Antenna TV is Awesome and Here’s How to Get It

Antenna TV is one of the most misunderstood technologies in America. Most Americans don’t realize they can even get it, and among those who do, there is a lot of confusion. Do you need special technology? Is the signal that fuzzy thing that we had back in the 80s?

The answers are no and absolutely not! Antenna TV is extremely easy to get, and most of it is HD quality.

But most people don’t know that. Here’s why: in 2009, TV stations made the switch from analog to digital antenna TV, and it confused a lot of people … enough that most people went to cable or satellite, or eventually streaming.

Those services are fine, but they cost money.

Meanwhile, chances are that television stations near you are transmitting right in your area, and all you need to catch them is some basic equipment. These stations are called “over the air” or “OTA” stations, and while they’re not perfect, they are a valuable part of any home that wants to make full use of what it already has.

Let’s tackle some of the basics.

What is Antenna TV?

It’s really simple. Television stations in a local area broadcast their signals through the air, just like radio or cell phone signals. An antenna can pick up those signals and convert them to your television.

How many stations are there?

It depends on where you live. One of the first things you should do is go over to AntennaWeb and put your address in. That will give you an idea of what’s in your area and how easy it will be for you to get it. The closer you live to a large city, the easier it will be to get antenna TV and the more options you’ll probably have.

How is the picture quality?

Most stations broadcast in 720p or 1080i, or what is commonly called high definition, or HD. At the time of this post, most stations on cable or satellite also broadcast in 720p or 1080i. Netflix and other streaming services may broadcast anywhere from 720p to 1080p or even higher (such as 4K), depending on what you’re using to stream them and what the streaming service is.

How much any of that matters depends on what kind of TV you have and how far you are from the TV. For example, my 40-inch 1080p TV is about 8-10 feet from my couch, and I’m hard-pressed to notice much of a difference between, say, 720p or 1080p.

It’s not the highest HD resolution (1080p) and it’s not the 4K resolution that some TVs now use.

There are some antenna stations that don’t broadcast in HD. These are usually smaller stations, such as local religious channels or channels that only show reruns. Any network station, such as ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, or even CW will be broadcasting in HD.

Can antenna TV replace cable or streaming?

Depends on what you watch. Antenna TV usually has your major networks, so if you like network shows, you’re probably covered. On the other hand, if you watch shows on, say, HBO or TNT or Syfy, you won’t get those through an antenna.

The biggest hurdle for some people I know is sports. Football, both college and NFL, gets pretty decent coverage over the air, but other sports like baseball, hockey, and NBA basketball are more hit-or-miss. If you can’t live without hockey, an antenna alone may not give you your fix.

Can I DVR / record antenna TV to watch later?

Yes, but it takes some specialized equipment that costs a bit of money.

What do I need to watch antenna TV?

You need two things:

  1. An antenna. More about this in a moment.
  2. A TV that can decode the digital signal. If your TV was made after March of 2007, you’re set, and a few TVs made before that may also have such a tuner. If your TV is that old, it may be worth replacing, if for no other reason than the fact that TVs are really cheap right now, but if you’re determined to hold onto your current TV, you can also look around for a digital converter box, either new or used. Be advised that older converter boxes may not convert a signal to HD, so research them carefully.

Do I need an HD antenna?

Let’s get one thing straight: there is no such thing as an HD antenna. Your grandma’s “rabbit ear” antenna is potentially capable of picking up a high-definition signal. Those antennas aren’t always good at picking up distant signals, but if you’re looking for a cheap attempt, you can start there. Keep in mind that most digital stations are on the channels known as UHF, so the ring of a rabbit ear antenna is probably more important than the two telescoping antennae.

Beyond that, what kind of antenna you need will depend on your location relative to the stations you want. If you live in an urban or near suburban area, a simple indoor antenna may work fine. If you live in a more rural area, it depends; you might be able to get by with an amplified indoor antenna, or you might need an outdoor antenna, which will require more cost and work to set up properly. And even then, there are no guarantees. You’ll want to do some research before paying the money and investing the time.

Is there a specific type of antenna that works best?

I wish I had an easy answer for that, and anyone who claims they do is trying to sell you something. Every situation is a little different, and what works for one person may not for another. For example, I live in a suburban area near an airport, and I’ve discovered (through lots of trial and error) that the best antenna for me is a unidirectional antenna that points in a direction rather than one of the flatter ones. In my case, that was a Terk Amplified Indoor Antenna, which I’ve been unable to beat, despite more than a few attempts. In fact, I get better reception than a friend down the street who has a flatter outdoor antenna, so you never know. That said, other people have tried the same antenna I have and gotten terrible reception, so it’s all about your very unique location situation.

Where’s the best place to buy an antenna?

Buying an antenna can be a bit of a crap shoot, especially online, which is why I looked at brick-and-mortar stores in my early antenna research, but if you feel confident you can also venture online. I’ve also been known to stumble on the occasional antenna at a yard sale, so you might keep an eye out for those if they are common in your area.

Or, if you’re feeling a little adventurous, you can even make your own by spending a few dollars on readily available parts at the hardware store.

What else can I do to help get a better antenna signal?

A few things come to mind:

  1. Play around with antenna location. Especially indoors, moving an antenna a few inches higher or rotating it a few degrees can make all the difference. Putting an antenna near a window or away from other electronics might help. Also remember to face your antenna toward the stations you’re trying to get.
  2. Consider an amplifier. A pre-amp is a must for an outdoor antenna, but an amplifier, or signal booster, can be helpful for some indoor antennas, too. I’ve had mixed results with different models, but they can definitely help.
  3. Re-scan your stations. Your TV (or converter box) has an option to re-scan stations. Sometimes that can help.

I’ve tried everything and it’s not working out. I’m going back to cable / streaming.

A lot of people I know use antenna TV as a complement to streaming, so don’t automatically give up on it as an option. But I also know people who, for various reasons, either can’t get any stations (maybe because of location) or don’t get what they want. Those people have gone back to cable or satellite … and that’s okay. The important thing is that you’ve at least explored your options and made an informed decision.

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