Rabbit ear revival

Remember grandpa shouting about the snow on the TV? Well, those antennas have a new role - helping you get crystal-clear HD programming for free.

Published May 3, 2007

CLEVELAND - Buying an antenna for a high-definition television seems as out of place as using a rotary phone to make a call.

But some consumers are spending thousands of dollars on LCD or plasma TVs and hooking them up to $50 antennas that don't look much different from what grandpa had on top of his black-and-white picture tube.

They're not doing it for the nostalgia.

Local TV channels, broadcast in HD over-the-air, offer superior picture quality over the often-compressed signals sent by cable and satellite TV companies.

And the best part? Over-the-air HD is free.

"Eighty-year-old technology is being redesigned and rejiggered to deliver the best picture quality, " said Richard Schneider, president of Antennas Direct. "It's an interesting irony."

A few years ago, Schneider started an assembly line in his garage and sold antennas out of the trunk of his car. Now his Eureka, Mo., company has seven employees and did $1.4-million in sales last year. He expects revenue to double in 2007.

"People thought I was nuts, " Schneider said. "They were laughing at me when I told them I was starting an antenna company, "

Before cable and satellite existed, people relied on antennas to receive analog signals from local TV stations' broadcasting towers. Stations still send out analog signals, but most transmit HD digital signals as well. (Congress has ordered broadcasters to shut off old-style analog TV broadcasts by Feb. 17, 2009.)

Consumers who can get a digital signal from an antenna will get an excellent picture, said Steve Wilson, principal analyst for consumer electronics at ABI Research.

Schneider recommends indoor antennas only for customers within 25 miles of a station's broadcast tower. An outdoor antenna will grab a signal from up to 70 miles away as long as no mountains are in the way, he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association has a Web site (www.antennaweb.org) that tells how far an address is from towers and recommends what type of antenna to use.

"When you're using an antenna to get an HD signal you will be able to receive true broadcast-quality HD, " said Megan Pollock of the group. "Some of the cable and satellite companies may choose to compress the HD signal."

But the difference in picture quality is a matter of opinion, said Robert Mercer of satellite provider DirecTV Inc.

"We believe the DirecTV HD signal is superior to any source, whether it's over-the-air or from your friendly neighborhood cable company, " Mercer said.

Self-described TV fanatic Kevin Holtz of suburban Cleveland chose an antenna because he didn't want to pay his satellite provider extra for local broadcast channels.

Holtz, 30, can't get the signal from one local network affiliate or a public broadcasting station but said the rest of the stations come in clearer than they would through satellite. He uses a $60 antenna for a 40-inch Sony LCD, which retails for about $3, 000.

"Over-the-air everything is perfect, " Holtz said.

Fast Facts:

Rabbit ears right for you?

Some of the pros and cons to using an antenna to receive high-definition TV signals:


- It's free. After spending $20 to $150 on an antenna, there's no monthly fee to pay the cable or satellite company for an HD package, which costs about $10 a month.

- Better picture quality. Many experts say over-the-air HD provides a clearer picture than what cable or satellite companies can provide because they compress the signal, removing data and degrading picture quality.


- Reception issues. The ability to receive an over-the-air HD signal depends on an antenna's distance from local TV stations' broadcasting towers. The signal won't get snowy and fuzzy like the old analog signal. Instead, the picture will turn into tiny blocks and go black.

- Only local channels. Channels like ESPN, TNT and Discovery Channel aren't available over-the-air.