Watching Live Broadcast TV with an Antenna

I’m sure a lot of my readers won’t be able to relate to this, but I clearly remember the excitement in the Kricfalusi household when “Cablevision” came to our neighborhood. (Well, since it was in Canada, it was really our “neighbourhood.”) 🙂 Besides having more choices of what to watch, it also meant we could do away with antennas, whether they were the constantly-needs-adjusting rabbit ears on top of the TV or the more-powerful-but-still-temperamental rooftop ones.

I can’t swear to this but, before cable, I think we had exactly three TV stations: CBC English, CBC French, and CTV. Fortunately they did show some of the most popular American shows at the time and our biggest family disagreement was whether we were watching The Honeymooners or The Beverly Hillbillies on Saturday night. (No DVRs—or even VCRs!—back then either…) Even after the arrival of cable, I think we were up to 20 or 30 stations. Nothing like the hundreds of channels available today!

In the States, the pre-cable Big Three broadcast networks were CBS, NBC, and ABC. And it’s pretty amazing to me how much they (plus Fox now) still dominate the airwaves with their morning and evening news shows, syndicated daytime programming, late-night talk shows, and primetime hits from the Big Bang Theory to Sunday Night Football.

So for a lot of people, before they can even think about canceling their cable subscription, they want to know how they’re going to be able to keep up with their favorite (favourite!) network programs. And that’s where the antenna comes back into play.

Note: If you don’t care about watching your shows live, you can access a lot of them through streaming media providers like Netflix, Amazon Video and Hulu Plus.

How Does an Antenna Work?

I have no idea. 🙂 This level of technology knowledge is way beyond me. But below are some high-level concepts you need to know. For more detail, check out this great article from Consumer Reports:

How To Survive the Digital TV Transition >>

  • TV stations send broadcast signals out “over the air(waves),” which is why you’ll often see it referred to OTA TV.
  • The ability to access OTA signals through an antenna depends on a number of factors:
    • Your physical distance from a broadcast tower
    • Any impediments between your home and the tower
    • Where you place the antenna: indoors, in the attic, or on the rooftop

    You can find more information about how close you are to towers, what channels are available, and what type of antenna will work best for you at antennaweb.com or tvfool.com.

  • In 2009, U.S. TV stations had to switch all their signals from analog to digital to comply with a federal government mandate. On the plus side, the signal quality is better and you may have more channels available. On the minus side, some older TVs (including HD models, depending when they were made) will not be able to take digital signals.
  • If you have one of these TVs, you will need a digital converter box, VCR, or DVR that has what’s called an ATSC tuner to convert the digital signal to analog.

Recording Shows from an Antenna

Unlike with cable and satellite set-top DVRs, antennas don’t have built-in recording capabilities. So if you want to record shows, you’ll need to get a separate DVR. These can range from inexpensive models that include a very basic program guide and require an external hard drive to actually store the shows on to more expensive models, like Tivo, that are much more like cable DVRs and that may also come with monthly subscription fees.

My Antenna Setup

I live in the suburbs of a major city within just a few miles of a broadcast tower, so I got a basic indoor antenna and attached it to the wall just above my TV and the both the audio and video are really strong and clear. I get 30+ OTA stations and substations, including CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, The CW, PBS, Telemundo, Home Shopping Network, Radar (a weather channel that’s a substation of CBS), a movies channel, and a bunch of others I wasn’t even aware of before!

You may need to place an indoor antenna further away from your TV to get a good line to the broadcast tower, in which case you may need a longer coaxial cable to reach your TV. You can also get an antenna with a signal booster to make sure it stays strong over the length of the cable.

More Information

Thats about it for my knowledge of antennas, but AntennasDirect is a site with a lot more information about them including DIY installation instructions for rootop antennas as well as links to service providers who can install them for you. They also sell a wide range of indoor and outdoor antennas.

