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Good-bye, rabbit ears? Not so fast

Digital broadcasts haven't quite killed off the need--or allure--of the frustrating TV accessory. Antennas, for hobbyists, represent American history.

Congratulations! You've successfully made the switch from analog to digital TV. So is it good-bye to rabbit ears? Not quite!

Retro rabbit ears may not bring in a perfect picture, but they can bring back some great memories.
Retro TV antennas may not bring in a perfect picture, but they can bring back some great memories. CBS

Whatever your view of television, be it couch potato casual or flat-screen fanatic, Friday was a special occasion. And even if you didn't give it the kind of warm reception some Chicago students did on Friday night, complete with champagne toasts, you knew it was the end of an era, if for no other reason than all those incessant reminders we've been giving you, like "The Big Switch From Analog To Digital TV" or "Flipping The Switch To Digital TV".

In these days of cable and satellite, you probably thought it was time for a requiem for the old rabbit ears. Not so fast.

"The antenna is alive and well," said Michael Godar, who runs one of the nation's few handmade antenna companies out of a TV repair shop in Gilbert, Ariz.

And he says that, even at the dawn of the Digital Age, there's plenty of life in that old antenna.

"There was almost a sport (in) adjusting your antenna on your TV," Sieberg said.

"Oh yeah, battling it--you know, especially when you had a remote control," Godar laughed. "You'd change the channel and then get up, adjust the antenna!"

Antennas are as old as television itself. Their limitations were spoofed in the very first episode of Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners."

The antenna is the sole survivor of our analog past. And while it just receives over-the-air channels, digital is the reason there's more of them.

"An antenna will still work," Godar said. "Even some of these antiques here will actually pick up a digital signal."

Of course, some things never change. You still need to be in a place where it's possible to get good reception. In fact, unlike an analog signal, with its fuzzy picture, a weak digital signal can leave you seeing, well, nothing at all.

Henry Langan and his son Steven are the "Antenna Kings." Their company has installed thousands all around New York.

Steven estimates that anywhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of people who receive their primary signal from broadcasters use antennas. "A lot of them are in metropolitan areas (and) don't have the extra money to spend $25 or $50 a month on cable TV, or more."

Langan says the TV antenna has stood the test of time.

"I mean, I get calls from people all the time saying, 'You put this up, you did my antenna 20 years ago. You know, is it time to change?' I say, 'Well, if it's working, no. But if it isn't, then, you know, it's time to change.'"

But let's say you do go for that new antenna. What to do with those rabbit ears? Well, the one thing you shouldn't do is throw them out.

Larry Jones is a connoisseur of all things old TV, which may explain his day job: president of the cable television network TV Land. He says he looks at rabbit ears as pieces of art.

"I mean, initially, when I saw one, I thought they were very sculptural," Jones said. "They looked like sculptures to me. They reminded me of Calder sculptures in many ways. Some of them are very, very intricate and very twisted. (I also see them) as a pure representation of American pop culture.

While functional--they brought television signals into your house--rabbit ears were major decorative items as well. Jones said rabbit ears "really defined an era, defined a point of time, and defined a generation, in many ways."

The rarest find in Jones' collection doesn't even resemble rabbit ears ("poodle ears" might be more appropriate).

Jones says digital be damned; those fuzzy analog pictures were something special. He admired the texture of the broadcast signal: "Sometimes, they're a little bit grainy, and then they come in clear. And you're able to change that sound just by moving the ears just a little bit. It's really warming and feels really good to conjure up those kinds of very, very, very strong memories."

He recalled his parents and grandparents testing out the TV antenna days before the anticipated first lunar landing in 1969. "I remember a lot of conversation prior to that happening: 'What happens if the TV antenna doesn't work?' And so there were a lot of precautions that were made--testing the TV at that time in the afternoon, days before, to make sure it wouldn't be on the fritz that day. So that is my one specific memory when they landed on the moon!"

That was then. This is now.

Jones says we still don't know if the digital era will represent one small step or a giant leap for television technology. Still, he's certain that it's a step in the right direction.

"A lot of times, people ask me about the 'Golden Age of television,'" Jones said. "You know, I think the Golden Age of television is right now. You have never had more selection, better quality, almost anywhere you go. You can have it in your house, you can have it in your car, and you can have it in a lot of different forms, you can have it on DVD. There's scripted, there's unscripted.

"This is the best time ever for television. And if we keep down going down this path, then it should be better 2 years from now, 5 years from now, and 10 years from now. So I would say, as far as technology getting better, how could I possibly think that it was a bad thing? I mean, technology getting better is a great thing. It just means more TV to watch."

Daniel Sieberg reports on technology for CBS News.