Saturday, February 09, 2013

How to Watch Local Channels in HD Without Cable TV

I invite you to join me on a journey.  A journey to a magical world free of cable TV bills, shyster pricing, and frustrating phone calls when your bill is wrong or your service is on the fritz.  If you follow this four-chapter journey you will leave the land of $100+ cable TV bills and finish in Shambhala where the cable TV industry's poor pricing model has no place.

Our journey's chapters (links available as they're published):

Chapter 1 - Receive HD channels on your TV with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna

Chapter 2 - Optimize the antenna signal for all TVs with splitters

Chapter 3 - Run an antenna's signal on the same cord as your Internet feed

Chapter 4 - Stream videos from cable stations with a media server

Why should you listen to me?  These steps worked for me after I taught myself and made some mistakes.  I hope these posts save you from the same mistakes.

Let's hope the cord cutting is a smooth ride for us all.

Chapter 1 - Set Up Your HDTV with an OTA Antenna

Note: The antenna may be hooked up to a TV or another device capable of searching for OTA channels.  For example, my OTA antenna is hooked up to my TiVo, just as I used to run my cable TV through the TiVo.  For this blog, assume "TV" means whatever device you're using to search for OTA channels.

April 2013 Update - If you're comfortable with streaming media, you now have the option of streaming local OTA content from a rented antenna in your area. Thanks to the recent appellate ruling in the 2nd Circuit in NY, Aereo may continue offering and expanding such a service.

Step 1 - Don't do anything. I know you can't wait to flip off the cable company and disconnect, but don't do it until you're able to watch TV without that moneysucking cord. 

Step 2 - Do something. Determine which channels you should expect to receive with different OTA antennas. Visit

Step 3 - Enter your address and click the "Find Local Channels" button.

Step 4 - Try not to be worried by the flood of data that appears. All you care about is what channels fall under which color backgrounds.  As it states on the bottom of the page:

Background color
Estimated signal strength
An indoor "set-top" antenna is probably sufficient to pick up these channels
An attic-mounted antenna is probably needed to pick up channels at this level and above
A roof-mounted antenna is probably needed to pick up channels at this level and above
These channels are very weak and will most likely require extreme measures to try and pick them up

Step 5 - Do you see most of your local channels in the green section?  That's great!  You get to start with the cheapest digital antenna out there!  If most of your local channels were in other colors, don't sweat it; all it means is that you'll probably have to buy a more powerful antenna.

Ranking antennas in terms of signal pulling strength/cost in order of weakest/cheapest to strongest/most expensive, antennas generally go indoor/non-amplified, indoor/amplified, outdoor/non-amplified, and outdoor/amplified.  Some posters on technical forums say that amplification degrades the signal a bit, but I'm not sure that I'd even notice.

Step 6 - Note which antenna should do the trick for your TV viewing needs.  If you live in a city or near other houses, you may need a more powerful antenna than what's stated here, but that's why receipts were created to return items you don't want.  I suggest trying the "lowest" model and work your way up as needed; often this will be an indoor/non-amplified model.

Step 7 - Digital antennas come in four flavors, indoor (non-amplified and amplified) and outdoor (non-amplified and amplified).  Living close to DC and surrounded by townhomes, I chose to start with the cheapest, an indoor non-amplified model, and haven't had any issues.  As you might expect (and just read), outdoor models are more expensive than indoor, and amplified is more expensive than non-amplified. 

There's no shame in using an antenna with rabbit ears when the picture's crystal clear.

Step 8 - Visit a site like Amazon or go to an actual store and find an indoor or outdoor (are you comfortable installing it to the outside of your house?) HDTV antenna.  From there, pick an amplified or non-amplified model that suits your price point, has lots of positive reviews, and looks fine in your living quarters.  An indoor antenna works best near a window and some models use good'ol rabbit ears which may disrupt your space's feng shui.  My antenna has rabbit ears, but it's out of the way so I don't mind them.  More powerful indoor antennas are placed in the attic so how it looks doesn't matter, but what does matter is the thought of running cables from the attic to your TVs.  Also, an amplified antenna does need to be plugged in somewhere.

Step 9 - Go ahead and purchase the antenna that you'll come to love and adore.  Go to step 10 when the antenna is within arm's reach.

Step 10 - Go to the TV that will get the honor of not receiving video of inferior quality from cable.  In a later post, I will explain how you can use one antenna to pull channels for all TVs in your house provided you can reach each TV with a cord from the attic or wherever the optimal antenna location ends up being.  For now, we'll work with and assume that each TV will get its own antenna.

Step 11 - Provided that the TV was purchased after 2007, it will be ready for a digital antenna.  Locate the cable cord that connects to the TV and unscrew it (pictured below).  A coax cable's connecting ring can be screwed and unscrewed with your hand.  If it's on tight, use a set of pliers to help.  This type of cable is called a coaxial cable (coax) and contains a thin copper wire at its male end so be try not to move it too much while unscrewing it.

