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Antennas: The Old School TV Networks

We don't often think about it, but good old over the air TV is still available and, once you have an antenna installed, it doesn't cost a penny.

By Steven Vaughan-Nichols on Tue, 06/26/12 - 11:39am.

40-years ago I was on a tower in the middle of the West Virgina hills putting up an antenna for state of the art TV reception. That is, I was installing a TV antenna. In WV, with few TV stations and lots of low mountains the only way you got TV was by having someone like my dad and his assistant—aka me—install up to 100-foot tall towers and antennas on top of them. That was then. This is now.

Today, most people get their TV from cable or satellite. But, as their costs have sky-rocketed, a lot of people have been turning to the Internet for television. That's great, but over-the-air (OTA) TV never went away. In fact, since OTA TV shifted over to digital from analog in 2009, it's gotten better than ever.

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In 2012, instead of offering a single channel, most OTA TV stations actually offer two or three different “channels.” In addition, most stations broadcast their network programs in HDTV. And, unlike, your local cable or satellite company, they don't charge you a thing for the extra “service.”  Best of all OTA is still free.

Of course, in most places to use it, you still need antennas. If you're lucky you can still get a decent selection of channels with good old rabbit-ears.  If not, towers and antenna are still available.

The first thing you need to do is find out what's available OTA in your neighborhood. While you can find someone to do that for you, the easiest way to start is by going to a site like AntennaWeb, TV Fool, or AntennaPoint and using their interactive tools to see what OTA channels are available to you.

The results you'll get will show you a range of options. If you're lucky, you'll be able to get your local channels with a small, mult-directional antenna. These are the kind of antennas you can find at a Best Buy or other consumer electronic stores. With a strong enough signal you can use these inside your house.

But, like any kind of wireless networks, the more barriers there are between you and the transmitter the less powerful the signal will be. In the old analog days that meant your image would get snow on it. With digital, you'll get a sharp, clear image... that breaks up from time to time. That can be more annoying than snow ever was.

So, what can you do about it? Well, the same thing I did back when I was a kid: put the antenna on a high tower, try to get the antenna away from barriers like other buildings and trees, and look into bigger and/or directional antennas.

The Web sites will guide you on what, generally speaking, the best antenna will be for your area. Before shopping though there's a couple of things to keep in mind. First, ignore any advertising for HDTV antennas. There's no such thing as an HDTV antenna. An antenna is an antenna is an antenna. When it comes to OTA antennas, HDTV is just a buzz word. That's not to say there aren't differences between antennas. For the best guide to them I recommend reading the reviews in HDTV Antenna Labs.

There are six commercial categories of OTA TV antennas. There is no one size fits all kind of antenna nor is there one antenna type that's better than any other. You need to look at what signals you can expect to get in your location and then look for the antenna that best fits your needs. In my case, for example, I get along OK with an Antennas Direct ClearStream 2 in the moutains of Ashevlle, North Carolinia.

What's that? Your home owner's association or housing developments have banned outdoor antennas? Well, actually, according to the FCC, they can't legally stop you from putting up an antenna.

Finally, though unless, like me, you grew up dragging 75 ohm coax. RG-59 cable up towers, I'd recommend getting someone to install any outdoor antenna. There's an amazing number of ways to hurt yourself clambering about your roof and you don't want to learn about any of them the hard way. Of course, if you have several strong stations in your immediate neighborhood, an indoor antenna is probably all you need.