Antenna sales are rising, in another sign of churn in TV watching

But the number of local installers is shrinking.

Once known as “rabbit ears” because of their shape, antennas pull in actual broadcast signals to TVs, something that was once everyday knowledge but got lost as people for more than a generation came to rely on cable and satellite providers.

In the Twin Cities and much of Minnesota, antenna users can receive 28 to 62 TV channels, often in high-definition quality, over the air at no expense. Local antenna installers say business has been rising about 20 percent to 25 percent annually for several years.

Tom McGlynn, owner of St. Paul-based Mr. HDTV Man, noticed the change about three years ago. “It wasn’t just the traditional cost-cutter upset over the latest cable bill who was calling,” McGlynn said. “I started getting calls from affluent clientele in the western suburbs, seniors who have long resisted change, and millennials who wanted local channels to add to their streaming of Netflix and Sling.”

Twenty percent of homes in the U.S. use a digital antenna to access live TV, up from 16 percent just two years ago, according to Parks Associates market research in Texas. The Twin Cities has an even higher antenna percentage. It’s the eighth largest broadcast-only market in the country, with more than 22 percent of homes using antennas to get local TV, according to TVb.org, a local broadcast trade association.

Duane Wawrzyniak, owner of Electronic Servicing in Silver Lake, Minn., near Hutchinson, said his antenna business has doubled in the past five years. “When Dish and DirecTV came out to the rural areas in 2000 to 2005, it was a big deal. Our antenna business went away,” he said. “But people got tired of having a $100 TV bill every month for channels they never watch.”

Yet even as sales rise, the number of antenna installers in the Twin Cities is shrinking.

 Installations can be dangerous work, especially on homes with steep roofs, Wawrzyniak said. He sometimes asks himself what he’s doing on a roof at age 59. “I don’t see a lot of younger people getting into the business,” he said. “They can do commercial or industrial electrical and make more money.”

Dave Fazendin, co-owner of Johnny’s TV in Stillwater, said he and his guys don’t want to get on roofs anymore. “We’d rather do home theater, “ he said. “It’s more lucrative.”

Most first time antenna users try a simple indoor antenna, priced as low as $20, that is easy to set up themselves. However in most cases these indoor antennas do not work unless your within 10 miles of the transmitting towers. This is due to problems such trees, tall buildings, low-lying areas but most of all the antenna placement in the home. These issues are solved with an outdoor antenna which you can install yourself but it can be tricky and very dangerous for a homeowner Wawrzyniak said. “I would recommend a professional installer who can install it for you for as little as $350 to $400.”

“You’ll pay for the cost of installation in three or four months compared to the average cable bill,” said Mike Ness of Ness Electronics, an antenna supplier in Burnsville. Ness has gone as far as to introduce a new line of antennas specifically made for the Twin Cities market called the BlueSky antenna.

Some reputable local installers such as Mr. HDTV Man reassure skeptical customers by guaranteeing reception or they won’t charge for the visit. “If we can’t get all the network and HD channels with good reception (28 channels from the Shoreview towers) we won’t put the antenna up,” McGlynn said, referring to the sites in the northeastern suburb  from which all the local TV stations transmit their signal. We don’t charge our customers gimmicky consulting fees or use inferior plastic antennas that can not hold up to our severe Minnesota winters like some installers. That’s how we offer a one to five year warranty on reception.

 Shaymein Ewer tried an antenna at his home in Richfield but couldn’t get KARE 11 and returned to a cable subscription. After moving to Crystal recently, he wondered if the reception would improve. He purchased a new antenna online, tried again himself and is happy so far.

“Why should I pay an extra $10 a month for HD channels when I can get them free over the air with an antenna?” Ewer asked. He pays extra for streaming services that offer most of what he wants. “Even paying $35 a month for streaming, I’m still saving money over cable,” he said.

Cable companies, such as Twin Cities market leader Comcast, have evolved to face the challenge by wrapping internet streaming services and cable channels without the need to switch inputs or change remotes. For the budget-conscious, it offers the relatively unknown Limited Basic package (about 30 channels including local) for $25 or Digital Economy (about 50 channels including a dozen cable) for $40 plus fees, according to Comcast.

Some consumers wonder if the price of streaming services will eventually rise to cost as much as cable or satellite service. SlingTV, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV each increased their cost this year by $5 a month.

 McGlynn thinks streaming companies will still have an advantage because of their pricing transparency. “The frustration of many cable customers is knowing that everyone can pay a different price based on introductory specials, negotiating, not negotiating or bundling,” he said. Comcast is our own private marketing and sales force organization. We don’t have to advertise.

Streaming services also allow customers to cancel at any time without penalty. “Hopefully, that keeps them competitive,” McGlynn said.

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