Low End Theory

Skin Deep


By Brendan I. Koerner

There's a classic moment early in John Carpenter's They Live in which the protagonist (ably played by "Rowdy" Roddy Piper) first obtains the Ray-Bans that reveal the aliens among us. He notices one such E.T., disguised as a dowdy fiftysomething women, applying lipstick to her lizard-like visage. "Lady," the Rowdster contemptuously snorts, "that's like putting perfume on a pig."

Little did everyone's favorite kilted wrestler know that he was neatly summarizing the decades-long design trend in low-end TV antennas, which have become ever-more impressive looking while still providing the same craptacular benefits. Come on, you know what I'm talking about—the humble rabbit ears of yore have given way to contraptions that resemble CIA listening posts from the 1960s. The skin-deep evolution of TV antennas provides an invaluable—nay, indispensable—object lesson on the psychology of low-end consumers. For those latter-day Icaruses who dare challenge the gods, that lesson is haphazardly described after the jump. PLUS: Disgruntled Brazilians sound off about the nimble-fingered Taxman!

I'm not exactly sure when set-top antennas started to take their design cues from the Hoth Planet energy cannons, but I vividly recall my own first experience with this particular segment of the low-end market. I was a freshman in college, Bill Clinton had just won the White House, and people were actually paying good money to see Home Alone 2 in the theater. Most importantly, my roommates and I couldn't get cable in our dorm room, and the factory antenna couldn't pick up much more than the local NBC affiliate. So a Radio Shack run is organized, and there we come across a set-top antenna featuring a knob-adjusted dish in lieu of a simple wire coil. It looked cool as all get out, and even worked a smidge—though you could hardly call the effects miraculous. If memory serves, we were able to get Fox and maybe one other VHF channel, but UHF was hopeless. So much for us watching Nova, like all good college students of the day.

Since then, I've had occasion to try at least half-a-dozen other futuristic-looking antennas. The vogue for radar dishes has since given way to sleeker designs, with the Jensen TV-631 being the best example. Another favorite, design-wise, is the RCA/Thompson ANT-145, which replaces the dish with a disc, one that closely resembles the naked woofer of a 1980s cabinet speaker. To the untrained eye, all of these antennas look as if they should perform a billion times better than a barebones loop-and-ears setup.

But that's really not the case, now, is it? In fact, I'd dare say that you're not going to find much better performance in a sub-$20 antenna than what's offered by the GE TV24731. Yes, there may be differences in durability, especially if you're the sort who likes to get all hopped up on Yukon Jack and throw bricks at your set. And I'll concede that I've been impressed by antenna hype sheets that make note of HDTV compatibility. But come on, if you went through the trouble of getting yourself an HDTV set, aren't you almost certainly the sort of bloke who will also spring for cable? Antennas are for those of us who are still stuck with 13-inch Apex boxes, and remain criminally deprived of access to the likes of Animal Planet.

Yet some pretty solid companies continue revamping their set-top antenna designs every few years, to make them seem increasingly fit for our Jetsons future—though they also manage the neat trick of keeping prices consistently under $20. (Good rule of thumb: If you can afford an over-$20 set-top antenna, get yourself frickin' cable, man.) So what does it all mean? Well, the obvious lesson is that, because the low-end market is largely devoid of reviews (an oversight I hope to be changing soon), us budget consumers can only judge a book by its cover. I hunted a looooooong time for an article that benchmarks rival sub-$20 TV antennas, but came up with nil. (Then again, benchmarking TV antennas is pretty hard to do, because the uncontrollable factors that affect reception—such as weather—change so suddenly, and without warning.)

But I also think the evolution of low-end TV antenna designs shows that low-end consumers are, in fact, a lot more status conscious than we're willing to admit. It may be a misguided consciousness, akin to that displayed by folks who brag about the really cool spoiler they just added to the rear of their 1989 Honda Civic. But even us cheap bastards don't enjoy being perceived as such—on some level, we're ashamed of our cheapness, whether because it indicates that we're losing in the game of life, or we're just hopeless misers. (In my case, a little from Column A, a little from Column B.) So if buying the $19 Jensen antenna will help cover up that shame a bit better than the $8 GE unit, then it's money well spent. We'll just save up the difference by eating unseasoned spaghetti for a few days.

Low End Theory

Don't misunderstand me, though. Us low-enders remain a fiercely proud lot on oh-so-many levels. In fact, I can honestly say that I live by some of the Mr. Piper's other immortal words from They Live: "I've come here to chew bubblegum, and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."

THE TAXMAN COMETH: Big response from south of the Equator to last week's column on Brazilian low-end electronics. Turns out I was onto something, in terms of explaining why TV sets aren't suitably cheap in Salvador de Bahia. The nation's sales taxes, I've been informers, are totally out of control—one correspondent said that they can add up to 40 percent to the street price of a product. Super ouch.

Additionally, protectionist laws preclude the importation of TVs. The native brands are instead manufactured in the Amazonian city of Manaus, which is a special economic zone in the middle of frickin' nowhere. Meanwhile, boomboxes and other small pieces of audio equipment are cheaper because so many of them are smuggled across the border from Paraguay. Let's hear it for black-market competition, the truest friend the low-end consumer will ever know.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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