Believe it or not, the cable company will not smite you when you disconnect its coax.

Step 12 - Congratulations!  You've just finished the hardest step of breaking free of the "I can only watch HDTV with cable TV" mindset.

Step 13 - Open your antenna and put it together, if necessary.  Some models may require some simple installing of the rabbit ears or other signal catching peripherals. Outdoor antennas will require mounting to your house which you won't learn about in this blog.  Sorry, but even a one-man band can't play every instrument out there.

Step 14 - Take the coax cable coming from the antenna and screw the male end into the same outlet where you unscrewed the cable TV cord in step 11.  The coax should be screwed well with a normal amount of hand tightening; it doesn't have to be super tight!

Should your TV have more than one plug such as one just for antenna signals, then screw the antenna cord into that one.  If you already know that you have to place your antenna in your attic or outside to receive stations, do what you gotta do to get the coax from the antenna down to a TV.  Again, in a later blog post, I'll talk about using this one antenna to pull channels for TVs on multiple floors provided each TV could be wire to a single antenna.

Step 15 - If you have an amplified antenna, plug it in the outlet nearest to where the antenna will probably reside.  If you have a non-amplified antenna you don't have to do anything for this step except continue reading the words that I'm typing to see if anything is worth doing only to find out there's nothing else to do except finish this sentence.

Step 16 - Move your antenna where you think it will probably reside, preferably near a window (if not in the attic or mounted outside). If your house has siding, it really helps the reception if the antenna has a clear path to the window view.

Step 17 - If the coax connected to the antenna is not long enough, connect it to another coax cable using a simple coax connection; most likely a female to female connector pictured below.  This would allow you to connect the antenna's male end to the connector's female end, and connect the extra coax cable's male end to the connector's other female end, leaving the extra coax cable's male end to be screwed into the TV's female end.  Got that?

So simple, yet so necessary.
Step 18 - If you've reached this step, you now have your TV connected to an antenna through its coax connection.  Way to go!

Step 19 - Let's see if the work has paid off.  Turn on your TV.  You probably won't see any picture.  Take a deep breath, things will be okay.

Step 20 - Use your TV's menu and navigate to its area called "channels" or maybe "video".  You're looking for the menu option that will allow you to change the signal that your TV receives.  Again, in my case I searched for channels using TiVo and not my TV.

Step 21 - At the signal screen, change the input or signal to "antenna"; really just about anything other than cable or satellite.

Step 22 - The TV should begin searching for channels or ask you if it may do so.  By all means, let it loose and see what channels the antenna picks up!  The search may take up to 10 minutes while the TV checks area frequencies for OTA stations.  Most TVs will keep a running total of the number of stations picked up during this search.

Industry secret: while the TV searches for channels, improve your chances by saying, "big money, big money, big money, no whammy, stop!"

Step 23 - When the search is finished, change your TV's channel to see if anything comes in.  With any luck you'll have your standard station affiliates for NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC, and PBS.  Larger markets will usually offer another 30 channels.

Step 24 - If you do not receive even half of the "green" channels listed from step 5 or are not satisfied with the found channels, move the antenna to a different location in the room or another room altogether.  You may even try connecting it to a TV on a higher floor near a window just to see if reception is possible with this antenna.  Each time you move the antenna, return to step 16.  If you've tried all rational, reasonable, and legal locations without any luck, you should consider buying a different version of the antenna or upgrading it; then return to step 13.

Step 25 - If you're a picky channel surfer like me, go back to your TV's menu and eliminate stations you don't want.  For example, if you don't know much Spanish, you may want to delete the Spanish-only channels from the rotation.

Step 26 - Congrats!  You now have your familiar network channels and some new ones, all in HD that is clearer than any cable or satellite provider could, well, provide you with.  By all means, call the cable or satellite TV provider and tell them to get lost!  This does not mean you must cut ties with the company's Internet service.  Also, if you'd like to optimize the TV reception throughout your living quarters, don't remove the coax installed to each room just yet.

In future posts, I'll explain how you can see most of your favorite cable TV shows for little cost and how to use one antenna to pull stations for every TV in your house.


Walker64 said...

Thank you for this article. This is just what I've been looking for - straight-forward ideas/answers for learning about this option.

Lucia said...

Thanks a lot for the post

Katie said...

This was very well-written and easy to follow. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

thank you!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Hello! I have an issue. Without Tivo OTA connected I got like 50 channels OTA (I live just outside Boston) using a cheap powered indoor antenna, but Tivo OTA is only recognizing a fraction of those. My questions are 1) How do I get the Tivo OTA to search for more channels, and 2) Do I need to get a more powerful antenna?

Scott Waschlerner said...

Hello! I understood your advice about connection antenna to the tv, but I can't understand what if my patch cable is suitable for it. I have these cable and seems it is the same I used before, but when I connected it to antenna it didn't work. What to do?