News flash: the rabbit-eared antennas that sat on your grandma’s living room TV are a thing of the past. But that doesn’t mean antennas have gone out of style; in fact, the FCC and the industry have made high-quality video even easier than it was in Grandma’s day! If you’re cutting out cable, the simple installation of a digital antenna can help you access local channels without a monthly bill.
Before we jump into what life will look like once you cut the cord, it’s important to understand how HDTV antennas work, the type of signal you can expect, and the type of antenna you’ll need to get reception.
How Do OTA Antennas Work?
To simplify it, a TV antenna is a collection of specially arranged wires or metal elements designed to pick up broadcast signals from TV networks. HDTV antennas receive television broadcasts via electromagnetic signals and translate them into video and audio to display whatever programming you want to watch.
Because the digital broadcast spectrum is still owned by the public and regulated by the FCC, you can access all this without a monthly cost. You might have to pay for the devices, but that means all you need is an HDTV and HD antenna to watch some of your favorite channels in crisp, clear high definition.
Even better: while some cable networks will compress their signals for efficiency, local broadcasts transmit uncompressed signals, so you receive the highest quality audio and visual. About 90% of all households can pick up at least 5 local stations freely using an HDTV antenna.
Some antennas can connect directly to your TV; if your television has a built-in tuner, you’re good to go. Others will need a tuner hooked up between the antenna and your device. Don’t worry, if you have multiple TVs, you won’t need to purchase multiple antennas, since connections can be split or amplified as needed.
What Type of Antenna do I Need?
While we can’t control where you live (that’s on you, folks), we can offer a few tips on how to get the best reception possible regardless of your location.
If you have strong reception in your area and your TV is conveniently placed near a window, an indoor antenna is probably all you need to catch a good signal. A recent study conducted by Consumer Reports found that the top-selling indoor TV antennas’ crispness and performance varied on factors beyond just location. For some models, it was important that they were directional, meaning they had to be pointed toward broadcast towers in order to perform well. Others, while pricey, didn’t deliver on performance. Overall, placing the antenna as physically high as possible and near a window to prevent interference will yield the best signal.
If signal strength is weaker around your home, you should consider an outdoor antenna that you can place on the roof or against the side of your home.
What Can I Watch with an Antenna?
What you’ll be able to watch specifically and its quality somewhat depends on where you live. If you live in a major TV market (e.g. New York City), you’ll be able to access many local stations such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. Websites like AntennaWeb.org and TV Fool, as well as the FCC’s DTV Reception Maps page will give you a better understanding of what stations your area can receive. Be sure to look into the various antenna TV channels by zip code to be clear on what you’ll be able to watch.
You can experiment with different antenna placements with just an extra length of coax cable. And you could also use an amplifier to boost signal strength and pull in more distant stations. Amplifiers are especially helpful if you plan to split the signal from one antenna to feed multiple televisions.
A general tip for getting the most free TV with your digital antenna is to routinely rescan for channels. Just because certain stations aren’t available when you first set up your antenna doesn’t mean they won’t be in a few months. Many stations are constantly in the process of moving to new frequencies, so rescanning once a month will likely get you new stations you would otherwise have been unable to pick up.
If you’re using an antenna to supplement streaming services, check out our other posts on smart TVs, streaming sticks and streaming boxes.