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Many people turned to cable to watch the Olympic events that were not covered on network TV. But with basic cable bills at a national average of $50 a month, some viewers are questioning whether it's worth it, especially when they can watch some TV shows for free at online sites like Hulu. And since last year's transition from analog to digital broadcasting, there's another free alternative: over-the-air TV.

Catherine Welch of member station WHQR explains.

CATHERINE WELCH: Trapped inside on a cold gray morning, Elizabeth and Philip Humphrey's three children stand perfectly still in front of the TV, all eyes glued on Elmo.

(Soundbite of TV program)

Unidentified Man: Why don't you talk to a glass of water?

ELMO: Yeah, Elmo could talk to water?

Unidentified Man: I'll tell you anything you want to know.

ELMO: Okay. Ooh, how does it feel to be water?

Unidentified Man: Wet.

WELCH: Thanks to digital over-the-air signals, the Humphrey kids can watch Elmo, Arthur and other favorites on one of three digital channels broadcast by North Carolina's PBS stations. The Humphreys also get the additional digital channels offered by their commercial network affiliates, giving them about 12 channels to choose from, depending on where they point their antenna.

(Soundbite of children)

WELCH: Philip Humphrey climbs up into the attic, pushing past boxes of Christmas junk..

Mr. MACK HUMPHREY: I can see what's up there.

WELCH: ...to where he mounted his new antenna.

Mr. PHILIP HUMPHREY: Basically it looks like a two and a half-by-two and a half square piece of welded wire fabric.

WELCH: Thats attached to the rafters and connected to the Humphreys' brand new HD television set downstairs. For the one-time cost of the set and the $75 antenna, the Humphreys have found an alternative to monthly cable bills.

During the national transition to digital television last summer, the cable and satellite industries pushed hard to get viewers to subscribe, implying they might lose channels if they didnt. But many viewers didnt bite.

Richard Schneider owns Antennas Direct in St. Louis.

Mr. RICHARD SCHNEIDER (Owner, Antennas Direct): What happened on the way to the graveyard is people started realizing they're extremely surprised at the picture quality that you can get over the air. In many cases, the picture quality, the resolution is in fact significantly higher than you can get off of satellite or cable.

WELCH: Digital television also boosted the number of over-the-air choices.

Ms. PAT MCDONOUGH (Senior Vice President, Planning Policy and Analysis, Nielsen Media Research): I think the broadcast-only environment is much richer than it was two years ago.

WELCH: Pat McDonough is senior vice president for analysis at Nielsen Media Research.

Some critics say local affiliates are squandering the extra channels they got as they began to adapt to HDTV. But McDonough says how they're repeating shows, is in some cases, kind of creative.

Ms. MCDONOUGH: We are seeing some of them time-shifting their programming. So that I air my news at 6:00 and I can put it on again at 8:00 on my second digital channel, while I'm airing my network prime programs.

WELCH: McDonough says without cable or satellite, the average national viewer can pick up around 30 channels. In Los Angeles, they can get a whopping 70 channels. McDonough says the number of homes getting only over-the-air television didn't change much between 2008 and 2009; about 11 million households. And McDonough says it's not just viewers who can't afford cable.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Five percent of the broadcast-only homes have income of over $100,000. So clearly they have the means to afford cable and satellite, but they've elected not to purchase it.

WELCH: The Humphreys, for example, they use their computers and television to catch their favorite shows. Elizabeth Humphrey admits that while they might miss some of the hot new cable shows, they're getting most of what they want.

Ms. ELIZABETH HUMPHREY: There are some that you may miss out on some cultural conversations about a particular show. But we've found that if it's something that continues to pique our interest, that now you can watch it on the Internet, you can rent it through Netflix. You can, you know, you can find other ways to get into the conversation.

WELCH: You think that might worry cable providers.

Ms. MAUREEN HUFF (Senior Director, Public Relations, Time Warner Cable): We don't really view it as a threat.

WELCH: That's Maureen Huff, senior director of public relations for Time Warner Cable. She says subscription numbers for cable television, Internet and phone services have stayed strong in the face of more over-the-air channels and the crummy economy.

Ms. HUFF: Traditionally, cable tends to be sort of recession-resistant. People spend more time at home with their families in a recession. They're spending less money going out and so cable companies such as ours tend to do okay.

WELCH: Huff acknowledges that families who've made the choice to go without cable, like the Humphreys, are out there. But young Veronica and Mack have seen what they're missing at their friends' house.

Ms. VERONICA HUMPHREY: Disney Channel and SpongeBob.

Mr. MACK HUMPHREY: I wish I had SpongeBob.

WELCH: Even dad, Philip has some cable craving.'

Mr. HUMPHREY: Well, okay, "The Daily Show" would be nice to see.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELCH: But that, too, is available online.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Youre listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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