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ahobbs (< 20)

How to Get (Nearly) Free TV



January 23, 2009 – Comments (10) | RELATED TICKERS: CMCSA , TWC.DL , DTV.DL

Many Americans are currently paying for television service through a cable provider or a satellite provider.  With the upcoming complete conversion from analogue to digital broadcasts, many could probably ditch their service and switch to free over-the-air (OTA) reception.

Analogue TV

Up until recently, televisions signals have been broadcast with an analogue signal.  The problem that many viewers had with the analogue broadcasts was that if the reception was poor, the picture and sound were poor, often with a snowy picture or ghosting images.  This led many people to purchase their television service from a cable or satellite provider.  With cable and satellite, the picture is always (or almost always) clear, and there are a lot of stations available.

The Switch to Digital

Currently, most stations are broadcasting in both analogue and digital signals, but after midnight on Feb 17, 2009, all television stations will be broadcast in digital only (with a few exceptions).  The difference with a digital signal compared to an analogue signal is that you either get good reception, and the picture is clear (and often in Hi-def), or you get nothing.  In addition, some stations broadcast multiple channels in digital (my local PBS station has 4 different broadcasts with different programming on each station, for example).  For these reasons, I think that many people that were turned off by analogue broadcasts may now find that digital OTA broadcasts are much better, and could save a lot of money by ditching their TV service.

Getting (Nearly) Free TV

So what do you need to switch to free OTA TV?  Every situation is different, but generally speaking you will need the following 3 things:

1.       A TV with a digital tuner, or a digital converter box for an analogue TV

2.       An antenna appropriate for your location 

3.       A distribution system, usually coax cable.  Depending on the installation you may also want coax signal splitters and a distribution amplifier if you’re using multiple sets on the same antenna.

All three elements are important to getting good digital OTA TV reception.

The Antenna

Selecting the right antenna is technically the most challenging part of receiving OTA TV, and is very dependent on each individual site.  Contrary to some claims, there is no such thing as a digital antenna.  The exact same antenna that is used for analogue signals can be used for digital signals.

Some of the factors involved in choosing an antenna include the following:

1.       Distance to transmitting towers.

2.       Directionality of the transmitting towers (located in one location or multiple locations).

3.       The station broadcast frequencies (UHF and/or VHF).

4.       Signal strength.

5.       Where the antenna will be installed (on the roof, in the attic, indoors near the TV set).

6.       The local topography (mountainous or flat), and surrounding obstructions (buildings or trees).

Items 1 through 4 above can easily be determined for your location from the AntennaWeb website .  Click on the button to “Choose your antenna”, and provide your address information on the following page.  Click on the “Submit” button and you’ll be directed to a list of the stations in your location, the distance to the transmitting towers, the compass direction of the towers, and the frequency assignment of each station.  The station list will be sorted by the heading “Antenna Type”, from the strongest signal stations (and smallest antenna required) to the weakest signal stations (and the largest antenna required).  Choose an antenna type based on the largest antenna required for the station you want to view, but keep in mind that these antenna types are based on outdoor antenna installations -- if you install the antenna indoors, either in the attic or near the TV set, you’ll probably want to upgrade the antenna to the next larger size.

Armed with the information from AntennaWeb, you can now select an appropriate antenna for your situation.  Depending on the distance to the transmitting towers, you can either select a large, medium, or small antenna (choose the next size up if installed indoors or if the signal is blocked by buildings or trees).  If the stations you want to receive are located in multiple compass headings, you’ll either need an omni-directional antenna or multiple directional antennas.  If all the stations are in the same location, you could use, but are not limited to, a directional antenna that will need to point in the compass direction of the transmitting towers.  Many antennas will work with both UHF and VHF signals, but some will only work for UHF (channel frequencies 14 through 69) or VHF (channel frequencies 2 through 13) signals.  Choose an antenna that will work for all transmitting frequencies for all the stations you want to watch (a note of caution – pay particular attention to the frequency assignment from AntennaWeb and not the channel number.  Some stations appear as channels in the VHF spectrum, but are actually broadcast on the UHF spectrum).  There are even some specialty antennas that are designed for urban centers, and can pick up signals that have bounced off of other structures.  If you are in an area where you will be trying to pick up a weak signal, may need a pre-amplifier for the antenna.

If all this sounds too confusing, talk to a local professional who can help you buy and install the right antenna for your situation.

Digital Signals on an Analogue TV

If you want to watch a digital station on your analogue TV, you will also need to buy a digital converter box for your TV.  Digital converter boxes cost approximately $60, but you can apply for a government coupon that is good for $40 at <<a href="" target="_self">>.  There is a limit to the government coupons of two per household.

