In the 1960s, there was an antenna on the roof of nearly every house in the central San Joaquin Valley, and the only three TV stations viewers could reliably receive were the local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates (and on a good day, perhaps the lone independent station).
Now, as cable and satellite services offer hundreds of channels in dozens of languages and cater to almost every niche of viewing interest — at prices ranging from $30 to $100 or more every month — the notion of using a rooftop antenna to receive "free TV" seems almost quaint.
But as channels proliferate on subscription-based pay-TV systems such as cable, satellite and telephone companies (collectively known in the industry as "multi-channel video providers"), the conversion by broadcasters to digital transmission a few years ago means there are also more local channels available for free. Compared with just four local stations before 1971, now there are almost 60 channels waiting to be plucked from the air by an antenna in the Fresno area.
Simply put, this ain't your grandpa's free TV anymore.
That realization — nudged along by the monthly arrival of the cable or satellite bill in the mail and the growing popularity of streaming online video services like Netflix or Hulu — has more people giving serious thought to "cutting the cord" and going back to the rooftop antenna.
Fresno game-store owner Jennifer Ward is a pay-TV refugee. "No cable for me," she said on Facebook. "It's a combination of Netflix, Hulu Plus and iTunes. I figure I'm saving about $300 a year and don't have to deal with bad customer service."
Price and channel selection also were considerations for Doug Snider of Visalia, who used to subscribe to Comcast but cut the cord about five years ago.
"I'm cheap, and I thought cable was started so we wouldn't have commercials," Snider said. "If I could pick just the seven or 10 channels I want to watch, I'd happily pay $30 a month. But for what I get, it's just not worth it."
Snider added that he and his wife, Marilyn, had cable, but "decided why should we spend money for that when we get a heck of a lot more" online, he added. The couple uses a small indoor antenna "that really picks up well" the local TV stations.
Others, like Fresno storyteller and photographer Delaine Zody, never had a cord to cut. "We've never had cable or any service," Zody said in a Twitter post. "Always used our antenna. Now we use Hulu or iTunes to see shows as well."
A trend or not?
Exactly how prevalent cord-cutting is in the Fresno area is hard to pin down. Pay TV providers like Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network or AT&T don't like to reveal their subscription numbers for particular television markets.
But electronics stores throughout the Valley stock a respectable variety of antennas designed to pick up digital signals and feed them to your TV. And customers are buying them.
"We are selling so much more now than we were just a few years ago," said Dennis Patton, a salesman at Ventura TV in southeast Fresno. "I'm selling an average of seven antennas every day."
"People tell us they're tired of Comcast and satellite because they sign up for a deal, and then they see their bills start to go up" by $20 or $30 a month after the special promotion ends, Patton said.
How do the costs stack up? A TV antenna is a one-time expense. You can find indoor table-top antennas for under $15 or as much as $100, while rooftop antennas start at about $40 (including the pole) and can exceed $100.
You can pay extra for installation if you don't want to do it yourself. If you've got an older television, you may also need to buy a converter box to change the new digital signals into something your old TV can show, but newer TVs won't need any additional equipment.
There's a trade-off, though. Some of the most popular channels on cable and satellite services, including ESPN, Discovery Channel, Fox News Channel and CNN, and premium movie channels like HBO and Showtime, simply aren't available on free, over-the-air TV. Customers have to consider their viewing habits and priorities as they weigh their viewing options.
In the Fresno area, the regular price of Comcast's Xfinity television service (not counting introductory new-customer specials) starts at about $30 per month for the most basic package of about 50 channels including local channels; the more channels you want, the more the monthly price goes up, to about $90 or more.
Prices also depend on the channel selection for satellite services such as Dish Network or DirecTV, or for TV packages through telephone companies. Options can range from about $20 per month for the starter lineup to $100 or $125 for packages with "the works."
Cord-cutting is a difficult trend to pin down on a national level. The National Association of Broadcasters points to a study that suggests that more than 19% of U.S. households — almost one in five — rely only on free, over-the-air broadcasts for their television signals.
That research, conducted by GfK SE, estimates that more than 22 million TV households don't subscribe to traditional multichannel services.
The Consumer Electronics Association, however, reports that its own research shows that only 7% of TV households are broadcast-only homes.
The truth likely sits somewhere between those two figures. The Nielsen Company — famous for its TV ratings — estimated earlier this year that broadcast-only households numbered almost 11.2 million. That's just under 10% of all TV households counted by Nielsen — about the same share as it was in 2010.
While there is a great deal of uncertainty over the growth of cord-cutting, one thing that is clear is that the cable TV industry has lost customers over the past year or so.
SNL Kagen, a media analysis firm, estimates that U.S. cable companies collectively lost about 1.8 million customers since mid-2012.
Another company, Leichtman Research Group, pegs the number at more than 1.5 million lost cable customers between early 2012 and 2013, on top of another 1.5 million who abandoned cable the previous year.
"While some consumers have been 'cutting the cord' over the past few years, the numbers were never enough" to put a major dent in the overall cable/satellite/telco TV subscription base, the Leichtman report stated.
"It is, however, simplistic to attribute the current state of the industry solely ... to cord cutting since the actual dynamics impacting the industry are far more nuanced," the report added.
Satellite and telephone companies have both gained subscribers over the past couple of years.
The real winners appear to be online streaming services, which provide movies and other programs not available on cable, satellite or over the air.
The Leichtman survey estimated that of TV households that don't subscribe to multichannel services, 42% do subscribe to at least one online streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu Plus.
But if you're going that route, you're still dealing with a high-speed Internet service provider — like a cable or telephone company.
"If it wasn't for the best Internet in Madera being from Comcast, I would cut the cord," said Jack Porter, who operates an Internet news site, in a Facebook post. "We no longer watch TV on TV's schedule. We watch the shows we like using (Xfinity) On Demand, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus."
For those who have high-speed Internet service at home, Netflix and Hulu Plus each charge about $8 a month for online streaming of movies and TV shows, whether on a computer, a smart phone or on a TV connected to the Internet or through a video game console.
Amazon Prime charges a $79 annual fee that provides access to its library of streaming movies, TV shows and other programming, as well as shipping discounts on purchases from Amazon.com and access to books on the company's Kindle library.
Comcast says it's not worried about Netflix, Hulu Plus or other online streaming services cramping its its business model.
"They need to have a great broadband (Internet) experience," Bird said, "and you need the best network into the home and the best Wi-Fi experience in the home, and we believe we have both."
"If these businesses want to launch their services," he added, "they are going to utilize our broadband network because it is the best broadband network from an experience standpoint, and that is good for our business."
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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, email@example.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.