How To Get Free TV Through An Antenna: The Ultimate Guide

How We Got Here: The History of the DTV Transition

Local television stations have broadcast their content over-the-air (OTA) ever since the advent of television in the 1920′s. However, receiving the signals in our home via an antenna has become less and less popular over the years. First, the signal was never reliable and was significantly affected by weather, physical obstructions, and the distance between the transmitter and antenna. Also, with the huge explosion of cable technology that started in the 1970′s, most consumers could get the same local broadcast channels directly through their cable provider. The same happened when satellite companies started offering local channels with their service. This meant that consumers could get a high quality feed of all of the major networks right into their homes and never had to deal with the dreaded rabbit ears again.

Fast forward to 2009 and a new law went into the affect mandating that all television stations in the U.S. must switch from broadcasting analog signals to digital signals. This allowed the FCC to sell off valuable spectrum that was no longer being used by analog broadcasts and it ushered in the era of free, digital, high-definition television channels.

 

Digital and HD: Not Necessarily The Same things

It’s important to note that broadcasting in digital and broadcasting in high-definition (HD) are not the same thing. However, the two frequently get lumped in together. This is because a station has to be broadcasting digitally for stations to be sent and received in an HD format. You will notice that many non-network stations that broadcast digitally do not display HD programming. However, in the case of network television, almost all of their local affiliates broadcast content in HD. Conversely, older televisions cannot display digital television signals and require a digital-analog-converter. If this sounds vaguely familiar then you probably remember the government ran a huge ad-campaign to get the word out to the general public about the transition.

 

Antennas: There is A Difference

There are two frequencies that digital television signals broadcast in: VHF (very high frequency) and UHF (ultra high frequency). Most stations broadcast in UHF, but some do broadcast in the VHF frequency. This is one of the first variables you need to consider before purchasing an antenna. How do you know which stations broadcast in which frequency? Enter Antennaweb.org; a site co-sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters.  AntennaWeb has a great tool allows you to plug-in your street address and see what broadcast stations are available in your area. Once you plug-in your address you are giving key information you will need to set up your antenna:

  • whether a station is uhf or vhf
  • the compass heading of the transmitting tower
  • distance from the transmitter
  • Digital and RF channel number

We strongly recommend printing this page because you will frequently refer to it when installing your antenna and setting up your TV. You will also use this information to help guide you on which antenna to purchase. The three biggest factors that will help shape your buying decision are:

  • Are the channels you want to receive broadcast in UHF or VHF? This will determine whether you need an antenna that can receive both types of frequencies or just one.
  • What is the location of the transmitter for the channels you want to receive? This will determine whether you need a directional antenna or multi-directional antenna. Most large cities have all of their broadcast signals transmitting from a single location (i.e. all of the networks in Chicago broadcast from either the Willis Tower or the Hancock Building). A directional antenna may meet most of your needs in this case. If you live between several cities or transmitting towers in your area are spread out then you will want to purchase a multi-directional antenna.
  • What is the television setup like in your home? How many TV’s do you want hooked up to the antenna? A small apartment with only one TV and a two-story house with 4 TV’s would require different setups entirely. If you live close enough to the transmitting towers you may be able to get a good signal by utilizing indoor antennas for each TV separately. An outdoor antenna is your best bet for pulling in the strongest signal possible. You may also be able to achieve similar results from placing an antenna in an attic.

Using one antenna for multiple televisions, such as an outdoor antenna, requires you to split the signal, just like you would a regular coax cable feed. Depending on how your home is wired you may be able to piggyback on the wiring that is already installed. However, not every coax cable is created equal and you will always get the best results from RG6 coax, which has an aluminum foil sheath to keep the signal insulated and reduce interference. Most cable and satellite services already require this type of cable so your house may already be outfitted. You will need a splitter to run the signal to multiple TV’s but keep in mind, every time you split the signal you degrade the quality of the output. A 1000Mhz (1Ghz) splitter is the minimum requirement for most digital splitters; double-check yours is this strong. If possible, try to split the signal at only one junction as opposed to running splitters off of splitters. You can also utilize an amplifier to boost your signal but this can also amplify noise. The best advice to minimize headaches (AND COST) is to start with the right antenna and add other components if you really need them. In some cases you may need a UHF and VHF antenna in which case you would need a signal combiner, which does the opposite of a splitter and runs both signals over the same coax cable.