Elizabeth Kricfalusi

View Comments

  • I just bought and received the Amazon Fire TV Box, and perhaps I'm getting too old(65), this is the sorriest device I ever bought from them. To start, it has a very small, Thin remote, that uses 2 AAA batteries, so I started with that. An hour and almost 20 minutes later, I got it open. WOW( I didn't think I had that much persistence left in me) It set up very easily and acquired my Amazon data, very easily. Set up was a Snap. But what is a disgrace, is the Users Interface that Amazon has on it. Before buying I had called Amazon, asking about WHY under most APPS(channels) they offer, is the word FREE. Only that one word, FREE. Those that have anything else, is a low price listing to buy the APP, but it seems that is for games you can play. When I read that Amazon was releasing a NEW USER UPDATE in about a month, I said THANK GOD. Using the word FREE, confuses users, by making them think if they load that APP, there will be NO COST AT ALL, to using it. Nice if HBO, SHOWTIME, ESPN and others, would actually do give-away's. But they don't. I spoke with MLB.TV Premiere, which I have bought major league seasons for years, about this. And before I even got into naming the device(Fire TV), the MLB Tech person stopped me, and said he knew EXACTLY what I was talking about. He said that thanks to AMAZON stupidly listing FREE under their APPS, a lot of people are thinking preciously that: After buying full baseball seasons for over a $100.00 a season, using the MLB.TV APP on the Fire TV listed as FREE, will STILL HAVE TO SUBSCRIBE TO MLB.TV, to use it. I suggested to AMAZON, that they should do like ROKU, who has them beat on this, that they create a page, that lists ALL THE APPS THEY HAVE AVAILABLE. in ALPHABETICAL ORDER. And along side the APPS NAME, if the cost of using the APP IS FREE, LIST IT AS FREE, OR IF IT COSTS, LIST THE COST. Also, list the fact if there is a TRIAL RERIOD, and if so, how long is it, and list what would be needed, to indeed use that APP, such as a subscription with length of coverage and cost. As it is now, ONE is forced to click on an APP to search on AMAZON'S site, and to read the whole page, to see if there is any hidden price, for you using that APP. That is wring.

    I also spoke to someone about the usage of USB viewing. I know the Fire TV Box has a USB slot built in it so USB memory devices can be plugged to it. I had searched for USB APPS, to see how that fared on the Fire TV, and only found ONE, and that was for a few DOLLARS. ONE? Roku had 6 at last count, 4 that were free, and 2 for a price. When the Amazon Tech I spoke with Sunday night, told me that AMAZON was PROHIBITING PIRACY BY ALLOWING ANY VIDEO TO BE STREAMED OFF A USB MEMORY DEVICE, that shocked me. I understand what PIRACY is, it's the illegal use of COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL, and trying to block any usage of it, is what various Federal Agencies do, looking to make it harder, to pirate things. But what about those like me, who are older(65). have had and raised a family, had children and personal events to occur, that using a rather COSTLY VIDEO CAMERA, you video things, creating copies of the events you want to remember and view and share. Am I being LABLED AS A PIRATE? Am I stealing from myself? Hell no, these are my and some other people I know, who have created their own video, based on their own experiences. What right does Amazon have to block us viewing what we created, OUR OWN SELF?

    Finally, this last item, has me totally confused. Where I live, I have some 12 to 16 OTA local channels I catch with my indoor antenna. They vary, mostly because weather factors into their reception. The Fire TV, has another option you can buy, that has an indoor antenna that comes along with it. Naturally, who wouldn't like the possibility of having better reception of their OTA stations, so thinking on it, I decided to buy the Fire TV Box version, ALONE, and use a new indoor antenna I bought Aug. 19, 2016 with Amazon. I'd save almost $20.00. using the one I already have. But Fire TV Box, has NO MANUAL or USERS INSTRUCTIONS, that come with it. But you can download them using .PDF to do so. The Fire TV Box, has 5 built in inputs, which are HDMI slot, Power slot, Ethernet slot, USB slot, and MICRO-SD slot. I learned thru the years, to avoid the possible damage or destruction of something I BOUGHT, learn what's needed, BEFORE DO ANYTHING. No where in the Manuals, do they have listed, how to attach an indoor antenna, to the Fire TV Box. Again, with the same Amazon Fire TV Box tech person, I was told that the indoor antenna, DOES NOT PHYSICALLY ATTACH TO THE FIRE TV BOX. What you must do, is PLUG your indoor antenna to your TV, the same TV you attached the Fire TV Box to, and it can then RECEIVE OTA BROADCASTS, THROUGH THE TV. I asked, is that how it REALLY WORKS, and he said YES, it is. I then asked, what APP(S) must I install on the Fire TV Box, to access what broadcasts are being shown, and his answer was NONE ARE NEEDED, THE FIRE TV BOX will let you watch. I asked him where he got all these answers, and he said from his PERSONAL NOTES, was where he got them, and with that, I had enough. I thanked him, and basically I'm more SCREWED UP TALKING TO HIM, than trying to do something my self. If what I have written here, makes sense it being given to me was a JOKE OF SOME KIND.

    Does anyone have the real answers to these, or know of a site I can use, to find the answer myself going through it? Please, any help, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and God Bless.

    Paul

    • Hi Paul.

