Broadcast Television — State of the Art
June 12, 2009, full-power television stations throughout the United States began broadcasting exclusively in a digital format. On that day, TV sets that received only analog signals stopped working. In anticipation of the switch, ‘pay TV’ providers ran promotions to entice ‘free TV’ viewers. Promotions included discounts and analog to digital converters that promised to extend the useful life of analog televisions. Many consumers switched assuming the transition marked the beginning of the end to free, over the air television broadcasts. They were wrong.
Broadcast television today bears little resemblance to the snowy, low resolution product we abandoned in 2009. Digital broadcasters are required to include information in their streams that televisions, digital video recorders, and other devices use to create an interactive program guide. So, pressing a button on a remote conjures a grid of TV programming that includes descriptions. Selecting a program on the grid might jump to that station or cause the program to be recorded. Broadcast television quality is superior to satellite or cable. A television antenna can provide a better image than cable, fiber, or satellite because there is sufficient bandwidth to allow the programming to be delivered uncompressed. Cable and satellite programming is compressed before transmission and uncompressed at your TV. The compression process results in loss of color or pixel information — and a lower quality picture. There are a LOT more channels. Even uncompressed, digital channels take less bandwidth than their analog predecessors. Many broadcasters are using the subchannels for other programming and national networks are popping up to fill these channels with content once found only on premium services.
So why hasn’t everyone switched back to free broadcast television? For starters, it isn’t exactly free. Part of a cable or satellite bill pays for infrastructure and service. With broadcast television, the consumer is responsible for both. If you live close to strong broadcast stations, this may be as simple as setting an indoor antenna on top of your TV and running a short piece of coaxial cable from the antenna to the television. If you live in a fringe area, your infrastructure may consist of a large antenna in the attic or on the roof. Pointing may be difficult and good recepetion may require repointing the antenna with a rotator. If you have multiple TVs, you may also need to run cable through splitters and amplifiers. While broadcast television signal is amazing when it works, it is awful when it doesn’t. If there is not enough signal to produce a full image, you may experience dropouts or pixelization. Trees, weather, and geography can impact signal quality. The consumer has to know what kind of antenna to use, where to put it, and how to point it. Premium services provide a LOT more channels and are a LOT less regulated. If you are a fan of baseball, basketball, hockey, profanity, or nudity, broadcast television may not work for you.
Broadcast Television — What to Expect
First thing you want to do is see what kind of broadcast television is available in your market. Go to TitanTV.com, add broadcast for your market and review the listings. See what’s on when you watch TV. If there’s nothing on the grid that interests you, you will not be happy after cutting the cable — no matter how much you save. Record the channels that you are interested in watching. Next, visit TVFool.com to see how many of these channels are likely to be picked up by an antenna at your location. Click the link that lets you check your address and run a report. Run the report for your location at different elevations to determine the impact of attic, roof, or mast mounting. Your report will resemble this (click to enlarge)…
The chart in the upper right corner lists stations you can expect to recieve in descending order of signal strength. Each entry is color coded to indicate suggested antenna type. The chart lists the direction and distance to the broadcaster from your location. This information is plotted on the polar graph in the upper left corner. At the bottom, another chart breaks out VHF vs UHF with signal strength. Print out TWO copies of the polar chart. One is for VHF and the other is for UHF. We want to look at VHF separately because it’s trivial to combine VHF and UHF signals on a single coax, so it’s practical to point two antennas in two directions. Mark your targeted stations with a highlighter that matches the color coding of the strength chart. Now you have enough information to decide if broadcast tv is for you.
If all the channels you want to look at are green, you can get a highly rate 1874 Set Top Budget Antenna from Radioshack for $15. If it works, you are done. If it does not work, you can easily return the antenna and try something else. If you are interested in yellow or pink channels, you will probably need to put an antenna in your attic or on your roof. This will cost hundreds of dollars and could be dangerous.
If you are going to erect an antenna or two, you are going to have to do a little analysis. Here are some common scenarios…
- You are less than 20 miles from a lot of broadcast stations and receive strong signals from a lot of directions. You will want an omnidirectional antenna that can pull in signals from all directions but is less effective bringing in a distant station. If there are VHF high channels (7-13) on your list, the CM4228HD might be a good antenna for you. If you have no VHF stations you might be happier with a DB8 for UHF.
- You are 20-40 miles from a lot of broadcast stations and receive strong signals from a single direction. You could still use a CM4228HD or a DB8, but a more directional antenna will provide a stronger signal. The best narrow beam, long range UHV antenna is the 91XG. Depending on the range, your stations should all fall within a twenty-five degree area of the polar graph. If your channel list includes VHF stations, a Y10-7-13 is a good choice to pull those in. You can couple the signals with a CM-7777.
