Stop paying cable companies for television stations you could get for free. This guide will explain how an over-the-air (OTA) antenna can get you some of the best TV channels for free.
How This Guide Will Help You
Something strange happened over the past thirty years. Cable and satellite television went from a niche technology to an essential element of our lives. Now the clock is winding backwards as more and more people are cutting the cord.
They can do this because the value of cable TV subscriptions has evaporated with the rise of streaming services like Netflix that let people get the content they want directly. The only thing over-the-top services do not provide is local news and sports coverage.
Now, internet-based services like Netflix, Crunchyroll, and HBO Go let people get that extra content without a cable TV subscription. The only thing these services do not provide is local news and sports coverage.
But you’ve always been able to get local content free of charge – all you need is an OTA antenna. In this guide we will look at the broadcast TV landscape (you have more options than you think) before reviewing things that affect signal reception. We will compare indoor and outdoor antennas and then tie it all together with DVRs to record you live TV.
Broadcast Is Bigger Than You Think
Quick! How many broadcast networks are there?
Your gut reaction might have been four: ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX. DC Comics fans would have added The CW to make five. Fans of the Great British Baking Show would have added PBS and Spanish speakers would add Univision and Telemundo. That’s six, seven and eight.
The United States has more than fifty over-the-air networks.
How did this happen? Digital transmission lets each local station broadcast a main channel and several sub-channels. The main channel carries traditional local and national network programming. The alternative networks rose to meet the demand from stations for their sub-channels.
People in large markets like Los Angeles or New York can receive thirty channels with an inexpensive indoor antenna. Even in mid-size markets like Tulsa or Toledo, people can get more than a dozen channels. In the right place, and with the right equipment, some people can pull in fifty or sixty channels.
As we look at some of the largest alternative networks, keep in mind that they do not share the national coverage that NBC and its counterparts enjoy.
Educational and Not-for-Profit Networks
Your local public TV station got the same deal as its commercial counterparts which left if with several sub-channels. That led to the creation of not-for-profit networks that provide educational content for the public TV community.
CreateTV is a do-it-yourself network accessible to more than 46 million households. Its all-day programming includes shows like This Old House, Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul, and Rick Steve’s Europe. An added bonus for when you need to chill out: The Best of Joy of Painting With Bob Ross.
Worldchannel reaches more than 60% of US households with its news and documentary programming. Worldchannel sources original content not seen anywhere else. AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, for example, is takes a fresh look at the life and culture of Africa.
FNX (First Nations Experience) distributes Native American and World Indigenous content to about 22 million households across the United States. Programs range from documentaries that explore the rich diversity of Native American life to children’s cartoons that integrate “traditional and modern aboriginal life”.
Estrella TV is an American-owned network that develops original programming tailored for the US Hispanic market. Unlike other networks whose programming is dominated by telenovelas from outside the US, Estrella TV produces “fast-paced and alternative programming… that caters to Hispanics living in this country, not abroad.”
Azteca America is a subsidiary of Mexican TV network Azteca. It does carry programming from its corporate parent, including Mexico’s premier soccer league, Azteca America produces original content designed for the American market
LATV promotes itself as the Latino Alternative Network with a total reach of 60 million households and 82% of Hispanic households. The network’s audience consists primarily of English-speaking Latino Millennials attracted to LATV’s original programming like electronica program The Edge.
Several networks tap into Hollywood’s century of film and TV programming to serve more narrowly focused markets.
MeTV’s re-runs of classic TV shows reach households in 96% of the country. Watch the original Battlestar Galactica, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Catch westerns, mysteries, dramas and comedies from television’s golden age.
Escape airs crime and mystery dramas in half of American TV markets. Films like Twisted starring Ashley Judd attract female Millennial and Generation X viewers. Escape is the sister network to guy-oriented Grit.
CometTV broadcasts science fiction films and TV series. You can catch pre-Tarkin Peter Cushing playing Doctor Who and then see Godzilla in his breakout debut, Gojira.
News and Sports Networks
Cutting the cord doesn’t mean losing access to round-the-clock news and sports if your TV market is served by these networks.
BizTV is a news and finance network that focuses on the needs of small and home-based businesses with original programming like Business Rockstars, Politics & Profits, American Success.
Newsmax is a conservative-leaning alternative to Fox that reaches more than 35 million households. Its mix of news and talk has a particularly strong appeal among Baby Boomers – a fact Newsmax pitches to its advertisers.
American Sports Network broadcasts NCAA Division 1 sports, news, and commentary to about 18 million households.
It’s All About The Signal
How many of the channels broadcasting in your area will you actually get? There is no easy answer. Many things can affect each TV station’s signal strength as it travels from the transmission tower to your antenna and on to your TV screen. Fortunately, a little research can narrow things down before you buy.
Where Are The Towers
Your local TV stations’ production studios are not anywhere near the transmission towers. Broadcasters prefer to place those at centrally located high points that ensure the signal reaches as wide an area as possible.
The closer you are to the TV tower, the stronger the signal. That will determine whether you can use an indoor antenna or need to buy an amplifier. If the towers serving your market are clustered in one place, a directional antenna can boost your signal quality. If the towers are in many different directions, then an omnidirectional antenna might be a better choice.
