Dumping expensive cable and satellite services, so-called cord cutting, isn’t just for millennials.
Plenty of people are discovering that they can get all the video and TV programming they want while they shelter in place — and most of it for free, over the air. A slew of free stations even are aimed specifically at those of us who remember who Mrs. Beasley was and where Laura Petrie lived. (For those who don’t, you’ll find the answers at the end of this article.)
To replace cable TV, most people think of streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. But those services don’t offer live news coverage, local TV stations, or sporting events. For that, you need to tune in over-the-air TV channels.
ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS may be the networks you first think of when you hear the words “broadcast TV.” But The CW, Fox and MyNetworkTV also reach almost all U.S. households. Some others with wide over-the-air reach:
• Antenna TV, classic TV series, movies
• Bounce TV, African American programming
• Comet, science fiction
• Court TV, true crime, court news
• Court TV Mystery, suspense, drama
• Cozi TV, classic series, movies, lifestyle
• Dabi, lifestyle programming
• GetTV, classic TV series, movies
• Grit, action, Western shows
• Ion, general entertainment, paid programs
• Justice Network, true crime
• Laff, comedy
• MeTV, classic TV series
• This TV, classic TV series, movies
• Univision, Spanish-language programs
Fortunately, free over-the-air broadcasts have continued through the years, and since 2009 they’ve been available in digital, high-definition form. These aren’t the static-filled broadcasts of yesteryear. These are crystal clear local network TV stations from the likes of ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS in full 1080-pixel high def.
Because they are digital, more TV channels can be squeezed into the same spectrum. Many local channels now offer several substations.
Local Channel 2 may offer channels 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3 as well. Usually these substations are in standard definition and feature nostalgia channels, such as Antenna and Grit, with reruns of shows like Leave It to Beaver and Gunsmoke.
Best of all, to watch these shows you don’t have to wrestle with the finicky rabbit ear antennas of yore. You can easily tune them in with the right digital antenna.
How to find free TV
Most TVs manufactured after 2006, but not all, have built-in digital tuners to receive over-the-air broadcasts. For example, several popular Vizio flat screens from a couple of years ago eliminated the tuners; Vizio added them back later.
To doublecheck your own set, go to the “inputs” section of your TV’s on-screen settings. If it has an option for TV broadcasts, your set has a tuner.
What TVs generally lack is an antenna, so you’ll need to purchase one. Fortunately, antennas are relatively inexpensive. Some cost a little more than $10 for a small indoor model.
However, if you’re in a suburban area far from broadcast towers, you may need a large outdoor model, which can cost up to $200. After testing scores of antennas over the years, I’ve learned some simple steps to choose the right antenna for your situation.
To begin, check to see what stations are broadcasting in your area. In an urban area like New York City, you may have access to more than 60 stations, while rural areas won’t be able to receive any stations.
A handy website is Antennaweb.org. Plug in your zip code and the site will give you a list of available broadcast channels in your area.
Types of antennas
Assuming stations are available where you live, you can choose from three basic types of antennas: nonamplified indoor models, amplified indoor designs, and outdoor antennas. Typical indoor antennas costing $20 to $40 are flat, flexible plastic designs about the size of a place mat. They can be hidden behind a TV or stuck to a wall or window for better reception. Nonamplified models work well in metropolitan areas.
Amplified versions of many indoor antennas are available for $40 to $80. The amplifier is usually a dongle that has to be plugged into a power outlet and sits between the antenna and TV. Amplifiers can help in areas with marginal reception, so they are best in more suburban locales.
For those on the fringes of TV reception or who want to pull in as many stations as possible, an outdoor antenna may be the best solution. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be mounted on a roof or pole to get the best reception possible. Several models with excellent reception cost around $140.
Additional items to note
Three additional issues to consider:
• Labels don’t matter. Antennas often have a reception radius label, such as 30 or 50 miles. Those specifications do not mean much in practice. Some so-called 30-mile antennas get better reception that some 60-mile antennas.
• Channels changing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the midst of reassigning stations to different frequencies across the country. The channels are being moved to accommodate the rollout of 5G wireless services for smartphones.
The changes will be happening throughout the year. So if you suddenly lose a station, go to your TV’s tuner settings and rescan for available channels.
• 4K coming. This year will see the debut of 4K over-the-air TV broadcasts. Current antennas will be able to receive these signals, but to watch these new higher-resolution programs you’ll need a 4K TV with the latest tuner technology, known as ATSC 3.0.
Unfortunately, such sets are not widely available yet. But you should be aware that a new TV may be in your future if 4K matters to you.
(Answers: Mrs. Beasley was Buffy’s doll on Family Affair, starring Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot. Laura Petrie, played by Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show, lived in New Rochelle, New York.)
Outdoor, Winegard Elite 7550 Outdoor HDTV Antenna, $120 to $140.
The Winegard Elite 7550 may look like something from an alien spacecraft, but it is one of the most sensitive antennas for capturing TV stations. In my tests, it also did an excellent job pulling in stations with a consistent picture and eliminating interference from other signals. Unless you love climbing ladders, I recommend getting a professional to install it.
On the road, Mohu Leaf Metro, $18.
If you’re living the RV dream but still want to get TV on the road, you can pick up local stations with a small, inexpensive antenna. The Mohu Leaf Metro is a flat, plastic antenna that’s less than 12 inches wide. It includes tiny Velcro squares to attach it to the inside of a window. It has no amplifier to fiddle with, but in my tests the Leaf Metro pulled in more stations than most of the less-than-$20 competition.