Rabbit Ears: Millennials discover an amazing (and totally free!) TV “hack”

I find this article intriguing on many levels; what’s more, I find that it’s not really an exaggeration. My comments follow…

(Source: The Wall Street Journal)

Cord-cutters accustomed to watching shows online are often shocked that $20 ‘rabbit ears’ pluck signals from the air; is this legal?

Dan Sisco has discovered a technology that allows him to access half a dozen major TV channels, completely free.

“I was just kind of surprised that this is technology that exists,” says Mr. Sisco, 28 years old. “It’s been awesome. It doesn’t log out and it doesn’t skip.”

Let’s hear a round of applause for TV antennas, often called “rabbit ears,” a technology invented roughly seven decades ago, long before there was even a cord to be cut, which had been consigned to the technology trash can along with cassette tapes and VCRs.

The antenna is mounting a quiet comeback, propelled by a generation that never knew life before cable television, and who primarily watch Netflix , Hulu and HBO via the internet. Antenna sales in the U.S. are projected to rise 7% in 2017 to nearly 8 million units, according to the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group.[…]

Carlos Villalobos, 21, who was selling tube-shaped digital antennas at a swap meet in San Diego recently, says customers often ask if his $20 to $25 products are legal. “They don’t trust me when I say that these are actually free local channels,” he says.[…]

Almost a third of Americans (29%) are unaware local TV is available free, according to a June survey by the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry trade group.[…]

Read the full article in The Wall Street Journal.

Obviously, this WSJ article draws our attention to the fact that those who were raised in the Internet age (and in that of cable and satellite TV) who were never exposed to over-the-air (OTA) television,  never even realized it existed. For those of us who grew up with silver rabbit ears sprouting out of the TV set, it seem incredible that this technology should be unknown to many. I love how the WSJ frames OTA TV as a “hack.” I suppose to some millennials, it is just that. And a fully-legal one, at that. Who knew?

The move from analog to digital TV broadcasts seems to have confused a lot of people, too. Indeed, one of my family members approached me a few years ago complaining about the rising costs of satellite TV. Though she was raised in the era of OTA TV, she had no clue that a simple, inexpensive set of rabbit ears would deliver no less than eight TV stations with multiple sub-channels, most of which originate from a large city sixty miles away.  And of course, she was delighted to re-discover this was possible.

One of my younger friends was gobsmacked to find that a $20 set of rabbit ears delivered higher-definition TV than the signal from his $200+/month satellite subscription. He has a very large flat-screen TV and loves live sports. Some of his favorite games are available on the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) all of which are easy catches with a set of rabbit ears where he lives. My $20 suggestion changed his world…and saved him (big) bucks.

And of course, Post readers, many of whom are radio geeks, are all about grabbing signals out of the air!

Perhaps shortwave radio is an a more extreme example of of forgotten (yet fun) technology, since it’s well-removed from popular culture now. After all, you can walk into any big-box retailer to pick up an antenna for your TV, but in such environments, shortwave radios are truly an endangered species.

I receive a phenomenal amount of inquiries from people of all ages who have only recently discovered shortwave radio. Many are self-described hackers, as well as preppers, pirate radio enthusiasts, travelers, off-grid buffs, and listeners who’ve recently discovered the strange and inexplicable world of numbers stations.

Shortwave radio has become an “underground” pursuit for many of these people––and somehow remains a well-kept secret, despite my role as a public and highly-vocal evangelist for the medium.

Still, in a world where we must assume any “connected” device monitors our viewing/listening habits, our movements, and not to mention, our personal preferences, I would say, yes––there is definitely “underground” appeal to all things over-the-air. It’s less complicated, inexpensive, accessible, provides anonymity, and often of higher quality…admirable attributes, in my world. Not to mention (unless you are a radio pirate, of course), it’s perfectly legal.

