The average American cable bill for expanded basic service, the most popular package, more than doubled from 1995 to 2011, according to a federal study. During that time, the number of available channels tripled, but customer satisfaction dropped to record lows. How did we get here?
Not so long ago, there were no monthly cable bills. Families made one-time purchases: a television and an antenna. After that, TV was free.
Antennas never disappeared; they evolved. New antennas from Audiovox, Antennas Direct, and Aereo outgrew their rabbit-ear appearances and picked up several interesting new traits along the way.
Over-the-air television offers more than you might think. After the digital TV conversion in 2009, several networks switched to high-definition broadcasts. You need an antenna that was built in the past few years (and an HD TV) to take advantage of the sharp image quality, but the service is still free.
And some areas now get more than 40 over-the-air channels. To see what's available in your area, head to antennaweb.org. The website will ask for your ZIP Code and then list each network in your area. AntennaWeb cannot guarantee service, but it maps out the broadcast towers, so, if necessary, you can point your antenna directly at the station you want.
Indoor antennas now come in a range of shapes and prices. The Terk HDTVa boasts really strong reception, but it looks like a shard of alien technology. The Antennas Direct ClearStream Micron-R, on the other hand, resembles an Internet router and blends in well with most TV equipment.
Rather than plug into a television set, the Audiovox Mobile TV (0) connects to smart phones and tablets. With four hours of battery life and the ability to pause or rewind live TV, the pocket-sized antenna works on the go. However, make sure to visit dyle.tv to find out if the device works in your area.
Aereo presents another spin on network TV. The online service (starting at $8 a month) sends over-the-air channels to computers, phones, and tablets. Customers can also record as much as 60 hours of programming.
• Part 1 of two parts. Tomorrow: The best devices and services for streaming TV shows online.
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