Some viewers who want "free TV" install an antenna, but getting a perfect picture digital signal isn't easy.
In the cable and satellite biz, they're called cord cutters -- people who drop their service with the cable or satellite provider because they're dissatisfied with the cost, the quality of programming, bad reception, ugly cable boxes or poor customer service.
So they cancel their service and revert to rabbit ears, a rooftop antenna or something in between.
"It cost too much for stuff I wasn't watching," Doug Mooney of North St. Paul said about the Comcast service he dropped two years ago. After doing some research, he bought a $30 bow-tie shaped antenna on the Internet and asked his son to install it on the roof.
It took some old-fashioned adjustments to get it to work. Mooney kept an eye on the TV screen inside and hollered to his son through a window when the antenna was positioned just right and the signal came in.
"It's a better picture than I got with cable," he said. He gets about 25 stations, including those broadcasting in high definition, since he has a high-definition TV.
Mooney isn't alone in making the switch, which is driving up business for antenna providers.
"My business was phenomenal last year," said Mike Ness, of Ness Electronics in St. Paul, an antenna wholesale business. "Antennas are cheap and you can use them with any TV."
The growth in the antenna business doesn't seem to have made a big dent in cable and satellite subscriptions. In 2010, the pay-TV market was up 0.2 percent, although in recent years the growth has been 1 to 2 percent each year.
Some analysts attribute the slower expansion in the pay-TV market to people switching to Internet TV like Hulu, but others say it's economy-based. Some cord cutters are being forced to make a choice between pay TV and making ends meet, said Craig Moffett, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., a research investment firm.
Mooney was fortunate that he was able to get his antenna set up and get a signal right away. But many have found that it's challenging to get and maintain an over-the-air signal with an antenna. More than half of the people who buy antennas either ask for help or call a professional for installation, said Brad Eckwielen at DigiTenna, an antenna manufacturer near Milwaukee.
With an antenna in her attic that made her reception hit or miss, Ann O'Toole of Minneapolis fell into that category. She decided it was time to call in a pro when her TV screen would go blank or the picture would freeze at the most inopportune moments. "I'd miss the key word in the action," she said. "It never happened during the commercials."
O'Toole finally called Doug Mamer at East Lake TV for help. O'Toole's problems were solved for $63 when he placed a portable antenna near a window.
Mamer said that the problem is that digital over-the-air signals either work great or not at all. With the old analog signals, viewers might complain about snow or ghost images, but at least they could still see or hear a picture. If a viewer sees only a blue screen, getting a picture can be more complicated than fiddling with the rabbit ears. The problem could be the antenna, the splitter, the fittings or the wire.
Other factors can mess with the signal, too. After trees leaf out, reception can be compromised on TVs with rabbit ears. (A different antenna helps.) A brick or stucco exterior or a tile roof can cause signal problems, along with tall obstructions and living in a low-lying area.
The good news is that most antennas cost less than $50 and don't require a rooftop installation, said Mamer. "Rarely do I have to tell people that they need to go back to cable for a better signal."
And sometimes the problem isn't the antenna -- the TV needs to rescan if it's been unplugged or stations are added, he said.
With the help of a professional who solved her "no signal" problem, O'Toole is much happier. "We still get a whole bunch of channels we don't watch," she said, "but at least they're free."