Barnhart: Why Does Antenna TV Thrive within the Age of Netflix?

Everything that is old is new again on aerial television.

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This month marks the tenth anniversary of Antenna TV, and I know this is going to sound like nonsense to many. Obviously, TV antennas have been around for much longer than ten years. It would be like saying to a millennium, “I’m listening to The Cars.” (“Dad called this movie the cars,” eye roll.)

Antenna television is indeed the name of a television channel. It’s just one in a group of quietly successful channels that include MeTV, ThisTV, SmileTV, Laff, Grit, Bounce, Comet, Decades, and more. These are channels fueled by nostalgia for television from the time when theme songs were a minute long and black and white wasn’t just an effect. A time when Johnny Carson was the king of the night and Murphy Brown was a household name. Best of all, you don’t need a subscription to watch – as the name suggests, all you need is an antenna and TV.

You may not have noticed them on your TV watch face as for many of us the “TV watch face” is an increasingly irrelevant concept. TV is what you see on tablets and phones, as well as Fire Sticks and Rokus. However, if you have a big screen, you can receive dozens of channels like Antenna TV. These are free and stay on if your internet goes down. So maybe you get to know them better?

When I was growing up, my hometown of Montana had only two television channels. One wore CBS, the other juggled NBC and ABC shows. But when I was five, my family dropped their TV antenna and a magic wire came into our house. That wire brought stations from Utah and Alberta that allowed me to watch NBC and ABC shows on their regular times and shows like The Electric Company on PBS. And thanks to a Denver network called KWGN, I was introduced to a number of classic TV shows that I couldn’t remember, like Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, and the great Get Smart.

Over time, that thick coaxial cord turned into cable television, bringing us channels like TBS and Nick at Nite that made classic TV reruns an art form, with whimsical advertisements that even spawned a 20-year-old Dick Van Dyke show episode seem fresh and new. However, as our monthly cable bills went up, those channels switched to original content, which was even more profitable than viewing reruns. While this was a boon to all of the C-list celebrities and home improvement experts who got their own shows, it left Andy Griffith and Archie Bunker homeless.

This is where the new generation of classic TV channels came into play. In the 1990s, the federal government forced television broadcasters to convert their old analog television signals to digital ones. Most of us know this is the beginning of the HDTV era, but the same technology also made it possible for broadcasters to split up their signals and start multicasting. Thanks to digital compression, any of your local broadcasters can add three or four of these multicast channels without affecting the quality of the primary channel. Those new channels weren’t high definition – there wasn’t enough bandwidth for them – but if you watch a 1974 Sanford and Son who cares?

The public media was an early adopter of multicasting. My local PBS station broadcasts two completely different 24-hour channels programmed here in Kansas City, plus two more provided by PBS nationally, including an ad-free kids channel. At commercial stations the transition was slower. The audience didn’t know anything about her at first and the money wasn’t there. Even now, when you tune in to terrestrial television, the breaks are filled with the low-hanging fruits of the advertising business – those two-minute “Call Now!” Commercials like Tom Selleck, who sells reverse mortgages.

The first time people saw Antenna TV was likely when their cable provider plugged it in in the 800s. (Seeing Johnny Carson in his Nixon-era plaid suits caught your attention.) When viewers started cutting the cord, their CNN and MTV signals disappeared, but the window cord left the NBC, ABC, and CBS signals … coming in along with MeTV, bounce, aerial TV and the rest. New multicast channels kept coming online, supported by the biggest names in local TV. Your bunny ears can receive more channels today than your cable company offered 25 years ago. According to a ratings report, ThisTV – an all-movie channel supported by MGM and Nexstar – would be the eighth most popular cable channel in America, except you don’t need a cable to watch it. That’s why ThisTV is available in 88 million households, more than ESPN.

Multicasting now offers 24-hour weather, news, sports, and (it was inevitable) home shopping. Court TV, which I thought was dead and buried, has returned as one of my local Fox partner’s sidecar channels. And there are always new products for the oldies market. Antenna TV has just replaced Barney Miller with Who’s the Boss. Norman Lear will be more ubiquitous than ever in his 99th birthday in 2021 as Antenna TV, already broadcasting Maude and Archie Bunker’s Place, brings back The Jeffersons and the original One Day At A Time.

Multicasting began as a survival technique for local television stations, which by 2010 had given more than half of their audience to cable. But my goodness, how the tables have turned. Now cable TV is losing its money on lunch as viewers find a Netflix subscription with its endless menu and no ads that’s more satisfying than an hour of cable with 41 minutes of programming, 19 minutes of ads, and $ 100 a month. No wonder that millions of people pull their cables, dismantle their dishes and set up antennas every year. Antennas! Talk about repeating it.

Aaron Barnhart has been writing on television since 1994, including 15 years as a television critic for the Kansas City Star.

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