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Tom's TV repair hangs on, installing outdoor antennas for streamers cutting cable

Outdoor TV antennas are making a comeback as cord cutters look to add CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox to complement online streaming. Antennas pull in the free local channels and help you avoid ever-rising cable bills.

Tom Sylvina of Tom’s TV begins the process of bringing an HD digital antenna up the first ladder to place it on the highest point of the roof of David Viering’s home in Chester County.
Tom Sylvina of Tom’s TV begins the process of bringing an HD digital antenna up the first ladder to place it on the highest point of the roof of David Viering’s home in Chester County.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Tom Sylvina opened his TV repair shop in the basement of his parents' home in 1974 in West Grove, pulling a day shift at the General Motors plant in Wilmington and taking electronics classes at night.

The next year, GM laid off Sylvina, and the tinkerer got into television repair full time.

Tom's TV boomed through the late 1970s and well into the 1990s, even with 18 competitors all within about 15 miles of Sylvina's part of Chester County. Sylvina had 10 guys working for him then, putting up two or three TV antennas a day, repairing and selling thousands of televisions a year, and installing "big dishes" and "small dishes" for satellite TV.

"I'm the last man standing. The old guys died off. There is not a lot of money in it anymore," said Sylvina, 63, in his West Grove store, calling out the names of those who closed down or went out of business – Nottingham TV, Al's, Ringler Appliance, and so on. "We sold a ton of sets, 300 or 400 a year — that was before the big box stores — didn't we, Lynne?" Sylvina called to his high school sweetheart and wife. "We have been devalued because of low-cost imported TVs — nobody fixes 32-inch TVs, or even 42-inch TVs."

A do-what-it-takes small-town businessman, Sylvina has adjusted over the years to the economic times and today has found a comfortable niche: installing closed-circuit security cameras in retail stores, repairing televisions under manufacturer warranty (mostly for Samsung), and, surprisingly, putting up outdoor television antennas for cable cord-cutters.

Though antenna installations dried up years ago, Sylvina says it has been revived with a steady flow of orders and estimates, which can run $500 to $800, driven by consumers who would like to rid themselves of cable- or satellite-TV bills. Consumers now have the option of replacing those pay-TV services with online streamers such as Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix and free over-the-air television networks ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, recouping the cost of new antennas through lower pay-TV bills.

The heyday of outdoor TV antennas or rabbit ears will never return, experts say. But research firms and the National Association of Broadcasters have noticed the uptick in over-the-air TV antenna householders as people patch together different ways of accessing entertainment with traditional pay-TV services. The number of internet-only households with TV antennas rose about six percentage points over the last five years, to 15 percent by the third quarter of 2016, according to Parks Associates. It had been about 9 percent of internet-only households in 2013. "The concept of cord-cutting is in the public mind," said Parks' Brett Sappington

"The analogy I would make is to vinyl records," said Paul Verna, principal video analyst for research firm eMarketer, referring to outdoor television antennas. "There is a surge of interest. Some of it is nostalgia, but some of it is practical."

Millennials are champion cord-cutters but are the least likely to go for over-the-air antennas, while those older than 45 or 50 view over-the-air antennas favorably. "They remember that there is an alternative and are more willing to resort to it," Verna said.

Verna considered an outdoor television antenna for himself. "It really did take me back to the anxieties of the 1970s," he said. "Until you do it, you don't know what the reception would be." He didn't do it.

But Sylvina has no such anxieties, noting that "we always did antennas from the get-go. In the 1970s, I would [install] two or three antennas a day, getting up early to beat the heat."

One recent Thursday, Sylvina and his worker Mark Dilworth drove up to David Viering's tree-surrounded home in Landenberg, southern Chester County. At the door, Viering pointed out the antenna and where he thought it should go. Sylvina had a different idea for better reception. Dilworth climbed a ladder to drill an antenna mount into the roof.

"We cut the cord. We actually have cut the cord for a year and half now," Viering said. "I had the triple play with Comcast and the cost was ridiculous," he said. It was $260 a month.

Viering, who is married with children ages 11 and 15, ordered Verizon FIOS internet. He replaced the Comcast cable channel bundle with Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services. Viering also signed up for the internet-based home phone service for $35 a year. He pays about $120 a month without cable, he said.

But they still couldn't watch the big over-the-air television networks ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox, which meant no local news or NFL games. Viering bought an over-the-air television antenna on Amazon. He put it in the attic of his 3,200-square-foot home.  TV reception wasn't good. He needed to put it on his roof, but didn't want to climb up there himself.

His handyman was afraid of heights "so he said 'Call Tom's TV,' " Viering said.

Several days later, Sylvina and Dilworth mounted the antenna on his roof, and Viering called the TV reception "beautiful, man. I have 36 channels and they're all free. It's looking good and Tom said when the leaves come off the trees, I'll get more channels." He noted that "now, we'll have football for Thanksgiving."

Back in Tom's TV shop, Sylvina looks at a bleak future. No young man – or woman – has come into his shop asking for a job for decades. These days, if young people learn electronics, it's to do heating and cooling, computers or autos.

"A lot of the older guys aged and got out of it," Sylvina said. "No sons or daughters got into it."

Tom's TV is in West Grove, southern Chester County. People there can receive TV signals from Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Sylvina’s three daughters — a beautician in South Carolina, a physician assistant in Center City, and an addiction counselor in Downingtown — didn’t follow in their parent’s footsteps. “We did not try to get them into the business because they had their own paths they wanted to take,” Lynne said.

Tom recently wrote three estimates for TV antennas — in West Chester, West Grove and Fair Hill, Md. He and Lynne hang on with those antenna services, TV repairs, fishing walls with cable-TV wires for Comcast or Verizon, and the installation of close-circuit security cameras. “We are not eating steak on any one thing,” he said. “We eat a lot of hot dogs to pay the bills.”