Over-the-Air Antennas Are Making a Comeback

An over-the-air antenna makes a great addition to a cord cutter's cable-killing arsenal.

May 16 2016, 2:37pm

New over-the-air antennas can be placed right against a wall. Image: Mohu

As antiquated as it might seem, the over-the-air antenna (OTA) is actually experiencing a revival of sorts, with 21 percent of US households using an antenna in 2015, according to the Consumer Technology Association, up four percentage points compared to the year before. In an age where Comcast-hate is at an all-time high, there's a growing cord cutting movement with people looking to watch TV without the constraints of a cable contract. In many cases, that requires the four big networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX. And at this point, the easiest solution for those is an antenna.

Of course, times have changed and most antennas look a bit different than the old-school bunny ears. "We spend a lot of time and effort on design and ergonomics to avoid any perceived stigma associated with bunny ears," Mark Buff, CEO of Mohu, told Motherboard. "Our rebellious brand tends to set us apart to many cord cutting consumers. And we're selling millions of antennas as proof of that."

For more on living life without cable, be sure to check out the Motherboard Guide to Cord Cutting.

A spokesperson for Antennas Direct mirrored the idea, stating that "they're not your Grandmother's rabbit ear antennas," and that when people see their antennas they're "shocked that they're indeed, antennas."

Of course, the look of the antenna isn't the only thing that's changed with broadcast television. In the last few years, products have come to market that allow you to record the shows you watch via your antenna, creating an experience similar to cable.

One such device is Nuvyyo's Tablo, which allows you to record broadcast TV and then stream it to multiple devices. When it was launched in 2013, "cord cutting and using an antenna to receive content seemed reserved mostly for uber-geeks who were knowledgeable enough to cobble together specialty hardware and software," said Grant Hall, CEO of Nuvyyo. However, it's "come a long way in the last three years, as a huge variety of products and services including Tablo have launched specifically aimed at the average consumer."

Buff noted a similar change, stating that while their sales used to come from a pretty specific demographic, "that has radically changed in the last year," and Mohu is seeing cord cutting "growth from every demographic possible."

Despite the increasing popularity of these devices, it doesn't seem they've completely captured the mainstream's attention just yet. For example, antenna user Nicole Bryant told Motherboard: "I love that it's 100% free and there's actually quite a lot of channels… but I hate that you can't record stuff and play back when you're ready." When asked if she's heard of an over-the-air DVR, she said no, but that she would be checking them out.

Then there's the growing popularity of internet-based skinny bundles like Sling TV that are attempting to roll local broadcast networks into their streaming packages, eliminating the need for multiple controllers and interfaces. While it has proven difficult to accomplish (just ask Apple), what happens to the antenna if suddenly people can stream the big four networks? Should antenna makers be worried?

"It would be more worrisome if streaming companies stopped innovating and giving consumers the freedom to choose what they watch and how they watch it," Buff responded. He went on to say that "OTA will always have a central place in the cord cutter's setup" which could look similar to what is does now or "via integration with a streaming interface," a reference to recent news that Sling TV is working on a way to bring the antenna feed directly into their streaming interface.

"We do expect to see more innovation on integrating OTA and OTT," he added. "We plan to help lead that innovation."