TV Antennas Sprout Up Anew

The switch to digital and the lure of getting HDTV over the air fuel a small company's rise.

Television, uncropped
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The TV antenna is making a comeback. Since the spread of cable and satellite systems, the lowly antenna has fallen on hard times. It's been widely seen as marking a household too poor or too cheap to pay for the crisp, clear reception of modern, subscription television.

Not anymore. Antennas are back in demand for discerning viewers who want only the best for their high-dollar HDTVs. And almost overnight, St. Louisan Richard Schneider has built this piece of retro tech into a multimillion-dollar business that continues to boom. "People thought I was pretty nutty to be spending time and effort developing television antennas," says Schneider, owner of Antennas Direct.

The nuttiness began about six years ago, he says, as a hobby that later spiraled out of control. Schneider worked at the time helping choose locations for cellphone transmitters. That made him aware before the rest of us that a few TV stations had new transmitters broadcasting in a new, digital format.

Those stations were the leading edge of a government-mandated transition from analog to digital broadcasts that finishes next February. Some of the early signals, beguilingly, even carried high-definition images when there was little content for the big, new expensive HDTVs.

Schneider found it difficult to grab the new signals from the air, even with the station's help. He could call a local channel and the engineer might adjust the broadcast to help Schneider bring it home. "The engineer knew all his digital viewers by first name," he says.

Schneider then started futzing with antennas. He built a few that outperformed anything he'd bought, and soon friends and neighbors were asking him to make more. He built 50, threw up a website, and sold out almost immediately. Some months later, after selling $2,000 worth of antennas in a day, Schneider quit his day job.

Antennas Direct will sell about 50,000 antennas this year and take in more than $3.5 million, Schneider says. The company's researchers are crafting new models that get better reception while shrinking in size and incorporating attractive design. Aesthetics drive efforts to shrink the TV antenna to the size of a satellite dish, which is an accepted part of modern rooftops. "It's part of socializing the idea of using antennas again," Schneider says. One of his popular designs incorporates an indoor antenna in a picture frame.

Other popular products look small for antennas, like oversize, airy waffle irons. Those range in price from $50 to $120. They're actually based on designs that have been around since the 1940s, says John McMillian, owner of Signal Seekers, a St. Louis company that installs antennas. "My dad's dad was installing models very similar," McMillian says. But Schneider fine-tuned the design, and his versions hold up better than others, McMillian says.

There aren't many others. An industry of several hundred antenna makers shrank over the years to about a half dozen, Schneider says. Innovation also suffered. Schneider says he could find no new patents for TV antennas for the past 15 or 20 years. "We have first-mover advantage in a 75-year-old business," he says with a laugh.

His first customers came from the ranks of videophiles, folks with expensive home theaters and little to show. Even today, they argue that the best live HDTV comes over the air, where it suffers less compression than in cable or satellite systems.

Now average Americans find his site as they ready for the switch to digital TV broadcasts. Some analysts say angst stirred by the switch will drive many antenna customers to cable or satellite. Schneider thinks the opposite could happen: Americans paying money for cable's good reception will realize they can do just as well with free, over-the-air broadcasts.

"I kiss the dirt every day that Sony or Samsung or one of the other big companies hasn't gotten into this business," he says. "It's going to be big enough to interest them one day."