TV antenna to get local channels

December 26, 2022
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Times are tough, money is tight, and Americans are starting to take a long, hard look at their monthly bills. One expense, in particular, stands out: cable. It's hard to cut back on most utilities—a modern home doesn't quite run without electricity, water or fuel, and some sort of phone seems essential, but television? Don't they broadcast that for free?

As a matter of fact, they do. And yet the average monthly cable bill in the U.S. is $58.80—more than $700 per year. Satellite TV generally offers a mild savings compared to cable, depending on what equipment and channels you select. But is there a way to get the range of TV content that typically comes from these services without the steep monthly fees?

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Well, yes ... and no. If you're just looking to get local channels, an ordinary antenna will do. In fact, given the level of digital compression that cable companies use to squeeze ever more channels down the pipe, an antenna may deliver a better quality signal with hi-def content.

To receive over-the-air digital television, you need a TV with a digital tuner and an antenna that receives UHF and VHF signals. Plenty of television antennas are currently marketed as HDTV antennas, but as television engineer Mark Schubin puts it: "There is no such thing as an HDTV antenna." That doesn't mean that all antennas are the same. Weak digital signals, unlike weak analog signals, don't show up with static—they don't show up at all. So if you live in an area with substandard reception, it may be worth it to buy an amplified antenna to boost signal. Check out to get an idea of what stations to expect, based on your address.


Okay, that takes care of local channels, but cable offers hundreds. What about ESPN? CNN? HBO? What about video on demand? Can you replace those once the coaxial cable is cut? The honest answer is that, if you love surfing through an endless series of channels, then nothing will truly replace cable. But according to a 2007 Nielsen study, the average American household received 104 channels—and watched only 15 of them regularly. So if statistics are any measure, a broad selection of content is important to viewers, but sheer quantity is not.

A surprising amount of TV and movie content is now available over the Internet for free or for a nominal price. The richest and most impressive source of Internet video, aside from outright torrent theft, is Netflix's "Watch Instantly." This streaming video service is a freebie extra for anyone who subscribes to the company's DVD-by-mail service (any plan over $8.99 per month offers unlimited streaming of content). Watch Instantly lets users browse through a library of 12, 000 movies and television shows, much as they would surf channels on a cable box. It nicely combines the joy of serendipitous movie discovery that comes from watching HBO or Showtime with the impulse entertainment of video on demand.

Most major networks and cable channels offer a deep reservoir of content that can be streamed over the Internet. CNN's site posts video feeds of breaking news, and ESPN has partnerships with various Internet providers around the country to offer its ESPN360 live sports streaming service. New episodes of popular TV shows such as Lost and 24 are usually up on network sites within a day. NBC and Fox have teamed up to create the site, which has so many shows and movies available for streaming that it is beginning to resemble a separate network itself.

Magic Boxes

Internet streaming video is great, but how do you get all that cable—obviating goodness onto the big-screen TV in the living room? Many new digital TVs from manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and Vizio come with Internet hookups that can directly link to sources such as Netflix and YouTube. Also, Dell and HP sell computers under $500 with HDMI outputs that can be hooked up directly to a TV.

In addition to full-featured PCs, there are a variety of Internet-enabled boxes that can be tricked out to tap into one or more of these sources. The Microsoft Xbox 360 can show streaming Netflix movies with a $50 yearly Xbox Live subscription. Perhaps the most elegant add-on device is the $99 Roku video-streaming box. It has built-in Wi-Fi and is a snap to set up and use. Roku streams Netflix movies and video-on-demand from Amazon, which has both free and rentable content.

Which brings us to the big question: How much do you really save out of all this? To take full advantage of online content, you'll need to have an Internet connection of at least 1.5 megabits per second (expect to pay at least $30 per month for that). And if you don't have a computer that hooks up easily to your TV, you can quickly find yourself stacking various set-top boxes at $100 to $300 each to get the selection of content you like. If you really go crazy with this stuff, you can burn through enough time, money and trouble that you might look back on your cable box with longing. On the other hand, if you're taking advantage of equipment and services you already have, there's a double sense of satisfaction to telling a monopolistic service provider to take a hike, combined with cash back in your pocket. That more than makes up for the loss of The Jewelry Channel.

Problem Solved: From Web to TV

Fancy new HDTVs have Internet hookups built right in, but there are plenty of ways to get Web video to your existing set.

Game Systems

Microsoft's Xbox 360 streams Netflix and sells TV shows through its Xbox Live service. Sony's PS3 has movies and shows for rent. But both gaming consoles are limited to content approved by their parent companies.

Blu-Ray Players

Players from Samsung and LG have integrated Netflix streaming. As yet, no Blu-ray players offer support for online TV sources, but many players are firmware updatable, so stay tuned.

Stand-Alone Players

Roku's video-streaming box plays content from Netflix and Amazon. Apple TV users can purchase content from the iTunes Store or tap into free, Web-based content by installing open-source Boxee software (which will violate their warranty).

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