Over-the-air TV? A third of Americans have no idea

The Wall Street Journal reports this afternoon that there are people walking among us who don’t know that a person can get TV “over the air.”

Presumably, these are people who grew up with only satellite or cable TV and were never told that local TV signals can be plucked out of the air. No monthly bills. No equipment rental.

According to the National Association of Broadcasters, nearly 30% of Americans are not aware of over-the-air TV. So, presumably they also don’t know that most every local TV station is broadcasting several different channels of programming, thanks to the mandated conversion to digital broadcasts.

Richard Schneider, founder of a St. Louis manufacturing company called Antennas Direct, says his occupation results in awkward small talk. “If I’m at a party and I tell people what I do for a living, they’ll say, ‘That’s still a thing?’ I’d think you’d be out of business by now.’”

Quite the opposite. He started selling antennas as a hobby more than 15 years ago and only expected to sell a few hundred each year. He says he sold 75,000 antennas in June. Even the latest high-definition flat-screen TVs need an antenna to get free broadcasts.

Michelle Herrick, 39, a photographer in Phoenix, says she was desperate to cancel her cable subscription after her bill topped $200 a month. The only reason she hadn’t was because she wanted local stations.

Then, about two years ago, her mother told her about modern antennas. Now, Ms. Herrick is the one who regularly has to explain to puzzled guests how she’s able to watch free television. “Everyone I talked to, they had no idea.”

Everything old is new again.

  • MrE85

    I like the informercials for the “Clear TV Key,” which is basically a UHF antenna like the kind you could buy at any Radio Shack, if there were any Radio Shacks left.

  • MrE85

    I’m seriously thinking of cutting the cord and going to all-broadcast tv at home.

    • RBHolb

      We’re doing that, and the only thing we really miss is the ability to DVR shows.

      • JamieHX

        You’ll have to get your own DVR.

        • RBHolb

          Thanks; I didn’t know you could do that.

          I feel like such a hick.

          • BJ


          • Glsai

            Check out the Tivo OTA Roamio. The OTA is the important part. Costs $15 a month for the subscription though, but a lot cheaper than cable.

    • Jerry

      You might find yourself watching a lot of Buzzr

    • Rob

      Do that, and end your landline service while you’re at it. C’mon in, the water’s fine!

    • Al

      I’m in my mid-30s, and have never had cable/Dish/anything. LOVE IT.

  • We are happily over-the-air at home, with Roku/Netflix/Amazon via our wi-fi. Sure, we don’t get CNN but it also means we don’t get Fox News Channel, either. On the other, we do receive CBS-N and BBC World Service.

    I work at a TV station and have to periodically explain to viewers that if our signal is not showing up on their TV and they are wired for cable or satellite, they need to call their provider. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to explain to an over-the-air viewer why they can’t receive the HD signal 40-50 miles away … Digital transmission is line-of-sight; wet or hot/humid weather can sometimes impair that signal over a long distance and, with digital TV, it’s either “on” or it’s “off”; no “ghosting” like there was in bygone analog TV days.

    • Yeah, at least with analog when you got a bad signal (plane flying over the house), you still mostly had audio and some sort of picture. Not so, of course, with digital. But I don’t regret the day I told Comcast to cut the TV. That said, i really don’t watch very much local TV anymore.

      • Jerry

        What I miss is being able to watch over the air channels on old black and white TVs, sometimes with questionable vertical holds.

        • Rob

          Weren’t vertical holds a Vern Gagne specialty?

    • JamieHX

      That’s one really annoying thing about digital tv. I have “amplified” antennas (indoors) on my two tvs and they improve the signal significantly, but sometimes there’s nothing that will make them work. I’ve seen wind and rain impair the signal, but I didn’t know that even hot or humid weather could do so too! That explains some things.

      • I had the same problem, particularly during last week’s hot/humid days. I just flipped to Netflix and decided not to fight it.

      • We live only a few miles from the Shoreview antenna farm. But, because we live in something of a valley in St. Paul, we used to have major issues receiving a reliable signal; compounded by very nearby freight train diesel/electric locomotives that seem to broadcast some major RF of their own.

