Largely relegated to obscurity decades ago, old-fashioned television broadcasts—over the airwaves and not via cable or satellite—are enjoying an unexpected revival in the digital era.
With an increased array of online-video programming now drawing viewers' attention, companies are starting to pitch consumers on complementing online video streamed from the Web with broadcast-TV signals as a way to save money on cable subscriptions.
If it gains traction, this trend could undercut part of the rationale for selling off TV spectrum in voluntary auctions, approved by Congress on Friday, aimed at freeing up spectrum for wireless broadband.
There are signs that consumers are responding. TV-antenna seller Richard Schneider of St. Louis says sales at his company are soaring. Mr. Schneider's Antennas Direct sold 70,000 antennas in January, and he expects to double last year's sales of about 600,000. That was up from 400,000 antennas in 2010.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. recently agreed to sell Mr. Schneider's antennas, the retailer confirmed Friday, joining Best Buy Co., Costco Wholesale Corp. and others.
Mr. Schneider's antennas cost from $50 to $150, and he says the typical customer saves $96 a month by "cutting the cord" on cable or satellite TV, according a survey his company conducted...
"Every time that Hulu and Netflix enhance their services, our phones light up," said Mr., Schneider, referring to two online-video services. (Hulu is an online-video service owned by Walt Disney Co., Providence Equity Partners, Hulu employees, Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal and News Corp. News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.)
TV executives lately have warned that cable's rising subscription costs may prompt people to cut back. Indeed, in the past 18 months, the number of overall pay-TV subscribers has largely stagnated, after years of steady growth. At the same time, the number of American households wired with only broadband and broadcast TV jumped 23% to 5.1 million in the third quarter of 2011 compared with the year-earlier period, according to a recent Nielsen study.
"It's not a stretch to think that the broadcast business model will outlive that of cable," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. "The naysayers can talk all they want about broadcasting being a dinosaur."
The big media companies that own the major broadcast networks are generally eager to preserve the current cable-centric model. Not only do they mostly own big portfolios of cable channels; media outlets also haven't figured out how to generate advertising revenues from online outlets in the same proportion as off-line. So the shift of viewers from traditional TV to the Web could hurt ad revenues.
Mr. Schneider, the antenna seller, meanwhile, has been lately partnering with TV stations to give away antennas and spread the gospel of cord-cutting. He says that for some stations the giveaways are about increasing viewership while for others it's "out a sense of duty to their community."http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000...html#printMode