In addition, many popular cable-only channels, including ESPN and CNN, are not yet available over the air. However, at least one Silicon Valley start-up has been experimenting with piping cable and satellite programs onto the airwaves in Los Angeles. Sezmi Corp. expects to roll out its service in major U.S. markets early next year. It plans to charge users about $25 a month for a service that offers a selection of broadcast, cable and Internet programming.
To watch broadcast TV, viewers must have both an antenna and a television capable of processing the digital signal. Those with pre-digital televisions can purchase a converter box for $30 to $50 that will enable the antenna to work with their TV set.
The cost of antennas varies according to their size and complexity, and can range from less than $5 for small, indoor rabbit ears to nearly $200 for a larger outdoor antenna that will receive more channels and clearer signals. Finding the right antenna, and the best location for it, may involve some trial and error.
The best evidence that the broadcast audience is growing may be the flowering of new local channels, said Francis X. Wilkinson, general manager of KJLA-TV, an L.A. station.
KJLA has divided its broadcast spectrum into nine digital sub-channels, 57.1-57.9. It carries three channels in Spanish, three in Vietnamese, and one each in Korean and Armenian. (The remaining sub-channel is a shopping network devoted to jewelry.) As with other broadcast stations, several of KJLA's sub-channels are available via an antenna but not through cable.
"Nobody really expected the plethora of stations and choices that people would have over the air," Wilkinson said. "It's been a tremendous plus for everyone."
In February, the Lams plan to watch local Chinese New Year festivities on Little Saigon TV (Channel 44.4). With their two swimmer sons practicing for the Junior Olympics and a daughter headed for college, the Lams haven't had as much family TV time as they once did.
But when they do gather to watch the festivities, they'll be using rabbit ears that don't look any different from what viewers may have used six decades earlier, perhaps even in price. Instead of shelling out $30 for a new antenna, the Lams got theirs at a 99-cents store.
"The cheapest one was super clear," Lam said.