Digital converter boxes work much like VCRs or DVD players, in that you put your analogue TV on channel 3 (similar to VCRs) or change the input setting (similar to a DVD player) to your converter box.  Changing channels is done on the converter box and not on the TV.  For this reason, you’ll probably want a digital converter box for each TV used in your household.  You could have a central converter box that is split to multiple sets, but all sets would only be able to watch that one station from the converter box.

Return on Investment

So all this sounds great, and the reception is free for the life of your antenna, but it will cost some money up front to implement.  Divide the cost of installing a good antenna, the distribution system, and the converter boxes (if needed) by the amount you’re paying for cable or satellite to see how many months it will take to pay for itself.  Sure, you’ll be getting fewer channels, but after a while you may find that you don’t miss them.

As times are tight, and people need to cut costs and save more, consider switching back to over-the-air (OTA) reception for your TV and ditch the monthly cable or satellite bill.  The quality of the new digital signals may surprise you.

10 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On January 23, 2009 at 7:50 PM, quitsmoking (< 20) wrote:

Good post, we did this very thing about two weeks ago and now are very happy with the additional stations that we are getting (for free). I should add that we are in quite a rural area and have been getting only 3 stations until we switched and now get 8-10 stations.

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#2) On January 23, 2009 at 9:24 PM, breaktrack (55.77) wrote:

I did it with a $9.99 antenna on a TV down in my cellar. Great picture! I applied for the $40 coupon, bought a $44 (net cost $4.44) converter box at Sams club and I am in business. I still need my satellite on the TV's upstairs as I couldn't just watch ABC, CBS and mainly NBC/PBS. I need FX and the Military Channel!!

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#3) On January 24, 2009 at 1:14 AM, ricoy5 (25.60) wrote:

SPORTS... for me, that's the price of cable...

good thing my wife thinks that HGTV and Sex and the city reruns is also worth the cost of cable...

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#4) On January 24, 2009 at 1:18 AM, ricoy5 (25.60) wrote:

but thanks for the breakdown... my parents still have analog antenna.  This will help.

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#5) On January 24, 2009 at 6:39 PM, TDRH (96.40) wrote:

Had cable for many years, but became tired of paying to watch commercials,   It seemed that it did not matter how many channels you subscribe to there is never anything on. 

 I get my news from NPR radio and use the TV to watch DVD's.   Watch sports at a neighbors or sports bar.

 Thanks for the information though.

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#6) On January 26, 2009 at 2:23 PM, ahobbs (< 20) wrote:

I have another tip for those using a digital converter box and a VCR with their analogue TV: put your VCR between the converter box and the TV (have the converter box output go to the VCR input, and have the VCR output go to the TV).  If you set your VCR channel to 3 (or whatever you have your converter box set to), then you can record your shows from the clear digital signals.  To change channels on your VCR, you’ll have to change channels on the converter box.

This may seem obvious to many, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier.

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#7) On January 27, 2009 at 11:59 AM, ahobbs (< 20) wrote:

UPDATE:  The switch-off date for analogue TV has been delayed to June 12, but don't put it off!  Make the switch to digital and enjoy the clear picture now.

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#8) On January 29, 2009 at 3:22 PM, ahobbs (< 20) wrote:

UPDATE 2:  Looks like the switch-off date will remain for Feb 17, as the postponement didn't make it through the House of Reps (the Senate had passed it unanimously).

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#9) On February 02, 2009 at 1:10 PM, MariaFL (< 20) wrote:

Another way to get free tv is if you have any sort of satellite dish\receiver box you CAN pick up any of the free broadcasted digital tv channels. All the satellite dish does as act as a high-powered antenna. One of the small 18 inch dishes is sufficient. If you have a long coaxial cable and another person to help move the dish around to "tune" it, then you should be able to get good reception. I know someone that did this and gets currently to date as of 2/2/09  45  channels for free in the city (where you'd think you'd have the worst interference) and digital tv hasn't even gone full-power yet. I will be testing it out at my own house shortly. And if I get it to come in equally well, it will be GOODBYE TIME WARNER! :-) It also works if you have an existing satellite setup that you own that is already installed. Just disconnect your existing pay account and re-tune the receiver.

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#10) On March 02, 2009 at 1:33 AM, ahobbs (< 20) wrote:


I'm not qualified to say that it's impossible to use a dish as an antenna, but I'm very skeptical that it would work.  There's probably a very good reason why antennas are shaped the way that they are, and that none of them that are designed for over-the-air reception look like dish antennas.

Anyway, I hope you'll be able to report back on how it goes.  If any Fool has more knowledge on if this setup would work, I'd appreciate the feedback.

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