What is broadcast digital TV?
In 2009, the Federal government mandated that TV stations stop broadcasting analog TV signals and start broadcasting digital TV signals. Most people didn't notice because they had cable TV. Most people didn't realize what this meant.
Basically, it means that if you live in a moderately populated area, you should be able to receive hi-definition TV for FREE over the air by using an antenna. Often this picture quality is BETTER than that of cable, since the broadcast signals are less compressed. Enter your zip code into the Station Finder on my home page to see what free channels you could be able to get. Most often these are the networks, some local channels, and PBS.
Take our quiz to see what equipment you might need. If you have a modern TV, all you'll probably need is an antenna, which can be purchased for $40 or less.
Picking your antenna
Before going out and buying an antenna, check the Station Finder on the front page above to make sure there is broadcast TV in your area. If you live in a major city, then you definitely have broadcast TV (unless you live next to a big physical obstruction like a tall building or hill).
I started out with this old rabbit-ear antenna to get 15 broadcast channels. Check your closets, garage, and basement - you might have one of these already. Or ask a parent/relative. These are exactly the same antennas that people used in the old days before cable TV. If you have one of these lying around, give it a try!
If you don't have an old rabbit-ear antenna laying around, I suggest getting a new thin antenna called the Mohu Leaf. The performance of this antenna is on par with much bulkier metal antennas, but it is much easier to hide and position (which in itself could allow you to receive more channels). I personally use this antenna now.
I recommend going with a "mid level" antenna like the one above rather than a cheap rabbit ear. You will get more channels, and you won't need to tweak the antenna location as much when you set it up. Click below for more information on different antennas:
Hooking up your antenna
Hooking up a passive (non-amplified) antenna like the rabbit ear is pretty easy. Simply screw the antenna's coax cable into the "ANTENNA/CABLE" plug at the back of your TV, as shown here:
Here's one example of the completed setup showing a rabbit-ear antenna:
If you have a powered antenna, you'll have to plug it into the wall for power.
Configuring your TV
Now turn on your TV and go into the settings menu. Find the option where you can select between cable and antenna input and select "antenna". Here's how it looks on my Sony:
Next, set your TV to auto-search for channels. Here's how it looks on my TV:
Hit "OK" and let your TV search for channels! Good Luck! You might need to re-run the search several times using different antenna configurations.
If you're still having problems, check my troubleshooting page.
Tweaking your antenna
Once you hook up your antenna, I'll be honest.. it requires tweaking. It's finicky. There can be a big difference in the number of channels you get depending on antenna orientation, location, height, and whether it is indoors or outdoors. Changing the antenna angle by a few degrees could change reception drastically for a particular channel.
If you are using an indoor antenna, I suggest placing it near a window, then scanning for channels to establish a baseline. Write down the channels you get, move your antenna, and scan again. If you lost any channels, manually add them back in using your TV's channel management menu, and write them down, so you end up with a master list of all possible channels. Next, go to a weak channel and move your antenna around in real time until you get good reception. You might have to repeat this for other weak channels.
You never know where the best antenna position will be. After my last move, I mounted my antenna near a window. Reception was very mediocre at ten to twelve channels. While playing around with cable routing, the antenna fell on the floor. Just for kicks, I scanned the channels and found that I got four more channels in that unlikely position!
If you are not getting ten or twenty channels, you probably live too far from the transmitters or there is something blocking the signals, like a mountain. Go to the antenna section to find out more. If you don't have access to your roof (i.e., you live in an apartment), I would suggest using the Mohu Leaf antenna. It's thin and easy to hide indoors. It's what I use.
Seeing what's on TV - A free channel guide
OK, so your antenna is hooked up. Congratulations! Now, how do you see which shows are playing? Fortunately, there is an online channel guide called Titan TV. The setup is not immediately obvious the first time, but I'll explain it below.
First, go to titantv.com. Go to the box above the channel guide that is labeled "Channel Lineup" and click the "+ADD" button:
When you click that, a popup will appear. Click the "Broadcast" box as shown below:
Next, enter your zip code, select your local area by checking one of the boxes, hit "Save" and you're done!
You can repeat the process if you are close to two broadcast areas.
The next time you visit this site, your settings will be there. Voila! Your broadcast TV guide!
What if you want to feed your antenna signal to multiple TVs? Your best bet is to get a distribution amplifier. Here are some on Amazon with good reviews:
Basically, you run a cable from your antenna into the input of this box, and then run multiple coax cables out to your TV's. The box requires power because it amplifies the signal. The bonus is that this improves reception and you might be able to get even more channels than before!
Now, be sure to put this amp as close as possible to your antenna. The reason is that the TV signal loses strength for every foot of cable that it has to go through. Therefore, it's best to amplify it as early as possible - physically close to the antenna in other words, not at the other end of the antenna near your TVs!.
Yes, I know it is more of a pain to have to hook up this box in your attic or wherever your antenna is, and supply power to it, etc., rather than right next to your TV. But, if you want to bring in the most stations, you should keep the box closer to your antenna. In my experiments, even an additional 20 feet of un-amplified cable run from your antenna can cause you to lose a weak station.
That is also why you shouldn't use a passive (non-powered) splitter for this application. In my experiments, a passive splitter will cause you to lose signal strength and possibly lose the weaker stations.
Give it a try and let us know your results!
A trick to get more channels
When tweaking your antenna, you will often find that you get great reception for certain channels with your antenna in one position, but you need to re-orient your antenna to get good reception for other channels. This is usually because TV signals are coming from different directions.
You can either get a better antenna, or try this trick using a cable splitter like the one below for less than $3:
You'll also need a short length of coax cable and a second antenna (for now, that second antenna could be a piece of wire just to experiment). Basically, the idea is to connect two antennas to your TV using this splitter:
Connect the splitter to your TV using the coax cable. Then connect your first antenna to the splitter, with the antenna in the optimum orientation for the first set of channels. Then add your second antenna with the optimum orientation for the other channels. Note this probably wouldn't work well with powered antennas.
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