Get a clear picture of savingsYou might have read about people cutting their cable TV bills by watching shows online, using all kinds of high-tech gear and services. That hoopla, while very cool, usually overlooks a good old-school option: using a simple antenna to get high-definition TV reception over the air for free.
By: Gregory Karp, Chicago Tribune (MCT)
You might have read about people cutting their cable TV bills by watching shows online, using all kinds of high-tech gear and services. That hoopla, while very cool, usually overlooks a good old-school option: using a simple antenna to get high-definition TV reception over the air for free.
Long before people were using airwaves for wireless phone conversations, Web surfing and texting, they were snatching TV signals out of thin air with rabbit-ears and rooftop antennas. You still can. And it can be a huge money-saver if it allows you to cancel or downgrade your cable, satellite or fiber-optic TV subscription.
And one little-known fact: The picture from an over-the-air high-definition TV signal will probably be the best you've ever seen. That's because, in lay terms, over-the-air broadcast signals aren't as compressed as signals are likely to be from cable and satellite companies, said Mark A. Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, an operator of 58 U.S. television stations. Less compression provides a richer and sharper HD picture for "Sunday Night Football," "Dancing with the Stars" and other broadcast programs. "What you get over the air is the best quality offered by a network in any market," said Aitken, who is also a leader with the broadcast industry standards group, ATSC.
It used to be that home-theater enthusiasts had antennas because of the superior picture. Now, a new generation is rediscovering over-the-air television, said Richard Schneider, founder of AntennasDirect.com. "We've seen a huge rush in orders in the last six to nine months," he said. "There's a perception that it's for the elderly or the indigent, but the fastest-growing part of our business is 20-something techy kids."
To be sure, antenna TV has drawbacks too, the biggest of which is limited channel selection.
Here's what will help:
Location information. Go online to AntennaWeb.org and enter your home address. The site will provide information about how far away broadcasting towers are and what type of antenna you're likely to need. Get second opinions and more techy information at TVFool.com and AntennaPoint.com. If you're within 70 miles of the transmitting towers, you should be able to get a signal, Schneider said.
Antenna-buying advice. In general, bigger outdoor antennas work better, as opposed to attic and set-top antennas. But if you're close enough to broadcasters to use a set-top antenna, do-it-yourself installation is easy — plug the antenna into the back of your TV. So, if you already have an old set-top rabbit-ears antenna, you might as well try it. Often, trial-and-error is the best way to find an ideal antenna, which means you should buy from retailers that make returns convenient. Connect the antenna to the TV with common coaxial TV cable, called RG-6.
Ignore the hype. Don't be fooled by the marketing of antenna makers. There's no such thing as an HDTV antenna, and one labeled that way isn't necessarily better — an antenna is an antenna.
"A coat hanger can be an HDTV antenna," said Schneider, adding that current marketing is similar to the 1970s when antenna-makers marketed a "color TV" antenna, which also didn't mean anything.
An "omnidirectional" antenna, which picks up stations from all directions, sounds like a good idea, but it isn't necessarily better, either. That's because omnidirectional antennas tend to pick up too much, including interference.
Schneider said his customers have much better luck with directional antennas, which is all you need if broadcasters are located in the same general direction from your house. Likewise, an "amplified" antenna sounds better. But it doesn't help pick up TV signals. It amplifies the signal after it's received, which helps if your TV is very far away from your antenna, like 100 feet, or you'll be splitting the signal to several televisions.
"Amplifiers can do a lot more harm than good because they can introduce noise in the line," Schneider said. "We have best results with non-amplified (antennas)."
There's no difference in picture quality among brands of antenna; you either get a reliable excellent picture or you don't, he said.
You need a tuner. If you bought a TV since 2007, your set already has a digital tuner, called an ATSC tuner. Older televisions will need a digital converter box, similar to the kind the U.S. government was subsidizing last year. That subsidy program ended. Today, a box will cost about $50, Schneider said. If you have an older HD set and want to see high-definition programming, you'll need a converter box capable of delivering HD.
Antenna installation. Will you need professional help to install an attic or outdoor antenna? Handy do-it-yourselfers should have no problem, experts say. Aiming the antenna doesn't need to be precise, like it does for satellite TV, Schneider said. "It's like hitting the broad side of barn," he said. "This is not rocket science." But if you need an outdoor antenna and are uncomfortable working on the roof, you'll probably want to hire a pro. Look for the antenna plus installation to cost $150 to $350, Aitken said.
You'll get many channels. Viewers in larger TV markets might pull in literally dozens of channels, far more than the familiar ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, The CW and PBS. Los Angeles residents, for example, might get 80 channels, while those in smaller markets might get 40 or fewer, Schneider said. You'll not only get network stations but their substations, which often include news and weather programming, foreign-language programming and such new networks as Retro Television Network, Cool Music Network and This TV.
But no cable channels. Among the biggest drawbacks of antenna TV is no access to popular cable networks. No ESPN, Food Network, Fox News, MTV, Animal Planet, MSNBC, HBO or Showtime. That alone might be a deal breaker for some. However, you can complement what you get on antenna with DVD movies and online programming. "Smart shoppers might find some combination of over-the-air and some tier of cable service adds up to less net dollars than what they were paying," Aitken said.
Secondary feeds. Even if you want cable or satellite for your primary TV, you could consider an antenna for a secondary television in a den or bedroom that you watch only occasionally. It might save you the monthly rental cost of a set-top box, or in the case of satellite, the purchase cost of a box.
And while the picture quality is generally top-notch with an antenna, you might get occasional imperfections in the picture during rain storms or when blowing trees interfere with the signal. But with a good antenna and good reception, you might get a small imperfection in the TV picture once every 15 minutes, which most people will find acceptable, said Ken Nist, author of www.hdtvprimer.com.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 includes a provision that overrules nearly all local restrictions — such as homeowners-association rules, deed restrictions and renter contracts — on erecting a broadcast TV antenna. The rule doesn't apply to common areas owned by a landlord or a community association, or jointly by condominium or cooperative owners where the antenna user doesn't have an exclusive-use area. For details, see an information sheet by the Federal Communications Commission.
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