        Finally found a (cheap) antenna that was a vast improvement over our previous rabbit ears, but on some of these hot and humid days we still suffer from periodic drop-outs. I’m glad to hear we aren’t the only ones.

        And, like, Bob C., we just flipped over to Netflix or Amazon.

        • Jerry

          $70 rooftop antenna did wonders for our reception because of our stucco house.

          • I tried to “cut the cord” a few years ago, but live in a stucco house in S Mpls. Had a heckuva time trying to get the signal from Shoreview and eventually went back to cable.

            Might have to give it another go if and when we get fiber to our house.

          • Jerry

            When we moved into our house it had a dish on the roof so attaching an antenna was as easy as climbing in the roof, removing the dish, and attaching the antenna. The coaxial cable was already threaded through the house. If you don’t feel like climbing on the roof, putting a good quality antenna in an unfinished part of the attic might help a lot, not that many south Minneapolis homes have unfinished attics.

        • Veronica

          We found that wind created a massive issue with signals. I finally got this amplified flat circular one that sticks to the wall and while it isn’t perfect, it doesn’t need to be adjusted constantly like our old amplified one did.

        • jon

          I live not far from the shoreview antenna farm… and the previous owners of the house left a big yagi antenna in my attic..

          Problem is the antenna has a 2 degree angle to it, and I’m close enough to the antenna’s that the two of them are more than 2 degrees apart… I’d only get half the channels, then I could fiddle with the antenna to get the other half… and loose the first half.

          Improved the whole situation by putting rabbit ears up there instead. Less selective antenna picks up everything…

          • John

            As close as you are, that seems like a good plan. I bought one with a 30(ish) degree angle for like $50 (or 1/3 the cost of a month of cable), living just west of Minneapolis, I get everything really consistently now. (the omni-directional antenna I had before would drop whenever it was cloudy, humid, raining, summer, etc.)

            I keep my antenna in the attic though, so I needed one with significantly longer range than I expected.

  • Jim in RF

    We haven’t had cable for 25ish years. I sometimes miss watching the Twins instead of listening and some of the shows people are always talking about, but we’ve saved some cash.

  • kevins

    I work with kids that can’t wrap their brains around the idea of a rotary dial phone, and party-line no longer means what it used to when I was growing up.

    • Barton

      I met a 12 year old recently who couldn’t figure out how to use a key to open the trunk of a car. “Can’t you just push and button to make it open?” “I don’t get where the key is supposed to go.”

      Her parents looked shocked, then apologized to me for not “educating her correctly.”

      • Al

        …how *would* she have known? We are products of our times. I don’t blame any of them.

        • Barton

          I didn’t blame them either. But the kid knew how to use a key in a door, so she should have been able to figure out how to use a key in a keyhole in a trunk.

          “There are two types of people in the world. (1) Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data…”

  • Joe

    If someone had asked me what “over-the-air TV” was before this, I wouldn’t really have known, I would have had to guess. I mean I do fully understand that it exists now that I understand what that term is talking about, but I have never heard that term before today. So maybe it was a poorly worded question?

    • Joe

      Similarly, I think if I surveyed 100 people about their knowledge of the availability of broadcast syndicated arrays via hypertext transfer protocol, I bet 95 would say they were unaware of this.

      And then I could say that 95% of people don’t know you can watch TV shows online.

    • Same thing happens with radio. “What’s a ‘radio’?”

      “In lieu of radio, younger millennials have turned their ears and their attention to streaming, with many of those polled opting for on-demand options. This shows that not only is streaming in general more favorable, but the idea of radio simply isn’t as appealing to younger music lovers as it used to be for their older siblings, parents, and grandparents.

      “… Younger millennials say that they only spend around 12% of their time with radios, which are becoming more outdated as the years pass.
      Instead, it’s all about smartphones and other connected devices for the younger crowds, which should come as no surprise to anybody who knows someone between the ages of 15 and 19. Smartphones are now responsible for 41% of their listening, which is much higher than the average when taking into account all age groups, which is just 18%.”


