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Get HDTV for Free (Really)

Save money by following this simple advice

It's nearly impossible to buy a TV today that isn't a high-definition set. But just because the set is an HDTV doesn't mean you're actually watching a high-def picture. In addition to an HD-capable TV, you need an HD programming source. Your cable or satellite company will be happy to upgrade you to high-definition, though in most cases you'll pay for the privilege. On the other hand, when it comes to network TV, you can watch with no additional fees at all, thanks to over-the-air HDTV.

Woman sitting on couch, television antenna in foreground

Noah Webb/Getty Images

A simple antenna may be all you need to get free HDTV reception.

The over-the-air advantage

All the major networks and many local stations broadcast hours of programming in high-definition every day, at no charge. Not only do you get a sharper picture with high-def than tried-and-true standard definition, you also get a much larger image. The full wide-screen picture fills the HDTV panel, instead of sitting in the middle with bars along the left and right edges like a standard-definition picture on an HD set.

In fact, the picture quality for free broadcast HDTV is actually better than what you'd get from your cable or satellite provider's high-def service. Cable and satellite have to compress their signal to transmit the hundreds of channels they offer, and this inevitably hurts picture quality. Broadcasters have plenty of room in the digital spectrum they've been assigned to send out a much better-looking picture. In fact, many stations broadcasting HDTV have so much available space that they've added additional sub-channels to their offerings.

TV listings for free

The first question to ask is what's available for you to watch on free HDTV? You'll find the answer at the website. Here you'll enter your ZIP code, ask for the broadcast TV listings (versus cable or satellite) and you'll get an easy-to-read grid displaying all the over-the-air programming in your area, with a bright red "HD" next to the high-definition shows (even if a station offers HD service, that doesn't mean every program is in HD).


Next: Swap the cable box for an antenna. >>

Swap the cable box for an antenna

If you like what you see, the next step is a one-time investment in an HDTV antenna. Depending on where you live, this can mean a trip to the local mall for a $20 tabletop model, or a new rooftop antenna and, presumably, somebody to install it. Like the real estate people say, the key consideration is location, location, location. Your distance from the broadcast towers is a major factor, but so is elevation, and local obstructions that may come between you and the TV signal. Strangely, I've found inexpensive HDTV antennas that have no chance of bringing in a signal anywhere near my suburban home being sold at the mall down the street, so your local retailer is probably not the best source for a recommendation.

Turn instead to another website, It's sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters, so they're not interested in selling you a particular brand of antenna or convincing you to buy more than you need.

The CEA has created a color-coded rating system for outdoor HDTV antennas, based on how well they pull in signals from different distances and multiple directions. At the website, you enter your address, indicate whether there are any local features that would obstruct a signal (tall buildings, for example), and how high off the ground you're planning to mount the antenna (a one-story or multi-story building, or an actual height in feet if you have it). Click "Submit" and you get a listing of all the stations broadcasting HDTV in your area, and color-coded recommendations for the type of antenna that will provide good reception. They even provide the compass direction you'll need to point the antenna. Using this as a guide, it's easy to shop for the right model by looking at the color-coded label on the box. Unfortunately, most online retailers don't provide this information in their product listings, so you'll either need a trip to the store or a call to an installer.

More free HDTV

Just one more consideration: multiple TVs. As with cable or satellite, if you want the antenna signal to reach more than one room you're going to need some wires and a signal splitter, preferably one with a built-in amplifier. Fortunately, none of this gear is very expensive (a basic splitter with amp runs about $15 online). As for whether you want to string the cables yourself or call in a pro, that's a personal decision. There's nothing technically daunting about the project, but the pros have been known to do a neater job than a homeowner with a drill and a gleam in his eye.