So, young media hounds, allow me to introduce you to a “secret” hack you might like, too––  shortwave.  Have a listen…but take care:  you, too, may find yourself drawn in to the mysterious and alluring world of the free and nearly forgotten airwaves.  Enjoy…!

18 thoughts on “Rabbit Ears: Millennials discover an amazing (and totally free!) TV “hack”

  1. Ed McCorry

    When we moved to our current rural home 21 years ago cable or satellite wasn’t available so we used rabbit ears and watched the 7 broadcast channels available. With the switch to digital over the air broadcast our channel scan increased to 27 channels and we find that we don’t need to pay the $$$ for cable. Now to be fair I admit we live about 20 miles from most of the transmission stations which helps. But for those of us who grew up in the 3 channel rabbit ear era, this was a no brainer.

  2. Tom Reitzel

    OTA broadcasts are truly alluring, like real money, i.e. gold and silver. Give me liberty. Give me free airwaves. Purge the FCC. 😉

    I could sense this rise in OTA broadcasts years ago and it’s refreshing to see it arrive! OTA broadcasted media is far from dead, but the FCC needs to allow UNLICENSED, low-power broadcasters of both TV and radio on all commercial bands. Will the FCC ever agree? Not without a fight as freedom is never without cost.

  3. Kire

    Reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day!
    I’m hoping this isn’t the last hurrah. I get over 100 digital channels here in California for free. As the FCC continually shrinks and repacks the tv channels into a smaller spectrum I do worry that someday there will be no free to air tv left, it will all be paid subscription based…
    maybe the people will continue to rediscover the old, and yes i recently ‘discovered’ shortwave and for the last three years my radio ears have not bothered with am/fm, and why would they, when i can grace my mind with voice of greece, rnzi, wrmi, wbcq, rri, nhk….

  4. Michael Black

    One I always liked was about “Coast to Coast” on local radio. When one station closed down, a big concern was about the show. And even a decade or so later, with it on another station, people continue to worry tt it might disappear.

    It’s as if nobody had tuned up and down the band at night, so they are unaware that it’s hard to miss the show. But then, the how is on so many stations because the stations want the ad income, so their interest is to act like they are the only source.

    The Vermont and upper New York TV stations decided to stick with the February 2009 changeover date. It didn’t make much news in Montreal, except for one article that basically said reception of US stations would be dead. So I didn’t bother with a DTV set until 2011, Canada turning off analog at the end of August that year.

    That was a shock. With a rabbit ear US tv had always been snowy, though it varied between stations and with time. But with DTV, nice solid reception, though there can be dropouts. Also, NBC and CBS had always been a problem, on channels adjacent to local stations, which wiped out the distant stations (except in the sixties if I got up before the local stations came on. With DTV, they come in fine. FOX is a bit of trouble, and the ABC outlet went to a VHF channel with lower power so everyone has trouble.

    But with subchannels, I can get 28 or 29 channels, though the two PBS stations have duplication. But having a movie subchannel and one of old tv shows is really great.

    Even as Canada’s switchover to DTV came close, there wasn’t lot of information. People without cable or satellite were seen as close to non-existent. There was a big period when local tv stations went off the a air at midnight, preparation for the move to DTV, but they’d rarely mention they were going off the air, as if we didn’t count. One station went off the air during a newscast, and not a word was said, not even at their website. That was a few days before the changeover, thy never ran parallel transmitters.

    So if the stations and the newspaper acts like over the air doesn’t count, it’s no surprise that some don’t realize over that over the air reception is a real thing.


  5. David

    I found the WSJ article amusing — maybe a little overkill on the “millennial” lingo, but it was good to see a new generation pull away from obscene cable prices.

    Having said that, I will say that many people will get a rough dose of reality when they plug in an antenna and they get choppy signals and signals that disappear completely when they move around their apartment. A former girlfriend lived next to the train station and lost the signal whenever the train passed — and there was no way for her to move the antenna higher due to her apartment space.