      • Rob

        I’m way past millenialness, but I’m a streaming convert. I’ve started listening to KUTX in Austin and KEXP in Seattle, thanks to Bluetooth. And TV streaming is the way to go, mos’ def.

        • Jack

          You all beat me to the punch.

          Come on – we are all supposed to be listening to MPR. It’s free.

          Just kidding about the free part says this member.

        • KUTX!

          I followed Jacquie Fuller when she left and am a member.

          /Also a member here, too
          //And RadioK member

  • JamieHX

    I’ve only ever had “broadcast tv,” what I thought it was called. It has a heck of a lot of good programming – more than I have time to watch. Just tpt alone (“Twin Citites PBS” they’re calling it now) has enough to keep you occupied almost full-time: Masterpiece Mystery, Masterpiece Classic, all the cooking shows, Red Green, excellent British police dramas/mysteries every Saturday night and a couple other nights, Curious George, This Old House, Nova, Independent Lens, British sit-coms and “dramadies”. . . and that’s just a fraction of it.

    And then there are all the dozens of commercial network channels that SOMETIMES offer at least somewhat edifying programming too. I get to see some cable programming when it goes into syndication (Major Crimes, The Closer, White Collar, Psych, Stargate SG-1, Leverage, etc.) some great Canadian programming, and some good oldies (NYPD Blue, Cagney & Lacey, The Commish). Who needs cable?

  • Bonnie

    Me TV is the greatest!

    • AL287

      I love reliving my childhood and teen years with Me TV.

      Me TV, This TV, Decades and Movies TV Network are all channels that I get in Forest Lake with my digital antenna as well as 5 TPT channels.

      I watched a Dick Cavett show on Decades from 1974 featuring all the major players in the Watergate hearings. It was great to revisit the Congress when it was at its moral and ethical best.

      I get about 25 channels in all.

      I have Netflix and Amazon on my SmartTV so I switch to those when the selection is not good on the two movie channels.

      I haven’t had my own cable subscription since I was in grad school 13 years ago. A couple of apartments I rented came with cable that I didn’t have to pay for.

      My son can’t get a lot of channels in La Crescent because of the bluffs so they depend on Netflix for movies and entertainment.

      • Bonnie

        Gotta run, hogans heroes is on,

        • I can tell you plot of every HH episode by just viewing the first 30 seconds of the show.

          /And I STILL watch it on occasion.

          • Jerry

            That might be because they all have the same plot

          • Well there’s THAT…

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I’ve toyed with removing the TV service but haven’t yet. As far as DVRs or PVRs are concerned there are some options. I have experimented with a DIY solution and will get back to that when I get closer to the cable renewal date.

    One interesting anecdote about Over the Air (OTA) TV is one a friend in a local computer user group told me. We were discussing my PVR project and he said he talked to a young man in a big box retailer about recording OTA programs and the earnest young man responded, “You can’t do that its illegal.” He was obviously too young to remember a world with VCRs.

    One thing to remember about the fancy new antennas. Locally Channel 11 and its subchannels are still delivered with a VHF signal. All of the other channels are delivered with a UHF signal (although I’ve had mixed success with Buzzer). Most of the new “high tech” antennas are UHF mostly (the claim to receive some VHF but I’ve got no evidence of this) which means if you are a fan of KARE they may not work for you. Be sure to check that your antenna has a VHF component.

      • Jeff

        I recently dropped Directv and now use PS Vue (a streaming service) for cable channels and an antenna for OTA with a Tablo DVR. Tablo actually connects to your home network so you need some sort of device at each tv to run the app and watch the OTA channels. I already had a Roku and Apple TV so that wasn’t a big deal but it’s something to consider if you don’t. The nice thing is that I can also use my phone and ipad to watch OTA tv both at home and “on the road.”

      • Jack Ungerleider

        A lot of the OTA DVRs have a subscription component. (It’s mostly for schedule information.) Even the for the DIY option I had to take out a subscription to help defray the costs of the group that provided the data to obtain it and format it properly. Check the fine print for any option you might look into.