- You are more than 40 miles from a lot of broadcast stations and receive strong signals from one direction. You will need a directional antenna. The best narrow beam, long range UHV antenna is the 91XG. Depending on the range, your stations should all fall within a twenty-five degree area of the polar graph. If your channel list includes VHF stations, a Y10-7-13 is a good choice to pull those in. You can couple the signals with a CM-7777.
- You are more than 40 miles from a lot of broadcast stations and receive strong signals from a lot of directions. You will need a directional antenna. The best narrow beam, long range UHV antenna is the 91XG. You’ll need a rotator to point the antenna at the station you want to watch. If your channel list includes VHF stations, a Y10-7-13 is a good choice to pull those in. This can be on the same mast with the rotator if you have many VHF stations or on a different mast if you only have VHF in one direction or on a separate mast with its own rotator if you tend to watch VHF and UHF on separate sets concurrently. You can couple the signals with a CM-7777. If you have more than one television, you need to think about the whole pointing concept. For starters, in most cases, you will need to get out of your chair to move the antenna when you change the channel. There is also the situation where concurrent viewers want to look at stations in two directions. If there are two sets, it might be best to erect two antennas. As the number of televisions increases, it may make more sense to combine antennas on a single coax. ‘Ganging‘ antennas can improve reception. (I’m interested in ganging four 91XG antennas in my attic using the 4-way lossless trick.)
Having thought about available programming, likely reception, and effort required to receive broadcast television, you should be equipped to decide whether this is something you want to attempt. If possible, I recommend installing an antenna in your attic. While the height will be lower and signal strength will be less, erection, maintenance, and experimentation will be easier. Your infrastructure will be protected from the elements and last longer. If desired reception requires mounting the antenna outside the attic, remember to ground and mount properly. Install like a pro for best possible outcome.
Broadcast Television — Set Top Hardware
Broadcast television is digital. All new televisions have digital/atsc tuners. If your television has an older analog/ntsc tuner, you will have to connect it to your antenna with a digital converter. Check the inputs to the television and buy a device that has ATSC in and something compatible (composite/component/rf) out. ConsumerSearch.Com likes the Zinwell ZAT-970A which is inexpensive and well reviewed. For $400, ChannelMaster offers the CM-7400 which outputs to analog and digital televisions in SD and HD format. It’s also a DVR and internet streaming device that can play files off an attached disk. Reviews are mixed, but ChannelMaster is the only major play in the broadcast television device arena. I have five DTVPal DVRs (now the CM7000-PAL DVR) and am very satisfied. Just the same, for another $60, the CM-7400 offers slick integration of broadcast, local, and internet services.
Wait, There’s More!
As great as it is to be watching the highest quality HDTV for free, there is more to television than you can get over the air. A lot of stations are only available via premium service bundles. Uncut, unedited movies don’t usually make it to broadcast and hockey, basketball, and baseball owe allegience to pay tv. Fortunately, there are alternatives. With a little investment, expense, and effort, you can enjoy the benefits of premium television at a discount.
Check your local library for free or low cost DVDs. For impulse rentals, locate the nearest Red Box kiosk. If you have no or poor internet access, there are seven companies that will rent DVDs to you via the USPS. Netflix is the champ. For $8 a month, you can rent one DVD at a time. For $12, you get two. For another $2, you can select from Blu-Ray discs. If you have reliable internet access, there are a lot of choices, but Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and iTunes are the most popular. Crackle is free. Netflix has the biggest selection of movies and television shows. If you are already paying for Amazon Prime, you have access to a growing library of movies and television shows. If you shop Amazon.com, $79 per year gets you access to this library plus free two-day shipping. Amazon, Vudu, and iTunes sell and rent premium video content. Did I mention Crackle is free? All of these services represent a better value than premium channels or pay-per-view. I recommend these even if you choose pay tv as your primary source of entertainment.
News, Sports, and Entertainment
If you are the kind of person who watches Fox News, CNN, ESPN, or the Food Network for twenty hours a day, broadcast television may not be for you. These services are not broadcast or streamed, so there is no way to legally get them to your TV except through premium providers. Most of these ‘cable channels’ do, however, have web sites that serve up some of their content and Roku and Playon can serve this content to your television. The difference is that you are picking shows or clips instead of tuning in a channel of content. This works more like ondemand than programmed television. It’s not live and the quality is compromised.
This is working for me right now. There may come a day when I decide to invite Comcast, Verizon, DirecTV, Dish, or someone else into my home. If I do, it’ll be because I find the service provided worth the fees charged.