    Unsurprisingly, digital TV’s limitations still need addressing. Maybe an off-topic review of good UHF/VHF antennas for limited space would be a nice idea? Better yet, get some people who are good at making antennas to chip in! Hams and SWLers are experts, and it’s one place we can help out those not in the hobby better understand the wide potential out there!

  6. Jim Trame

    I was in need of a quick fix for a TV we put in the guest room and looking around I found an old 3 foot jumper with F connectors on each end. I cut off the connector on one end, stripped back the shield about a foot and made a sloppy dipole with the shield forming one leg and the center conductor forming the other. Picked up about 15 stations right off the bat with it dangling behind the TV in the corner. So it’s easy to see why the rabbit ears are enjoying a comeback.

  7. Tha Dood

    Generally, Rabbit Ears suck for HDTV since most stations are on UHF, unless you are a few miles from a transmitter site. However, that’s why I’ve patented #6,342,862, https://www.patentauction.com/patent.php?nb=11306 , Yep, a UHF Delta Loop. I’ve made VHF High versions as well. Anyways, anyone can build and use these easy enough and they match closer to 75 Ohm. Yeah, I’d gotten the patent back in 2002, then was able to go no where with it since most folks by then were stuck thinking that CATV, or Satellite, were the only ways to go. However, anyone whom have tried these antennas seemed to really like the performance. If I’d only patent these just a decade earlier. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm… Back to Rabbit Ears? Still, some low band VHF stations out there, like a CH6 in Philadelphia, and a CH5 in Clarksburg, WV. And, Rabbit Ears are quite effective in the FM band. So, they certainly have their place.

  8. Mangosman

    The reason why the North America went to cable TV in the beginning was their adoption of NTSC colour coding which meant that reflected signals on off air TV caused a ghost of a different hue. Also in the early days transmitters had trouble getting good differential phase performance that meant that light or dark colours would change hue. Cable TV doesn’t have reflected signals and high powered transmitters are not used.
    In the rest of the world, either PAL and in France, USSR SECAM were used which have no hue problems. None of these TVs have hue controls.

    As a result virtually every house has an external roof mounted directional antenna wired back to the wall socket near the TV. It is common for blocks of apartments have Master Antenna TV systems so each unit has a TV signal socked in the main room. Whilst rabbits ears are sold an discount stores they are not big sellers because reception is unreliable when compared to an antenna which is mounted above the roof.

    If you look at UK TV programs which have street scenes every house has a UHF antenna above the roof.

    Lastly, all of the world except North America is using either DVB-T(2) or ISDB-T digital TV transmission. It uses thousands of carriers like wifi, which rejects reflected signals where as North America uses ATSC 1.0 with uses a single carrier and will not reject reflected signals. This will change if ATSC3.0 is used which also uses COFDM which was invented in Australia.

    1. Michael Black

      No, cable started as “CATV”, Community Antenna TV. Places that had few or no tv stations, there was little choice but to put up antennas on every house. After a while, some places moved to a single tower and cable distribution, “cable”. That started in the sixties, maybe fifties. And it just grew from there. I remember when a kid at school got cable, about 1970, he was able to see shows we couldn’t. For a long time there was no “local” ABC station here, so local cable carried a station from Maine. The dependency became greater once cable started carrying stations that were never over the air, I think HBO was an early example. People may not know about over the air tv these days, but many want those cable channels, which keeps them dependant on cable.

      I don’t remember this “hue” issue. I do remember fairly grainy reception, though that was with a simple indoor antenna. I do remember ghosting, but it was there with black and white and color. Cable did get rid of the ghosting, but I’ve never heard of it as a color issue.


    2. RonF

      Oh, hi Al.

      I see that, along with the rest of your misunderstanding of NTSC, the growth of cable TV in the USA, and the behaviour of ATSC, you’re still pushing the silly “COFDM which was invented in Australia” line.

