Is Now the Time to Get a TV Antenna?

Here's how to benefit from the return of old-school antennas and free over-the-air TV

Antenna iStock-495491350 CR

Just like turntables and long-playing records, TV antennas have made a comeback. But unlike the LP revival—which feeds on nostalgia and the appeal of old-school analog audio—the antenna resurgence is fueled by consumers looking to save money.

More on Antennas & Cord Cutting

Cord cutters are buying antennas to save money by cutting their monthly pay-TV services—and they’re doing it in large numbers. Consumer research from Parks Associates shows that the percentage of U.S. broadband households that use digital antennas in their home has steadily increased, reaching 20 percent by the end of 2017, up from 16 percent in early 2015.

This increase, the firm says, coincides with a steady decline in pay-TV subscriptions and an increase in over-the-top (OTT) online video subscriptions.

“Increasingly, consumers are cobbling together their own bundles of content sources," says Brett Sappington, Parks’ senior director of research. "Digital antennas are experiencing a resurgence as consumers consider over-the-air TV and OTT video services as alternatives to pay TV.”

Should you take the plunge and buy an antenna? There a few factors to consider, starting with how much entertainment you like to watch online. And if you're in the market for a new antenna, check out the top picks from Consumer Reports' latest antenna tests.

Joining the Streaming Nation

Antennas are more appealing than ever because of the rise of online video subscription streaming services, especially cable-TV replacement packages that can serve as an alternative to traditional pay-TV plans. Basically, pairing streaming video and free over-the-air TV gives you lots of viewing options at a lower price.

“The number of homes relying exclusively on an antenna for TV has hardly changed at all” since early 2015, says Colin Dixon, founder and chief analyst at nScreenMedia. The real growth has been in the number of antenna-equipped homes with broadband access. These increased by 2.4 million to a total of 9 million, a 36 percent rise, Dixon says.

Of course, you can get rid of your pay-TV package without buying an antenna, and lots of people do. The number of homes that rely purely on broadband—without a pay-TV package or an antenna—rose 80 percent from 2015 to early 2017, hitting 5.4 million.

The downside is that you could lose access to the traditional broadcast networks. Still want to get ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC? That’s where the antenna comes in.

Antenna Direct’s ClearStream Eclipse TV antenna uses a flat, circular design that sticks to a wall or window. The model shown includes an amplifier.

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Is an Antenna Right for You?

Two common questions about TV antennas are about reception quality and installation. (Do you have to climb up on the roof to install them?)

Picture Quality
The quality of the picture you get might actually be better than what cable provides. “The signals may be less compressed,” says Claudio Ciacci, lead television tester for Consumer Reports. “And many stations now offer subchannels with programs such as older TV shows or public channels that may not be available on cable.”

Several things can affect the quality of your reception, but the main factors are your distance from a broadcast tower and whether there are any obstructions, such as trees or mountains, that can get in the way. Websites including and TV Fool can help you make an informed guess as to the type of antenna you’ll need and how many stations you can expect to pull in. Plus you won’t have to lay out a lot of money to find out whether an antenna works well at your home. Indoor models sell for as little as $20, and even relatively pricey models typically cost $80 or less.

This might seem like an even bargain a year or two down the road, when a new over-the-air standard called ATSC 3.0 launches. Among its key enhancements is that it can carry internet content alongside traditional TV broadcasts. That means you may be able to stream some shows right over the air.

The new broadcasts will also support 4K video and high dynamic range (HDR) content.

Though it can be useful to have an antenna on your roof, indoor antennas work well in many situations. What’s more, they look better than the old-fashioned rabbit-ear models with the tinfoil flags that people used to add to them. Companies such as Antennas Direct and Mohu offer new, more attractive designs, including flat models that can be painted to match a wall.

The Mohu Leaf can be painted to match your wall; the ReLeaf (shown in two colors) is made of recycled cardboard.

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Tips for Better Reception

TV antennas can require some fiddling. Follow these quick tips to get the best reception:

• Try the antenna in different spots around the room, preferably near a window. Or see whether placing it in a higher location, such as an attic, helps.

• Try an amplified TV antenna if you live far from a broadcast tower or your reception is marginal.

• Rescan for channels periodically; you might get a new station or two.

Return of the TV Antenna

Think TV antennas are obsolete? Think again. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Jim Willcox explains to host Jack Rico why this classic technology is making a comeback.

James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.