In the digital TV era, rabbit ears multiply

LOS ANGELES — On a recent winter night, the Lams and their three children sat in front of a television set with rabbit ears sprouting out of the top.

Wait a second — rabbit ears? Is this 1950? No, it's almost 2010, and the Lams are a modern Los Angeles family that is rediscovering the convenience — and economics — of the old-fashioned TV antenna.

In the wake of the transition to digital television, many Southern California viewers find they can get nearly three times as many channels as they once could with an antenna. And rather than the erratic, fuzzy reception of yesteryear, today's rabbit ears are capable of delivering a surprisingly clear high-definition picture.

Best of all, it's free, said Nancy Lam, the mother of the family. "I've saved a lot of money by getting rid of cable," Lam said. "We only had to purchase the antenna one time and now we have it forever — instead of paying every single month."

In these penny-pinching times, watching TV over the airwaves is becoming an increasingly attractive option for many households, particularly among minority communities.

While the number of households with antennas in the U.S. dipped slightly in the last year, nearly 20,000 Asian-American homes in the region began using rabbit ears, and another 8,000 blacks switched to over-the-air TV, according to Nielsen Co., a media research firm.

Nearly a quarter of Latino households with televisions, or about 440,000 homes, already tune in with an antenna — the most of any demographic group in the area. But watching TV over the airwaves has begun to appeal to a broader audience as well.

"It's the best-kept secret around here," said Mike Mahan, who recently installed a pair of antennas in the attic of his home in the Orange County community of Ladera Ranch and dropped his cable subscription. "I just got tired of paying for hundreds of channels I don't watch."

With antennas that can cost as little as a dollar, most Los Angeles viewers now can pick up close to 70 channels, up from around 26 before the federally mandated digital switchover last summer. Nearly a dozen of the digital channels now are broadcast in high definition.

"Everyone who does it says the picture quality is actually better than what you're getting through cable," said Patricia McDonough, a senior vice president at Nielsen.

As more viewers tune in to the newly re-energized possibilities of broadcast, manufacturers say they can't make antennas fast enough.

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