      Please stop that. It’s not true, it’s not supported by anything other than your misunderstanding (e.g. no, it’s not related to the CSIRO FFT/WiFi patent or indeed anything to do with them, except for the fact that Dr O’Sullivan was also responsible for the original DVB-T trials here), and it also ignores the mountains of published academic, engineering, and personal historic evidence against it.

      I know you’re aware of that evidence – several people, including myself, have pointed to it in other discussions – so it’s baffling why that particular falsehood keeps getting spread…

      1. Mangosman

        You will now have to remember another user name along with all the others you use. Troll.
        Really, so why did the computer companies have to pay the CSIRO 400 million dollars for?
        Troll Malich! and others.

        1. RonF

          Al, please don’t bring your personal issues with me to this forum. If you stick to facts as facts, and opinion as opinion, I don’t think there’ll be a problem. Confuse the two, and … well…

          As to your question, others are free to read & understand the CSIRO patents. They do not describe the invention or implementation of COFDM or FFT – or even DAB or DVB-T. They describe an application of specific techniques to reduce the interfering effect of extremely high-level short-delay echoes (e.g. reflections within a room-sized space) – which is relevant to to 802.11n WiFi but not broadcast COFDM transmissions. Hence the CSIRO’s various court cases to enforce their patents against, and collect royalties from, various WiFi Alliance members.

          Please don’t confuse that with COFDM in general, which is not subject to the CSIRO patent/s – most broadcast / transmission implementations, such as DAB, DVB-T, etc., do not require protection against high-level / short-delay echoes, since any reflections are from more distant sources & therefore lower level and longer delay. The claim that they are subject to the CSIRO patent/s is one you’ve made often, but been unable to support with fact – while all the available & published evidence is that they are not.

          1. RonF

            And my apologies to Thomas & others – this is an issue that has been a bone of contention between Al/Mangosman and I on a different forum for the best part of 10 years.

            Despite all the evidence that COFDM was developed by Robert Chang & others at Bell Labs in the 60’s, that the application of FT & FFT to it predates and was routinely applied to the transmission & reception of COFDM prior to the CSIRO’s work & patent/s, and that the CSIRO’s patents are not relevant to, used by, or licensed to most COFDM implementers such as the DAB or DVB-T standards bodies or manufacturers, Al still maintains that “CSIRO invented COFDM”.

            (Or, in some variations of it, “CSIRO invented FFT”, “CSIRO invented the chipset which was necessary for COFDM to be practical”, or “The CSIRO wa pai millions in royalties which proves they invented COFDM).

            I invite anybody interested in the subject to start with the very interesting article, “The history of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing” by Stephen B. Weinstein – one of the pioneers of OFDM / COFDM.

  9. Mario

    Ah, the venerable rabbit ears of old. How many of you remember standing by the TV and adjusting them while Dad was on the couch barking out orders on which way to turn or angle the telescoping ears?

    1. Kire

      I remember sometimes having to touch one of the ears with my arm outstretched in a certain position for best reception. Ah, the good old days.

  10. TomL

    At work, I had to specify how to implement a TV antenna on the roof of our fast food restaurants because the young people trying to make it work did not know what they were doing and completely failed even though the transmitter was only 12 – 15 miles away! They still sometimes ask me about an antenna part or amp and ask, “Is it Digital?”. Sure, I say, just like that ratchet screwdriver you use to tighten the bolts down!

    It is saving the company thousands of $$$ per year but I get zero reward for it even though the owners pat themselves on the back all the way to the bank!

  11. Saul Broudy

    I’m quite amused that some young folks aren’t aware that there is free OTA TV. When cable service salesmen come to the door, I tell them that I watch TV (33+ channels here in Philadelphia) over-the-air, “the way God wants us to”.

    How times change. I am 74, and was manning a table at a community event last week. The (40-something?) fellows at the table next to me were advertising their firm, “Vector Security”. I attempted some humor when we parted, saying “Give my best to your parent company RCA Vector.” They had no clue what I was talking about. In fairness, they had heard of RCA.


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