Not-so-prime-time TV

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I love my rabbit ears. There is something endearingly retro, if not so attractive, about an old-fashioned antenna on top of a TV. Especially if it's there to get cutting-edge, digital broadcasts with DVD-quality video and surround sound. All through a $20 set of rabbit ears.

If only it were that easy.

Some weeks ago, we cut the cable, stopping our $100 cable service to live in the new world of digital broadcasts. It's a great idea, but like so much tech, not ready for prime time.

I had tested a few TVs that came with digital tuners and got beautiful video through my cheap antenna. Our TV doesn't have a digital tuner, so I spent about $170 on one made by Humax, about the cheapest I could find.

Then frustration set in. Yeah, the tuner found stations, but it wouldn't hold them. We'd stare at a magnifying glass floating on a dark screen, which is Humax's way of telling us, "Cool your heels; we're searching for a signal."

See, digital works in ones and zeroes. In broadcast, ones mean a beautiful picture. Zeroes, well, that means you ain't gettin' diddly. With old-style analog broadcasts, you'd at least see a fuzzy, ghosted picture. My son clearly preferred the latter. "Please, Dad," he'd plead. "I don't want to watch the magnifying glass."

So I tried a different tuner – one that plugs into a computer, but that's another story. The point is that it works, and with some old-time antenna turning, we're watching crystal-clear television. Turns out the new tuner has "fifth generation" chips and electronics from another company, LG, which are better at decoding a weak digital signal. Fine, but who's going to sort that out for my Aunt Theresa in Tennessee?

Sure, we could probably solve our issues with a better antenna, particularly one on the roof or even in the attic. But we're in temporary quarters, and I didn't want to bother yet. I did try another set-top antenna – a fancy delta-shaped one that looks like it's ready to shoot a death ray. It didn't work any better, and besides, it just didn't have the same charm as my rabbit ears.