      I'm sorry you're so frustrated with your new Fire TV and antenna. I agree that the remote is terribly designed. I actually had to make a video to demonstrate how to remove the back to insert the batteries. You may want to read this post on the Fire TV (box and stick) that has answers to some of the questions you have:

      https://techforluddites.com/firetv

      As for the antenna, you do not connect it to the Fire TV. You connect it directly to your television. Your antenna should have a coaxial connector like the one that comes with cable service. You plug it into your TV where the port says ANTENNA IN or CABLE IN or something like that. Then take your TV remote control (not the Fire TV's) and use the INPUT button to switch to the port with your antenna. You will then need to go into your TV's settings and find something like CHANNEL SCAN. By running the scan, your TV will find the channels that your antenna can pick up and then you can use your TV's remote to move up and down the channel list.

      I hope that helps!

      - Elizabeth

      • Eliabeth, I thank you for your reply. And if I understand you correctly, Amazon connecting an Indoor Antenna with a Fire TV Box, is basically an attempt at selling more INDOOR ANTENNAS. As you described my indoor antenna, yes it has the cable connection, that I already have connected to my HDTV, and as you stated, I then used my TV menu to go to that search built in the TV, and did a search. I have 3 types of search options, 1- AIR, 2 - CABLE, 3 - AIR and CABLE. And it will scan the area around me, and note what services can be found. After that, use the TV REMOTE to choose which local channel I want. I'm basically a local news person wanting what's happening in my area, and that is it, except for occasionally NFL games and college games from my area. Other than that, it's what streaming is about, online. That said, all my frustration was worthless, Fire TV Box has no way of bettering my indoor antenna results, and that further makes me wonder, why have an EXPERT TECH SUPPORT, if when you ask a question, they can't answer it easily? If I'm confused with what you wrote, then please try again to explain it, but you seemed quite easy to understand, and again, I thank you for the reply.

        The other suggestion you made about info on the Fire TV Stick, I'll look at when I get the chance, and as I said, reading that Amazon will be doing a newer User Interface update by the end of the year, makes me hopeful, enough people complained about how this one is set up. Good luck, and may God Bless.

        Paul Breaux

        • The reason they have that Fire TV/antenna bundle is because a lot of people get streaming players because they want to cancel their cable or satellite service. But streaming sticks don't include a lot of regular broadcast programming, so a lot of people buy an antenna to fill in those gaps. Amazon has created a bundle that costs less than if you bought both those products separately, so it's a good deal for those people.

          And yes, I'm also looking forward to the new interface!

  • A couple of times you've eluded to, concerning content streamed onto a PC, this … “you can’t watch their content on your TV unless you have a streaming device or smart TV”. What about the HDMI port on the PC into an HDMI port on the TV, using the TV as a second screen?

    So the Roku needs Internet access. Where is that supposed to come from if I'm “cutting the cord”? So many people now get their Internet over their phones. Can that be the Internet source for the Roku? If not then are you really cutting the cord completely when you still got to pay for an Internet service provider just to use the Roku? Then you got to pay for the Roku device, albeit, that's a one time payment, then pay for most anything worthwhile using the Roku, piling up separate monthly payments as you go, supplement it with an antenna, another one time payment. Then I've read about SlingTV to get access to live programming. Another monthly payment. All this and I'm just barely getting some semblance of cable. All along I'm having to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop, including the learning curves, overcoming signal loses, provider snafus. I mean at this point is it really even worth it? And after a few years is all these different monthly payments for everything going to keep getting more and more expensive when at which point the cable giants might start looking good again? Where is all this going to end? I'm afraid I'm going to have to start making a monthly payment just to cross my street.

    • Hi KC.

      Yes, you're correct, you can connect a PC to your TV, either with an HDMI cable or wirelessly if your PC and TV support that. I mention these as options in my post about display mirroring. However, not everyone has a PC with an HDMI port, or if they have a desktop computer, or they don't have a computer at all.

      You're also correct that you still need to purchase Internet service, but that can be significantly less than what you pay for cable + Internet. You can use your phone Internet service in some cases, but it's not as good as Wi-Fi in most cases, plus you need to have a phone that provides hotspot service.

      Whether or not "cutting the cord" is going to be worth it for you depends entirely on what you like to watch on TV. For example, there are a lot of people who don't watch any channels except HBO. Those people don't want to pay $100-200/month just for that. But you're right that if you need to subscribe to multiple different services to access all the shows you want, then it may not be a good deal for you.

      What's nice is that people have more options now than they did before. For some people, keeping cable will still be the best option for the reasons you mentioned. But for others, an antenna, a streaming media player, and a Sling TV subscription may be the best.

      - Elizabeth

    • Most towers broadcast in 720p. if you have HD cable they broadcast in 1080p. Let me know if you can tell the difference. And if you can, Do you care?

    • Hi Nick.

      There are both HD and non-HD antennas, so just make sure you get one that specifies HD. And note that it will only show in HD if the signal from the broadcast tower is as well.

      Hope that helps!

      - Elizabeth

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