s about 10,000 households per year in this market, he said.
Cable companies, such as Twin Cities market leader Comcast, have evolved to face the challenge by wrapping internet streaming services and cable channels without the need to switch inputs or change remotes. For the budget-conscious, it offers the relatively unknown Limited Basic package (about 30 channels including local) for $25 or Digital Economy (about 50 channels including a dozen cable) for $40 plus fees, according to Comcast.
Some consumers wonder if the price of streaming services will eventually rise to cost as much as cable or satellite service. DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV each increased their cost this year by $5 a month.
Brillhart thinks streaming companies will still have an advantage because of their pricing transparency. “The frustration of many cable customers is knowing that everyone can pay a different price based on introductory specials, negotiating, not negotiating or bundling,” he said.
Streaming services also allow customers to cancel at any time without penalty. “Hopefully, that keeps them competitive,” Brillhart said.