Back to the Future: TV Antenna Makes Comeback, Gets Some Static

Photograph by Don Carstens/Getty Images

Several tech startups are selling products or services that rely on antennas to grab over-the-air TV signals.

Rabbit ears are hopping back into the picture.

Several startups are breathing new life into an old technology that relies on antennas to grab over-the-air TV signals.

“Rabbit ears, broadcast television: It is a forgotten technology,” Boxee Chief Executive Officer Avner Ronen said in a recent interview. “It is back to the future a little bit.”

His company, which makes set-top-box software that delivers on-demand TV, introduced an accessory in January that connects to a small high-definition antenna to access over-the-air broadcast networks (or users can plug in a cable). The Boxee Live TV device is billed as a replacement for cable service.

Foursquare Chief Executive Officer Dennis Crowley was impressed enough with the technology to tweet, “Psyched to be hosting a cable-free SuperBowl party,” which he punctuated with “#QuitCable.”

Boxee isn’t alone. Mobile Content Venture (MCV), which is made up of broadcast groups including Fox and NBC, plans to launch a service this year called Dyle that offers live, local TV on the go. The service requires a compatible mobile device, the Dyle app and an antenna.

When it debuts this year, MCV says the service will be available from more than 90 stations in 35 markets, and reach more than half the U.S. population.

NPD analyst Ross Rubin sees live TV as a “compelling complement to on-demand programming.” He said it’s “one of the few weapons they have to deliver a greater swath of programming.”

However, this revival of the TV antenna is getting a cold reception in at least one corner.

Broadcast networks including ABC filed two complaints in federal court in Manhattan last month against a Web-based TV service called Aereo that lets users access broadcast television on mobile devices. The service, which charges a monthly fee of $12, is delivered via quarter-inch antennas that are placed in data centers.  The technology uses existing broadcasting signals and lets consumers bypass cable or satellite service.

The networks accused Aereo of “infringement.

Mike Schroeder, a spokesman for Aereo, said in a statement that “consumers are legally entitled to access broadcast television via an antenna.”

Billionaire Barry Diller, an investor in Aereo, testified Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the future of TV that telecommunications law needs to be rewritten to reflect the blurring lines between Internet, cable and broadcast providers.

“It’s overdue given the Internet,” said the chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp.

Who would have thought that an antenna would catch so much static.

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