Getting local TV has gotten better for cord cutters over the years, but things still aren’t perfect. Many of the cable-replacement services can’t offer all of the major networks. YouTube TV does a better job than most, but only offers ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. You won’t find channels like PBS, The CW or Univision, much less niche channels like Qubo.
Going old-school with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna is a cheap and easy way for getting local TV stations from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS as well as dozens of other channels you can’t get on cable.
In this final part of Flixed’s How to Cut the Cord series, we’ll show you some simple, affordable setups for getting local TV stations streamed across your home network. Check out our earlier articles for help developing your own streaming TV strategy.
- How to Cut the Cord Part 1 – Picking Your Live TV Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 2 – Picking Your On-Demand Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 3 – Watching Your Favorite Live Sports
- How to Cut the Cord Part 4 – Exploring Niche Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 5 – Managing Your Subscriptions
- How to Cut the Cord Part 6 – Picking A Streaming Device
Why Can’t I Stream Local Channels?
Even if a streaming service signs a deal with a national network like NBC, that doesn’t guarantee the service can stream every local NBC station. Each network only owns a dozen stations directly. The other two thousand local stations are owned by a fragmented ecosystem of media companies, investment companies and local owners. As a result, each streaming service has to sign hundreds of deals in order to get local coverage of each market.
Flixed has summarized which local stations each streaming service could offer in your area. That’s a good start, but you’ll have to use a streaming service’s zip code lookup tool to confirm which channels you can actually stream.
- Philo local channels
- Sling TV local channels
- FuboTV local channels
- Hulu with Live TV local channels
- PlayStation Vue local channels
- YouTube TV local channels
- AT&T Watch local channels
- DirecTV Now local channels
What Channels Can I Get?
Before you go through the hassle and expense of setting up an over-the-air (OTA) antenna, you’ll want to know what channels you can get. There are several look-up tools on the web that make this process easy. Most of them are offered by companies with a vested interest in getting you onto OTA TV. Antenna maker ChannelMaster and DVR maker TabloTV both offer easy lookup tools as does the TV industry trade association website AntennaWeb. You simply enter your address and the sites will tell you which stations ought to be available.
Large networks not on streaming
The live TV streaming services make an effort to get the Big Four networks’ local stations ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Unfortunately, things don’t always work out so you might situations like Sling having your local NBC station but DirecTV Now not having it. As a result, you could miss out on sports and local news coverage. Short of changing your streaming service, an OTA antenna may be the only way to restore what you lost.
There are other large TV networks that few of the streaming services pick up. The Spanish-language stations Telemundo and Univision are among the biggest gaps in the streamers’ channel lineups. The CW is another big network that often goes missing.
Dozens of niche channels
A technology called multiplexing lets local stations broadcast two or three subchannels on the same frequency as their primary channel. Few of these channels get picked up by local cable companies or by the streaming services. As a result, you could find an OTA antenna gives you access to dozens of TV stations you’ve never heard of before. Here’s a cross section of the extra channels you may get with an OTA antenna.
World Channel is a 24-hour news channel that broadcasts shows from PBS News as well as its own original productions. Other PBS subchannels include the lifestyle-oriented Create and PBS Kids.
Your local Telemundo and Univision stations use subchannels to broadcast other Spanish-language and Latinx content. Azteca America rebroadcasts content produced in Mexico, Estrella TV focuses on US-produced content, and LATV produces its own English-language content for Latinx Millennials.
Daytime TV on your local stations used to consist of reruns of classic TV shows of the past, but now the network affiliates seem to run infomercials all the time. Several digital subchannels take you back to those early days of television. MeTV runs classic shows like The Three Stooges, ALF and M*A*S*H. Comet TV focuses on science fiction programming like Babylon 5 and the animated classic Thunderbirds. True crime and mysteries are what you’ll find on Escape TV — and, yes, that includes Law & Order.
How Do I Choose an Antenna?
This is where things get tricky. Since we’re talking about radio transmissions here, you have to pick an antenna that’s going to make the best of whatever signals you can receive. For most people, living in a suburb means you’ll get a strong signal from most of your local stations. Living out in the countryside, however, getting local TV stations may require a rooftop antenna.
If the last TV antennas you saw were the rabbit ears on your grandparents’ black-and-white TV, you’ll be surprised at how unobtrusive today’s HDTV antennas can be. They are almost perfectly flat and can hide behind bookcases or your entertainment center.
Despite their small size, these flat indoor antennas do a great job of getting local TV reception. For the best performance, however, you will need to live within thirty to fifty miles of your TV stations’ transmitters.
Mohu has designed its Leaf 30 Indoor Antenna so you can paint it the same color as your walls. That gives you even more options for placing the antenna discreetly in your living room. At only $40, the Leaf 30 comes with everything you need to pick up a signal.
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.
If you live a bit further away from the transmission towers, the Channel Master SMARTenna+ Indoor TV Antenna may be the way to go. For $89, you get an amplified antenna that can pick up signals from more than 60 miles away.
Once you get into the countryside, the strength of broadcast TV signals begins to fade. That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. By mounting an outdoor antenna to your roof or a tower, you can pick up signals from miles away — and you may even get dozens of extra channels.