From There to Here
TV stations prefer placing their transmitters where the signals will cover as wide an area as possible. That often means local hilltops or even tall office buildings. The closer you are to the tower, the stronger the signal, but between you and the tower the signal quality you receive can drop dramatically.
As TV signals reverberate off hills and buildings, they create overlapping signals that are ever so slightly out of synch. Your TV tuner must tease a signal out of this echoing mess. At a certain point it gives up.
Even with a clear signal, several aspects of residential construction create barriers that affect signal strength. Builders apply a mesh to home exteriors before applying stucco coverings. If that mesh is made from metal wires rather than plastic strands, the mesh will block or degrade a TV signal.
There and There and Over There
Returning full circle to the TV stations’ transmitters, the number of towers and their placement can affect your signal quality – or eliminate some antenna designs from consideration.
This is particularly true when you live fifty miles or more from the towers where signals fade due to distance. If all of the towers are clustered in one place, say on a hilltop, then a directional antenna will be a great choice. Like a telephoto lens, it has a narrow field of view but can pull that signal in.
Near a city center, on the other hand, the towers may be spread around all points of the compass. In this case, a directional antenna would pick up one of them at the expense of the others. Your best choice will be an omnidirectional antenna.
Mapping Your Reception Potential
Several websites will estimate the number of channels you might receive and how strong each signal may be as it enters your house. Notice how I said “might” and “may”. The computer models these services use produce different results so treat them as rough guides to help your decision-making.
The US Federal Communications Commission has a mapping service that use “a terrain-sensitive propagation model” to estimate the signal strength at any point in the US. Enter your address and the map will show available channels and color-coded signal strength indicators.
Antennaweb maps local towers and gives you a list of available channels with their color-coded estimates of signal strength. (The colors are not the same as the FCC’s.)
TV Fool provides the most detailed information which can come in handy for planning outdoor antennas. If you have a background in radio and electronics, then the data presented should be straightforward. If not, you may be better off with one of the other services. Alternatively, you can use NoCable.org’s free reception mapping tool, which also works with Canadian addresses.
Picking an OTA Antenna
Forget about reading Amazon reviews for advice on which antenna to buy. A product that works great for one person will totally fail for someone else. Since you may have to try several models, you will want to buy from a retailer with flexible return policies.
Once you get your antenna, you must experiment to find the sweet spot with the strongest signal. Generally speaking, the higher you can place the antenna, the better its reception. That’s one reason why rooftop antennas get better reception than indoor antennas. If you prefer an indoor antenna – or your landlord gives you no other choice – try to place it near a window facing your local TV towers.
Small indoor antennas should have no trouble picking up the strong signals in metro areas or within 50 miles of their local transmitting towers. The most popular antennas turn their small size into an advantage as they are flat enough to discreetly attach to walls, behind furniture, or to the back of a TV.
Mohu Leaf 30
Mohu pioneered the new generation of design-centric flat antennas with the Mohu Leaf 30. The flat surface can be painted to match your wall, enhancing its discreet design.
Channel Master Flatenna 35
The Channel Master Flatenna 35 is the most affordable option for getting free HDTV into your home. The $10 you spend could be all you need to cancel that $180 cable bill.
People who live more than fifty miles from the nearest transmission towers will need an outdoor antenna mounted in the attic, on the roof, or on a dedicated mast.
The Channel Master ExtremeTenna 80 can pick up signals from transmission towers eighty miles away. More importantly the towers could be scattered across a 180-degree arc and the ExtremeTenna will still get their signals.
The ViewTV Outdoor Amplified Antenna picks up stations as far as 150 miles away. This directional antenna has a motorized mount so you can point the antenna at a different tower from the comfort of your TV room.
A DVR For Over-The-Air TV
Several solutions for recording OTA TV will meet the needs of the set-it-and-forget-it crowd as well as the home technology geeks.
Many require annual subscriptions to their programming guides. The costs pale in comparison to what your cable company charges for the same thing, but you need to factor the subscriptions into your decision.
TiVo’s Roamio is a great four-tuner solution with a terabyte of storage and user-friendly features developed over TiVo’s long history making set top boxes. SkipMode, for example, skips commercials when playing back recorded programs. But the Roamio’s most important feature is the one that isn’t there: a subscription. It’s $399 price comes with lifetime access to TiVo’s programming guide.
Tablo 4-Tuner DVR
The Tablo 4-Tuner DVR’s ability to stream video over your home network makes it a popular option. It looks like the Tablo is cheaper than the Roamio, but you must attach your own external hard drive. On top of that, you lose access to the Tablo programming guide after thirty days unless you subscribe. Matching TiVo’s solution will actually cost you more, but you can exceed the TiVo specs by attaching an 8TB drive.
SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun TV Tuners caters to the do-it-yourself crowd. Simply connect the HDHomeRun to an HD antenna and to your home network. The HDHomeRun app streams TV programming to any device on your network and includes a 24-hour programming guide. If you want more, an annual $35 subscription turns your desktop or NAS server into a DVR.
You can save hundreds of dollars by cancelling your cable subscription. An inexpensive OTA antenna could deliver dozens of free, high-quality, high definition TV stations to your home. Supplement that local content with over-the-top services like Netflix and you will never look back.
Chris Casper is a former tech industry product manager who escaped from California for New Mexico. Now he writes about science and tech while searching for the perfect green chile sauce.