    • Jeffrey

      If you really want to blow a young person’s mind tell them how you used to have to get up of the couch and change the channels manually on the TV. Also tell them that there was a total of 4 or 5 channels to chose from.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        Here’s another mind-blower for some people, your cable controller used to have a cord and switches.

      • The first TV remote I ever saw, ca. 1965, was attached by wire to the TV. IIRC, one turned a knob on the remote to switch channels.

        • Rob

          Sounds like a prop from a sci-fi movie.

  • Gary F

    Can you get Fox Sports North if you go antenna? Do you need a dish/cable/prism account?

    • KTFoley

      No Fox Sports North on the broadcast channels.

      • No, but you get used to it. It works for me since I’m a fan of an out of market team and have the MLB package which comes up through the Amazon Fire Stick.

    • Al

      Sort of. You can use your parents’ FoxSportsGo account because they technically live with you half-time… *ahem*

      • Gary F

        My father is dead and my mother is 86 and in a nursing home, so I guess I’m screwed.

        • X.A. Smith

          FoxSportsNorth is available through Sling, for about 30 a month.

  • Rob

    With my tinfoil hat, I get outstanding reception on all broadcast channels.📺

  • theoacme

    I can’t go with antenna OTA broadcast TV, despite being 10 miles from the Shoreview antenna farm:

    1 – I live in a multistory apartment building that I can’t put an antenna on the roof…

    2 – …my apartment faces away from Shoreview…

    3 – …and there are two masonry stucco and mesh walls between my apartment and Shoreview…

    4 – …and the wire mesh attenuates the signal so badly, no in-apartment antenna works anywhere near satisfactorily.

    • Rob

      Sounds like moving may be in your future…

      • theoacme

        It would cost me about a thousand bucks a month to move…

        …being a caretaker has its pitfalls, but not paying rent is a silver lining…

  • Pej

    My children have lived 17 & 19 years each with only broadcast TV. Since the InterTubes revolution, everything else they need they stream. Never had a need for cable…

    Antenna — a Winegard FreeVision for about $20 works well from Woodbury, with occasional melt-downs of the extra 5-X stations in inclement weather.

    As for DVR’s for OTA, I have an old Mac Mini with an ElGato EyeTV tuner stick and a 1TB hard drive for recordings. TV Guide programming information is $20 a year. Every episode of Frontline, Great Performance, Nova, etc is recorded automagically.

    Sadly ElGato got out of the TV tuner business, sold to https://www.geniatech.eu/eyetv/, which mostly makes the tuners for EU use only now.

    Silicon Dust’s HD Homerun tuner/streamer box is an interesting option for distributing OTA around the house and recording shows.

    Of course, in the past couple of years most of the content I used to DVR for later viewing has become available via streaming from PBS and others, so the right gets less and less use as time goes on.

  • We recently switched to OTA and kept only cable internet. The challenge was to find something everyone in the family could use without a lot of confusing switching of inputs on the TV. I settled on a device called “AirTV”, which is made to get the Sling TV service plus Netflix, HBO, YouTube, and a bunch of others, but also can scan for and include local channels from your own antenna. It even has Chromecast built in, so you don’t need to add one of those. So far, so good.

  • Barton

    Well. I’ll be saving this thread since you’ve all answered every question I’ve had about how to drop my satellite addiction and still survive.

    And now since CBS is going to make me pay for the privilege of watching the new Star Trek this fall, I might as well get on board with changing things up! (will have to start working on getting those 27 Audie Murphy movies I have saved on my DVR copied elsewhere though….)

  • 212944

    This was a hot topic on our NextDoor neighborhood site recently. It pops up fairly often.

    Too bad Aereo lost in court a few years ago. I suspect there will be more attempts at sharing, especially as more and more people are cutting the cord. Cable companies are seeing the end of the current model coming, and just may consider booting their own sharing models (though I suspect they will cling to their dying model as long as possible).

  • Tyler

    Too bad Comcast offers a CHEAPER internet deal if you subscribe to OTA channels via their cable package.

    • Glsai

      Yes, but when I had it, it didn’t include HD channels. So I just let the box they sent me sit and enjoyed the cheaper bill.