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Broadcast TV is not Only Free, It’s Better

Credit: CC 2.0 Flickr

What is Broadcast TV?

Broadcast TV channels (also known as over the air or OTA channels) were transmitted in analog prior to the laws changing in 2009. Those signals were received by a home antenna, translated by an tuner within the television, and displayed the signal in the form of a TV program on the TV screen.

When broadcast towers sent an analog signal,  televisions were equipped with an analog TV tuner. After 2009, those signals switched to a digital frequency, rendering those analog tuners useless.

Thankfully, laws were put in place to ensure TVs manufactured after 2007 were equipped with a digital tuner to translate the digital broadcast TV signals now sent the broadcast towers.

Many of us had affordable cable or satellite TV at the time, so didn’t notice and most likely didn’t care about broadcast TV channels switching from analog to digital.

Well times have changed. Cable TV prices have skyrocketed,  more people want to learn how to watch TV without cable. Luckily, those broadcast channels are not only still free, but have better picture quality than what you are used to seeing with a cable or satellite TV subscription.

Digital Broadcast TV vs Cable

Satellite and cable TV companies have massive networks, carrying 100s of channels to millions of customers. To service these customers as efficiently as possible, satellite and cable TV companies use digital compression technologies to shrink the size of the TV channel. This allows more channels to fit on the signal being delivered to their customer.

When compressing the signal, not all of the original data representing the TV show is preserved. The higher the level of compression, the more data is lost. The result is the picture on your TV  losing sharpness and detail.

While over the air broadcast TV also uses digital compression, there are far less channels in the broadcast TV signal compared to cable TV. As a result, less data is lost, and the picture looks clean and sharp by comparison.

This is obvious when watching an NFL game received from an antenna, next to a one being watched on cable TV. Both are in HDTV, but the game being received from the TV antenna is in a completely different class when it comes to a quality picture.

How to get Broadcast TV

To receive high quality HDTV, all you need is an antenna. However, before we pick an antenna, we need to see which channels are available to you. Follow these instructions to find out which broadcast channels are available in your area.

The article details how to use an online station finder which explains not only which channels are available to you, but whether you should use an indoor or outdoor antenna. If there aren’t any broadcast TV channels available in your area, don’t fret. In another article I explain how to watch local TV online.

If there are digitally broadcast TV channels in your area, we need to examine your TV before worrying about the antenna. As I mentioned earlier, when TV broadcast went from analog to digital, TVs manufactured in the US were required to have a digital tuner.

Therefore, any TV made after 2007 should have one. If you are unsure, you can check the owner’s manual or look your TV make and model up online. The specifications should indicate whether the TV has a digital tuner or not.

You can also look on the back of the TV for words like “HDTV”, “Digital TV”, or “ATSC.” Those are all indications that you have a digital TV. If the TV isn’t digital, you can either purchase a newer TV, or update your old TV to digital by using a digital converter box.

Broadcast TV Antenna

Now that we have broadcast channels available and a TV that can accept a digital signal, we are ready to set up an antenna. As mentioned it’s the television that needs to be digital, not the antenna. That means any antenna will work.

So, if you have an old antenna lying around, we can go ahead and give it a try. It may work, but keep in mind antenna technology has improved over the years. Not only do they have better reception, but the look of antennas has become more tasteful than the giant erector sets that used to be on everyone’s roof 30 years ago.

So if you are having trouble with an older antenna receiving channels I recommend looking at the Mohu Leaf or Mohu Curve for an indoor antenna. If you would rather use an outdoor antenna, I’d try the Mohu Sky. They are all easy to install and setup, and are very easy on the eyes. If you need assistance or advice, check out my Antenna Guide for more information.

Hooking up your antenna is a breeze. Simply connect it with a coaxial cable by screwing it into the port that says “Antenna/Cable” or “CATV” on the back of the TV as shown below:

If you have any problem getting broadcast TV reception, please check out my guide on antenna TV reception. You may want to connect an antenna to more than one TV. In that case, please read my guide to setting up multiple TVs on one antenna.

Broadcast TV Channel Guide

If you require an on screen TV guide to know what’s airing on broadcast channels in your area, there are a few options.  Mohu makes a streaming device called Mohu Channels that combine the over the air broadcast channels from your antenna with the streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. The device has a guide service that provides detailed program information.

Alternatively you can use an OTA DVR. It’s a broadcast TV DVR that records TV shows captured from your antenna for you to watch at your leisure. They typically have options for a broadcast TV channel guide. The top DVRs even allow you to stream recorded broadcast TV to a mobile device.  Therefore, you will have all your broadcast TV with you even when you’re away from home.

There are plenty of options available online to find a local programming guide for broadcast TV in your area. My favorite is TV.com. They display broadcast channels by zip code, providing a full TV guide of the next week of programming. Simply enter your zip code and select “Over the Air” in your preferences and you have an online TV guide for the broadcast channels in your area.

Now that you know about broadcast TV, save yourself a ton of money and check out how to watch TV without cable. It’s more content for far less money compared to a cable TV or satellite subscription.

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Categories: Guides
Dennis Restauro :Dennis is the founder of Grounded Reason. He also hosts the Grounded Reason Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: Follow Dennis on Twitter

View Comments (12)

  • I just bought a TV antenna & get great pictures. My question is how to I get a TV guide?? The one I bought in the store does not have the same channels. How can I get the programming ahead of time?? Please help!
    Thank you so much.
    Regards
    Gladys Reich

    • The easiest and cheapest is to use TV.com. If you click on the gear in the upper right of the grid you can select "broadcast" for your local listings. Otherwise you would need something like an OTA DVR.

  • Hello,
    I am set up with a long range Channel Master antenna on a 40 foot tower with rotator, a Channel Master high gain pre-amp, and distribution amplifier.
    I have one channel that is 60 miles and it is hard to get. Is this the way it's going to be, or is there anything stronger than what I already own for equipment.
    Thanks in advance.

  • I have check my availability on tv fool.com and according to that i would need a 450 ft tall tower...what do I do now...I can't afford cable TV and no channels come in for me

    • Streaming those networks through a Sling TV or Direct TV many be your only options.

  • Who pays to maintain the ota transmitters. One person says we all need to pay $50.00 per year to maintain the equipment. ?

    • IN the U.K. they pay. In the U.S. the networks and affiliates pay for the TV License to broadcast and transmitters. I'm sure there are subsidies involved so some tax payer money may indirectly pay, but that's a guess on my part.

  • We have 3 TVs. At times my wife watches one channel while I watch another on our other TV. Is that possible with OTA TV?