TheDB8e Outdoor HDTV Antenna looks gloriously complicated. Its dual bowtie design lets you pick up distant stations by concentrating its reception on a narrow field of view. The list price of $200 is often discounted, so check for deals.
If you don’t want a big antenna sitting on top of your house, you can try placing the antenna in your attic. The $130 ClearStream FUSION is an indoor/outdoor TV antenna is a compact design with a wide 70-degree field of view.
Troubleshooting antenna placement
Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, figuring out where to get the best signal requires a mix of art and science. From the time a signal leaves the transmission tower to the time it arrives at your antenna, all sorts of things can interfere with your signal.
Use sites like TV Fool to get a detailed estimate of your TV reception. The reports factor in things like geography and urban development to let you know what the best-case scenario might be for your location. If you’re using a directional outdoor antenna, the maps you get from TV Fool will help you aim the antenna in the right direction.
One thing to watch out for: trees next to your house can block a TV signal. Everything may have been fine when you installed the antenna in time for the Super Bowl, but that solid signal could disappear once the leaves start growing again.
Issues in the house
The structure of your house could also create reception problems. Older houses can have lots of stonework or metal in the walls, in which case you’ll want to place the antenna near a window. If you install an outdoor or attic antenna, you could also run into issues with the signals passing through too many coax junctions. If at all possible, you want the signal running through a single cable from the antenna to your TV tuner.
Networked TV Tuners
Although you may have never used it, your TV set has a TV tuner built inside. That means you could connect your OTA antenna directly to the TV and watch all of your local channels. But doing it that way means giving up on modern conveniences like watching on a tablet or recording shows for later viewing.
A networked TV tuner uses the same technology that’s in your TV but converts the TV signal into a video stream that flows through your home network. You can stream the video to any device on your network and record content whenever you want.
Some of the most popular networked HDTV tuners are the HD HomeRun devices made by Silicon Dust. The HD HomeRun Connect line consists of the $100 Connect Duo and the $150 Connect Quatro which have two and four built-in TV tuners respectively. Having multiple TV tuners lets more people watch different channels at the same time.
Hauppauge makes a more limited device called the Cordcutter TV. The dual-tuner hardware will stream video to tablets, smartphones and TV-connected devices like the Apple TV or Roku. At a $130 price, the Cordcutter TV does not include an Ethernet connection, relying instead on WiFi.
All of the various streaming services let you “record” content using their cloud DVR features. Some services are more well-rounded than others. Sling TV makes you pay extra for the ability to record your shows. Even then, you only get fifty hours of recording capacity. YouTube TV, on the other hand, lets you record as much as you want but deletes recordings after nine months.
With a networked TV tuner, you can set up your own DVR that records to a hard drive. With enough storage capacity, you can record as much content as you want and keep it as long as you want.
Silicon Dust offers a $35 annual DVR subscription service. All you have to do is install the HD HomeRun DVR software on a computer or network-attached storage device. Once up-and-running, you’ll be able to schedule recordings up to two weeks in advance, pause live TV and fast-forward through commercials.
The Hauppauge service is a bit more limited. When you plug a USB thumb drive into the Cordcutter TV, you can record content using apps on iOS and Android devices as well as on the Apple TV. However, the programming guide only looks ahead by 24 hours, which makes scheduling recordings more of a hassle.
You can also go with an all-in-one solution that combines multi-tuner capabilities with built-in storage. Pricing on Tablo TV’s line of OTA DVRs starts at $140 and goes up from there depending on how many TV tuners and how much internal storage it has. All of the devices let you add more storage by connecting USB hard drives. The more expensive Tablo TV products let you install internal hard drives. You do have to pay TabloTV a subscription in order to get the full, two-week programming guide. Your choices are $5 per month, $50 per year or $150 lifetime.
The Tivo BOLT OTA includes four HDTV tuners and 1 TB of internal storage. That lets you record up to 150 hours of HD content and keep it as long as you want. The device also supports streaming apps from Netflix and other services, although you won’t be able to record their content. The Tivo BOLT OTA costs $250 and requires a subscription for the programming guide. That will run you $7 per month, $70 per year or $250 for lifetime access.
If you don’t like the idea of paying subscription fees, Amazon’s $230 FireTV Recast may be a better choice for you. The dual-tuner device has enough storage capacity for up to 75 hours of HD content. Amazon provides the two-week programming guide free of charge so you can schedule recordings without any long-term commitment. However, you do need to have a FireTV streaming device or an Echo Show on your network in order for the FireTV Recast to work.
Should I Worry About ATSC 3.0?
The short answer is no. ATSC 3.0 is the next generation of digital broadcast TV in the United States. Once it’s fully deployed, you’ll be able to use an antenna to get live 4K broadcasts with HDR, surround sound and 120 frames-per-second video feeds.
The issue is that “once it’s fully deployed” bit. Unlike the transition from analog to digital, the US government is not making ATSC 3.0 mandatory. It may take years for the major stations in each market to make the transition — and some stations won’t bother. That leaves little incentive for hardware makers to integrate ATSC 3.0 into their devices.
If getting local TV is a priority for your cord-cutting strategy, then get an OTA antenna and HDTV tuner now. There’s no point in waiting for ATSC 3.0.