Audiovox cranking out digital antennas as consumers prepare for changeover

May 18, 2009

The biggest remnant of the former Thomson consumer electronics operation in Carmel is cashing in on the digital TV transition with a higher-tech version of the rabbit ears.

Audiovox Accessories Corp. and other makers of TV antennas have seen sales rise as broadcasters prepare to cease analog transmissions June 12 in favor of all-digital signals.

Antenna sales in the second half of 2008 were almost double the first half, according to the unit of Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Audiovox Corp., which designs and markets the devices from here. They're tracking a similar pace this year.

"We've seen a pretty solid increase in sales, both indoor and outdoor television antennas," said Hank Caskey, vice president of reception products at Audiovox Accessories.

The company employs about 100 people at 116th and Pennsylvania streets—about a mile north of the former Thomson campus at 10330 N. Meridian St., which is now occupied by St. Vincent Hospital.

The digital transition is a non-event for most anyone on cable or satellite. But some who still use antennas are upgrading them. They're also buying a converter box needed to dumb down the new signals for conventional televisions.

Even some who have pay TV are antenna-shopping to capture free television they can't get now. Digital TV's wider bandwidth allows broadcasters to offer, in addition to their primary high-definition signal, two or three subchannels, some of which are available only with an antenna.

Already, there are 28 such channels broadcast in central Indiana if you include stations in Bloomington and Muncie that can be pulled down here with a good antenna, according to TitanTV.com. Some channels offer cartoons, others just weather radar.

Antenna makers cite other reasons for the new demand, including the fact some channels actually come in clearer with an antenna than via cable.

Caskey said some pay TV subscribers will also buy an antenna for a second or third TV in the house rather than pay additional monthly fees for digital service. About 19.2 million households in the United States already have such multiple signal connections, according to Fort Washington, Pa.-based consulting firm Centris.

Centris President William Beaumont said some of the increase in antenna sales could be the result of retailers doing a better job of explaining the upcoming digital transition. They got a second chance after the federal government pushed back the transition deadline.

But the overall trend continues to be away from over-the-air reception, to pay TV, he said. Even amid the recession, only about 5 percent of customers surveyed by Centris said they'd cancel their pay TV service.

The Consumer Electronics Association estimates sales last year were 4.4 million, up 48 percent from the previous year.

Audiovox, which has about half the antenna market share through retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, won't break out sales for the category. The company sells them under the RCA and Terk brand names for about $30 to above $100.

The challenge for engineers in Carmel is making them unobtrusive. Some new models are as small as 9 inches square, thanks to amplification and some patented secrets.

"People have certain standards," Caskey said. "You stick a set of rabbit ears there and that totally turns people off."

Audiovox bought Thomson's electronics accessories business in 2007 for $65 million.

At its zenith in the 1990s, Thomson had 1,550 employees in Carmel.

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