TV viewers going retro with antennas to save money on cable

ST. PETERSBURG — A little over a year ago, with a baby on the way, Greg and Jesse Miller looked for ways to save some money. He cut special soccer games from their television package. She cut her data plan on her iPhone. Then they cut Netflix. Then they cut cable.

And then Greg went to Target, walked around the electronics section until he found what he was searching for, and for 40 bucks bought …

… a TV antenna.

Remember those?

Rabbit ears?

Turns out the future of TV watching, and an increasing part of its present, includes a visible piece of the past. The Millers' silver, metal, plain Jane General Electric antenna puts them in a growing portion of the population that is returning to over the air TV.

"I've got to turn it, reshape it, for different channels sometimes," Greg said.

"But we can get a lot of this stuff online," Jesse said, "and we can watch local TV for free."

Some people are dropping cable partly because of the changes in the economy and partly because it's no longer the only option. It's certainly no longer the cheapest option. Cable giant Comcast, for instance, lost 17,000 video subscribers in the fourth quarter of last year — and that, believe it or not, constituted considerable improvement relative to the previous few years of persistent bleeding. Time Warner lost 129,000 video customers in last year's fourth quarter.

A Nielsen study last month said the number of households wired for cable went down 4.1 percent over the last year. According to a different study done by consulting firm Deloitte, as many as 9 percent of cable customers stopped service last year, and another 11 percent are considering "cutting the cord" this year.

What are these people doing instead?

Some are switching to satellite. Some are getting rid of TV altogether.

Missouri company Antennas Direct, meanwhile, sold 400,000 antennas in 2010. It sold 600,000 antennas last year. This year, says company boss Richard Schneider, that number should just about double.

"It's almost startling how much pent-up hostility people have for their cable providers," he said. "People are looking for a rationale to liberate themselves from this relationship. The cable companies have essentially held a monopoly. But that business model isn't sustainable when there are viable alternatives."

Free, over-the-air TV, he said, is "the new basic cable." Florida is one of his top three markets.

Not all cable companies are suffering. AT&T and Verizon are actually adding customers. And local Bright House Networks reports no slippage.

"Even in this economy, even in this competitive market, we haven't seen any drop-off," spokesman Joe Durkin said.

"Knock on wood," he added.

People in their 20s and 30s are the most likely to make the switch. A survey done by Los Angeles company Ideas and Solutions suggests 60 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 are considering giving up paying for TV.

"Young consumers' penchant for alternative platform viewing will forever alter the pay TV landscape," Ideas and Solutions head Glen L. Friedman told trade publication TVNewsCheck last month.

People like the Millers of St. Petersburg.

Greg works from home as an analyst for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Jesse was a French teacher at Tampa's Leto High School before becoming a full-time mom to 13-month-old Astoria. Their daughter keeps the 32-year-old parents busy, but they still watch shows on TVLand.com, or go to channels' own websites if necessary, or sometimes just check out DVDs at the nearby Mirror Lake Library.

And he can still watch his soccer games, and she can still keep up with her Days of Our Lives — just on ESPN3.com and Hulu, not TV.

"There is so much content out there," he said.

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

By the numbers

Before they dropped cable, Greg and Jesse Miller paid about $150 a month to Verizon. This included a multiroom DVR, extra channels and Internet service. Greg estimates that the Internet was probably around $50 of the total and cable accounted for the remaining $100.

Now, they pay Verizon only for their Internet and that costs around $60 per month. A bonus for the Millers is that Greg works from home and his employer covers half of his Internet service costs, so the total out of pocket expense is about $30 per month.

TV viewers going retro with antennas to save money on cable 03/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 9:41pm]

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