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Why is Antenna TV Thriving in the Age of Netflix?

It’s where classic TV and Johnny Carson still rule the airwaves. And it’s free!
  • Everything old is new again on Antenna TV.
    Everything old is new again on Antenna TV.

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

    Antenna TV is, in fact, the name of a TV 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 TV from the era 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 a TV.

    You may not have noticed them on your TV dial because, for many of us, “the TV dial” is an increasingly irrelevant concept. TV is what you watch on tablets and phones and Fire sticks and Rokus. Still, if you have a big screen you can get dozens of channels like Antenna TV, and they’re free, and they stay on when your Internet goes out, so maybe get to know them better?

    When I was growing up, there were just two TV stations in my hometown in Montana. One carried CBS, the other juggled NBC and ABC shows. But when I was five, my family ditched their TV antenna and a magical wire came into our house. This wire brought in stations from as far away as Utah and Alberta, that let me watch NBC and ABC shows at their regularly scheduled times, and shows like The Electric Company on PBS. And thanks to a station in Denver called KWGN, I was introduced to a slew of classic TV shows that I had been too young to remember, like Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, and the sublime Get Smart

    Over time that thick cord of coaxial wire would turn into cable TV and bring us channels like TBS and Nick at Nite that raised classic TV reruns to an art form, with whimsical promotion that made even a 20-year-old Dick Van Dyke Show episode seem fresh and new. As our monthly cable bills spiraled upward, though, these channels switched to making original content, which was even more profitable than showing reruns. While this was a blessing to all the C-list celebrities and home-improvement experts who got their own shows, it left Andy Griffith and Archie Bunker homeless.

    That’s where the new generation of classic TV channels came in. In the 1990s, the federal government forced TV stations to convert their old analog TV signals to digital. Most of us know this as the beginning of the HDTV era, but that same technology also allowed broadcasters to split up their signals and begin multicasting. Thanks to digital compression, each of your local stations could add three or four of these multicast channels without affecting the quality of their primary channel. These new channels weren’t in high-definition — there wasn’t enough bandwidth for that — but when you’re watching a Sanford and Son from 1974, who cares?

    Public media was an early adopter of multicasting. My local PBS station airs two completely different 24-hour channels that are programmed here in Kansas City, plus two more supplied by PBS at a national level, including a commercial-free kids channel. For commercial stations the transition was slower. Viewers didn’t know about them at first, and the money wasn't there. Even now if you tune in Antenna TV, the breaks are filled with the low-hanging fruit of the ad business — those two-minute “call now!” commercials like Tom Selleck hawking reverse mortgages.

    The first time people saw Antenna TV was probably when their cable provider tacked it onto the grid, way down there in the 800s. (Seeing Johnny Carson in his plaid Nixon-era suits does get your attention.) Once viewers began cutting the cord, their CNN and MTV went away, but the window wire kept the NBC, ABC, and CBS signals coming in… along with MeTV, Bounce, Antenna TV and the rest. New multicast channels kept coming online, backed by the biggest names in local television. Your rabbit ears can pick up more channels today than your cable company offered 25 years ago. According to one ratings report, ThisTV — an all-movies channel backed by MGM and Nexstar — would be the eighth most-watched cable channel in America, except you don't need cable to watch it, which is why ThisTV is available in 88 million homes, 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 come back again as one of the sidecar channels on my local Fox affiliate. And there’s always new product for the oldies market. Antenna TV just replaced Barney Miller with Who’s the Boss? Norman Lear, in his 99th year, will be more ubiquitous than ever in 2021 as Antenna TV, which already airs Maude and Archie Bunker’s Place, brings back The Jeffersons and the original One Day At A Time.

    Multicasting started as a survival technique for local TV stations, which by 2010 had given up more than half of their audience to cable. But my, how the tables have turned. Now it’s cable TV that’s losing its lunch money, as viewers find a Netflix subscription, with its endless menu and no commercials, more satisfying than an hour of cable with 41 minutes of program, 19 minutes of ads and 100 bucks a month. No wonder millions of people every year are pulling their cable, dismantling their dishes, and putting up antennas. Antennas! Talk about a rerun.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Antenna TV, Court TV, MeTV, Archie Bunker's Place, Bounce TV, The Jeffersons, Maude, Murphy Brown, One Day at a Time (1975 series), The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Who's the Boss?, Johnny Carson