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Cord-cutting tools from Dish and Xbox help boost antenna sales

Vintage TV with Rabbit Ear AntennaVintage TV with Rabbit Ear Antenna

It’s a fine time to be a cord-cutter. New technology like Dish’s $20/month Sling service and Microsoft’s Xbox TV tuner make it easier than ever for consumers to ditch the cable company while still getting a decent fix of television. Meanwhile, these new services have also proved a boon for a small antenna company that styles itself as an important piece of the cord-cutting puzzle.

According to John Crabill, an executive with Mohu, the company’s sales doubled during the January and February period when Dish(DISH) announced Sling, which lets consumers buy a bundle of cable channels over the internet. And Mohu got another bump after Microsoft(MSFT) announced last month that Xbox users could add a tuner to watch over-the-air TV on the video game console.

“It’s been going gangbusters all year long,” said Crabill by phone, noting that Mohu recently won shelf-space at Best Buy, and is expanding its presence at Wal-Mart(WMT) and on Amazon (AMZN)

For Mohu, which has 70 employees based in Raleigh, North Carolina, the recent uptick is just the latest twist in an unlikely story in which a nearly century-old technology – the humble TV antenna –is suddenly a hot seller.

If you’re unfamiliar, the tech in question is the same as what your parents or grandparents once used to get TV: An antenna that picks up the free broadcast shows that are sent via high transmission tours by the likes of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Mohu and competitors like Clearstream, however, have improved the design of the antennas to receive more channels in clearer quality. Unlike the “rabbit ears” of yesterday, the newer antennas are typically paper-thin like Mohu’s flagship Leaf 30, which sells for $39.95, and looks like this:

Mohu Leaf

Mohu’s Crabill wouldn’t provide specific unit sales or revenues since the company is private, so we can’t prove what he’s saying about antennas is true. But his account of the recent uptick is plausible enough as cord-cutting accelerates, and people make free over-the-air channels one of the pillars of their home entertainment equation. (In my home, we use a $30 antenna from GE to pull down basic broadcast channels, and supplement that with Netflix, Amazon Prime video and MLB TV; it’s way cheaper than cable, and I can rely on the local sports bar in the event a big game is not shown over-the-air).

The options are even broader now with Sling’s $20 package (which includes ESPN and CNN), and the Xbox TV tuner. The latter option doesn’t mean more channels, but it does give Xbox fans the convenience of streaming, and even pausing, over-the-air TV through the video game console. Of course, in both these case, an antenna is required to pick up those over-the-air channels.

So who are all these modern-day antenna buyers? Crabill says they fall into three categories: disgruntled 35-45 year olds (like me) who see cable as a fundamental rip-off and now refuse to pay for it; low-income or penny pinching folks who decide they can’t afford $100 cable bills; millennials who like TV, but don’t understand why people would sign up for a cable contract in the first place.

It’s hard to see the trend abating, especially as Apple’s long-awaited-but-never-here TV may come to fruition. Reports say the iPhone maker is still wooing broadcast networks to be part of its content package – raising the question of why Apple(AAPL) is bothering in the first place. Perhaps the offering could just include an Apple antenna instead?