Why TV antennas are making a comeback in the streaming age

Elizabeth Roy opted out of her cable package years ago. But the 40-year-old can still watch the 2021 Emmy Awards on her local CBS affiliate—free of charge—with an assist from a $19 antenna she bought on Amazon. “I’m honestly surprised it’s legal,” said Ms. Roy, who works in marketing in Nashville, Tenn.

Streaming-only households in the U.S. are projected to eclipse the number of homes with cable by 2024, according to market research firm eMarketer. As Americans increasingly decide to cut the cord—tired of paying for cable on top of the various Netflixes and Hulus—a technology more than 70 years old is taking cable’s place. Antennas, or “rabbit ears” provide completely free access to local network affiliates, typically including ABC, NBC, Fox and others. Fueled largely by millennials who’ve long sidestepped cable, antenna sales in the U.S. have risen 4% over the past year, according to the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group.

If your memory is scarred by the ugly jumble of metal rabbit ears that sat atop the televisions of the 1970s and ’80s, you might be pleasantly startled by the streamlined modern versions, some of which are practically invisible depending on where you install them.

Anthony Leyba, owner of Digital Concepts, an A/V installation service in Denver, always tells his clients to add an antenna if they don’t have a cable subscription. “An antenna lays a foundation because you’re never going to have to pay for your local channels,” he said.

Indoor antennas are the least expensive (with some going for less than $15) and simplest to set up. Just affix the device to the television or a surface nearby and plug it into the back of your TV. If the signal is jumbled, try repositioning the antenna closer to a window.

If you live outside an urban area or further from a broadcast tower, a pro-installed outdoor or attic antenna can significantly improve reception. “I’ve seen people buy four different antennas trying to get the perfect signal. The further out you get into the suburbs, indoor antennas don’t tend to work as well,” said Ed Carson, owner of Atlanta Digital TV. To identify the optimal type of antenna for your location, Mr. Carson recommends using antennaweb.org. Just input your address and the site tells you the ideal antenna type and the strength you need to receive the stations in your area. A professional can further optimize installation, especially on tricky spots like your roof’s highest point. Keep in mind that topography matters: Mountains, dense forests and tall buildings can all muddle reception, decreasing range from the nearest broadcast towers.

Here, three of our favorites.


Our picks, whether you’re close enough to broadcast towers for an indoor (or home-theater) antenna, or need an outdoor one

For Home Theaters

GE Enlighten HD Antenna with Bias LED Lighting

Who doesn’t love a multitasker? This 4K-enabled antenna has a 45-mile broadcast signal range and a built-in LED backlight to illuminate the wall behind your TV. The light helps reduce eyestrain and creates an optical illusion that makes on-screen colors appear more vibrant. $38, byjasco.com

For Any Flat Indoor Spot

FLATenna+ Amplified TV Antenna

Install this paper-thin, omnidirectional antenna just about anywhere with its built-in adhesive tabs. Designed for reception from towers up to 50 miles away, the reversible black-and white-sides can be painted to match your décor. $39, channelmaster.com

For Your Roof or Attic

ClearStream 4MAX Complete Amplified Antenna

Designed to pick up broadcast signals from towers more than 70 miles away, this antenna lets you split the signal between up to three television sets at one time. The pivoting base accommodates installation on vertical, angled or horizontal surfaces. $250, antennasdirect.com

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

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