Before 2009, rabbit ears and even large, rooftop antennas were not uncommon sights in American households.
These inefficient metal monstrosities grabbed over-the-air, or OTA, television signals allowing people to watch local network affiliates and independent stations without paying Comcast , Time Warner Cable , AT&T , Verizon , DirecTV , DISH Network , or any other cable provider.
It was an inelegant system which delivered grainy pictures, random signal loss, and potential difficulties during bad weather. OTA television offered a poor substitute for cable TV, but it was gloriously free. You might have gotten a crummy picture and a limited set of channels, but you did not get a bill.
That changed in 2009 when federal laws forced channels to stop broadcasting OTA and move to pure digital signals, which resulted in the demise of rooftop antennas and rabbit ears. Many Americans thought that meant the end of free TV.
That's, of course, what the cable industry wants you to believe, but the opposite is true. Here's why.
How it works
The demise of OTA TV actually offers most Americans a chance to watch at least some HDTV stations for absolutely nothing.
The 2009 Federal Communication Commission's law did not end free television, but rather it simply changed the type of antenna you need in order to grab the free TV. Now, it's possible to watch potentially dozens of channels without paying for cable simply by hooking up an HDTV antenna. And, to make this option even more enticing, HDTV antennas aren't roof-mounted, they hook right into the back of the television and are about the size of a paperback book.
Price can vary greatly, but Amazon sells a perfectly viable option in its "Basics" line which costs under $25.
What do you get?
The first thing anyone switching to a HDTV antenna will notice is that it either can get a channel or it can't. Unlike the previous OTA signals which could go in and out or be somewhere in between, digital channels are either clearly HD or they are not available.
"With the conversion to all digital HDTV broadcasts, the experience of watching over-the-air TV is completely different than in days past, " wrote Mohu, a company which makes HDTV antennas on its