 

Installing Your Equipment: Positioning is Everything

Once you have the right antenna and additional equipment in hand, you are ready to install it. With indoor antennas you are somewhat limited to where you can install it. Most people keep it directly next to or behind the TV but based on the quality of the feed you may have to move it slightly. The two biggest factors to consider when installing an outdoor antenna is height and an unobstructed view in the direction towards the transmitting towers. Trees and other homes are okay but try to stay away from large buildings, high tension power lines, etc. You want the antenna as high as you can get it (be careful up there!)

Next, you will want to make sure your antenna is positioned correctly to pick up as many signals as possible. Using your data from AntennaWeb.org, you will be given a compass heading of where each station transmits in relation to your address. Using 0 degrees as north, move your antenna to match the correct heading. Don’t have a compass? Both iPhone and Android have free compass apps available and will work just as well. If you are using an outdoor antenna and you have it positioned correctly, try to hold off on mounting it permanently if it isn’t easily adjustable. You will want to make sure your TV is receiving a strong enough signal from each station first. Once you run the line from the antenna to your television, you will be ready to set up your TV.

 

Setting Up Your TV To Receive OTA Broadcasts

Before you setup your TV, it is important to note again that not all televisions have a built-in digital tuner that can receive digital broadcasts. Most newer TV’s have one but some older TV’s do not. If in doubt, check the TV’s manual to verify if it does. If not, you will have to purchase a separate digital (ATSC) tuner.

  1. Plug in the other end of the coax that comes from the antenna and turn on the television. Your TV will not automatically recognize all of the channels but the setup is pretty easy (the exact setup with your TV may vary):
  2. Hit the menu button on the remote, navigate to either the Setup screen.
  3. Verify that your correct antenna input is selected by matching the input to the label on the back on the TV. (Some TV’s have more than one antenna input)
  4. Select “Scan” or “Auto-Scan” or “Program” and your TV will begin scanning all channels to see what available channels it can pull it in. This process may take several minutes.

That’s it! To verify your success, navigate the channels using your remote and match up what you can pull in with the information from AntennaWeb. You will notice that some channels will have multiple sub-channels (i.e. 7.1, 7.2, 7.3). The .1 is almost always the main feed with the sub-channels carrying additional programming. Most televisions with a digital turner have a built-in signal strength meter in the setup menu that will allow you to see the specific strength of each channel to help diagnose any problems.

If you aren’t seeing any channels, run through all of the steps again to make sure everything is hooked up correctly. If you are using your home’s existing wiring, make sure it is configured correctly to carry the signal from your antenna to your TV. If you are still experiencing issues then check out our troubleshooting guide below.

If there is a part of this guide that needs clarification or if there is something we are missing than please let us know!

 

Troubleshooting

I’ve followed all of your steps, I’m still not seeing any broadcasts.

As mentioned in the walkthrough, make sure you have run through each step again to ensure you are setup correctly. If you still aren’t seeing any channels, verify your television has a built-in digital tuner. Next, if you are using any kind of existing wiring in your home, try bypassing it and plug your antenna directly into your TV, even if the antenna isn’t in your ideal location. This will help rule out your existing wiring as the cause of not receiving a signal. If you still aren’t receiving a signal then you might live in an area where it is extremely difficult to get quality reception. Talk to friends and neighbors and see if any of them receive broadcasts OTA and what kind of setup they use. You may need a longer range antenna or an amplifier.

My feed becomes pixellated or drops out completely for a few seconds.

This is caused by not receiving a strong enough signal from the transmitting tower. DTV broadcasts do not have static or “fuzz” like traditional analog broadcasts. This means that if the signal isn’t strong enough it simply will not display. Try repositioning your antenna or adding an amplifier to your setup. If you are splitting the signal than make sure you are using a high quality splitter and not running splitters on top of splitters.

My feed will show more than one image of a broadcast.

This phenomenon is known as “ghosting” and typically occurs in low-lying areas. Buildings such as, churches, office buildings, schools, water towers, other transmission towers, and high power tension lines can cause ghosting. You may also experience significant ghosting if you live in a high-rise building. A directional antenna prevents most of these problems and the farther a structure is away from your antenna, the less ghosting you will experience.

When I should I “re-scan”?

You should re-scan from your TV’s setup menu any time that you move your antenna or add/remove components to your setup (i.e. splitters, amplifiers, etc.) This will ensure that you are receiving as many channels as possible.

 

Version 1.0 – updated 2/21/12

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