An increasing number of television viewers are turning back the clock to watch their favorite network shows for free.
They’re buying antennas.
“What’s cool is years ago, when cable first came out, there were many people who thought it would be ridiculous to pay for television,” said Jim Willcox, senior editor of electronics at Consumer Reports in Yonkers. “Now you have a younger generation that didn’t know you could get TV for free. Many of them are discovering this and buying digital antennas.”
Like the rabbit ears of the 1950s and '60s, indoor digital antennas today cost as little as $20. Consumer Reports reviewed 10 indoor antennas in 2018, and Willcox said $25 to $60 is about what most people spend to pull in network television.
“I think what’s really driving the resurgence are people who have broadband Internet, depend on streaming services and are looking to save money,” Willcox said. They cut the cable TV cord, pay for Internet, stream entertainment, and get the broadcast networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and more — for free.
Nearly 28 percent of U.S. broadband households used an antenna to watch over-the-air broadcasts as of March 2019, compared to 16 percent in early 2015, according to Parks Associates, a market research firm based in Addison, Texas.
“Increasingly, consumers are cobbling together their own bundles of content sources,” said Brett Sappington, senior director of research at Parks Associates. "They're increasingly becoming more aware that while they buy streaming services, they can use the antenna to pull in the networks for free, and find a total spend they're comfortable with."
But the cost — or even the option — of turning to a digital antenna on Long Island varies widely depending on where you live, experts said. People who live in Nassau County, especially in areas closer to Queens and away from wooded areas, will have an easier time pulling in stations with a simple indoor antenna than those in many areas of Suffolk County, which is farther from where signals originate.
More Suffolk residents, especially to the east, may need to turn to more costly outdoor antennas to get network television from New York City or southern Connecticut.
The FCC has a map that breaks down digital television signals available in an area. While Nassau ZIP codes routinely pull in all the New York signals, a search of Port Jefferson indicates that the only network signals that would come in well are the ABC and NBC affiliates out of Connecticut. The rest would be “moderately” attainable, according to the FCC.
There is even less availability in eastern Long Island. For example, in Hampton Bays no networks would be available.
Broadcast networks switched from analog to digital signals in 2009. The old analog signals were viewable even if they didn't come in perfectly, but that's not true of the new digital, high-definition signals.
“The difference is that in the analog days, a weak, marginal signal might have been watchable through the snow on the screen,” said Bruce Walzer, a TV enthusiast in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who regularly provides antenna advice on the social media platform Reddit. “With digital TV, the picture is either perfect, glitchy or not there at all. So people who used to watch snowy TV in the analog days are mostly out of luck now.”
Rich Heldenfels, a television historian and instructor at the University of Akron in Ohio, added: “When I was in college in New Jersey, I’d get stations from New York and Philly, even if some of those stations were fuzzy. The digital stations aren’t like this. It’s a digital cliff. Either you get it perfectly, or you don’t get it.”
Some Long Islanders have gone beyond the simple indoor antenna to make sure they’re able to pull in more digital signals. Herb Hesse, of Holbrook, said that after using an indoor antenna at his ranch house, he turned to an outdoor one and had more success. It cost about $75, and he put it on the base of his patio umbrella before securing it to the deck rail.
Now he pulls in the major networks from New York City plus stations that originate on Long Island including WLIW-21, a PBS affiliate, and independent WLNY-55.
“Around here, if you’re going to buy a cheaper antenna, you’ll get what you pay for,” Hesse said. “You won’t get the same results, even if you buy a more expensive indoor antenna.”
Paal Eide, of Valley Stream, also uses outdoor antennas to watch network television. He said there are two antennas on his roof. He has five televisions, and using only one antenna weakens the signal.
"The more you split the cable, the weaker the signal. I tried the one and it just wasn't cutting it," Eide said.
“The one that’s better quality — I’d grade it an 85, but it can get choppy if the weather is bad,” he said. “The other one, I’d give it a 70. It really depends on the weather, and some channels come and go.”
Eide added that while he also subscribes to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, “I don’t need to pay for a cable box, so I can watch the news or the Giants games. It’s there for free.”
But many Long Islanders who consider getting digital antennas decide against it, said James Feldstein, president of Lake Grove-based Audio Den, which sets up residential home theaters.
"I know people in Suffolk County who tried this and regretted it," Feldstein said. "A lot of people show interest, and then they see what they'll get and skip it."
Ken Stevenson placed an indoor antenna in the window well of his basement office in Rockville Centre, but said he quickly stopped using it.
"I got very few channels, and it depended on the weather," he said. "If the station wasn't coming in perfectly, it would just drop and say the signal wasn't available. It was infuriating to use."
But the situation may get better.
Digital television standards are improving. The voluntary standards are set by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an international nonprofit. The FCC approved the new ATSC 3.0 standard in 2017, and when it's rolled out over the coming months and years, stations will broadcast in higher-resolution 4K, more stations should be available to viewers farther from urban areas, and phones and other devices will be able to pull in signals. The stations will roll out at different times, depending on the market.
"It will take four or five years for many regions to get to that standard," said Willcox, of Consumer Reports. When it happens, "you won't need new antennas, but you will need a new tuner," he said.
All TVs have digital tuners, which are needed to receive over-the-air broadcasts, Willcox said. But current tuners won't be able to receive the new ATSC 3.0 signals, so people with older sets will need to get an external tuner — probably a dongle that plugs into a TV's HDMI input — to receive them.
It's possible that some TVs released next year will have both types of tuners, so they'll be ready for the transition, he said.
Surprise: You may see extra stations
The hunt for free television stations comes with a surprise: secondary stations on the same channel.
Known as multicasting, networks broadcasting over the air are sending secondary signals with alternative programming.
For example, NBC Channel 4 in New York, also broadcasts Cozi-TV on 4.2. Shows on NBC-owned Cozi include "Frasier," "Murder, She Wrote," "Little House on the Prairie" and "Columbo."
CBS Channel 2 in New York broadcasts Decades, another oldies television network, on 2.2. Shows include "The Joan Rivers Show," "Newhart" and "I Love Lucy."
PBS and nonaffiliated stations are also multicasting. For example, WLIW, the PBS network on Long Island, is broadcasting stations dedicated to the arts and world news. WLNY's multicasts include a sports station called Stadium. Stadium, which broadcasts out of Chicago, includes talk shows focused on college sports.
Many of these stations are also available either online or on cable, although the channel numbers vary widely depending on the TV provider.
"No one really gets over-the-air TV so they can watch the secondary channels, but almost all are pleasantly surprised that these channels exist once they hook up the antenna and realize what they've been missing," said Chris Cagle, president of NoCable.org, a website dedicated to news and reviews of over-the-air antennas and cord-cutting technology. "Everyone that gets an antenna purely wants the major networks, but most will definitely find themselves watching a multicasted channel as they begin channel surfing."
Tips to get better reception
Small adjustments to your indoor digital antenna can make a big difference in reception, according to Consumer Reports, which offered these tips for better reception:
• Put the antenna as close to a window as possible and placed in the direction of the broadcast towers. For example, Long Islanders trying to pull in stations from New York City will get better results by using a window that faces west.
• Height is key: Place the antenna in an attic or second-story location, preferably by a window, said Jim Willcox, senior editor of electronics.
• Rescan for channels periodically, because it's possible your initial scan missed stations. Willcox said that's especially the case if "you performed your initial scan on a cloudy day or during inclement weather."