Q. TV Answer Man, I am tired of paying for cable and the streaming things keep raising their monthly rates, too. Is there any way I can watch TV without forking over so much money?! What about an antenna? Would you say that’s a good way to get TV without paying a lot? I would be happy if I could just get my local channels. — Jennifer, Easton, Maryland.
Jennifer, you’re right. Cable and satellite operators raise their prices at least once every year and now the live streamers such as YouTube TV and Hulu Live are joining in with their own annual increases. Plus, Video on Demand services such as Netflix are also increasing their rates. What’s a cost-conscious consumer to do, particularly now with soaring inflation gobbling up your paycheck.
Yes, you could get a TV antenna.
But before you do, there are some pros and cons to getting an indoor or outdoor antenna so allow me to offer a few here so you can make a good decision.
Pro: Free Local Channels
Your local channels (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, Univision, etc.) are available via a TV antenna, and they are free. Not only that, they can deliver a better HD picture over an antenna compared to cable or satellite. The latter tends to compress the signals of local (and all) channels, which tends to dilute the picture quality. The TV providers do this for several reasons, including creating more system room to deliver more channels. The signal your antenna receives directly from the local channel is purer (layman’s term, folks and therefore a better one.
Con: No Basic Cable or Premium Channels
If you get an antenna, you won’t be able to watch ESPN, TBS, E!, CNN, Fox News, HBO, Showtime, or your favorite regional sports channel. The TV antenna will only pick up signals that are distributed locally, and that does not include the basic cable or premium channels that are on many viewers’ list of favorites. (If you do have a decent Internet connection, you can purchase some of these, such as HBO and Showtime, separately online.)
Pro: Antennas Are Not Expensive
The TV antenna, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, costs less than $100 with many indoor models well under $30. With local channels free, that’s a great deal for consumers looking to cut expenses. (Note: The outdoor antenna can normally pick up more channels than the indoor one. But indoor antennas are becoming more efficient every year with new models and new technology. See our section on NextGen TV below.)
Con: The Antenna May Not Work at Your Location
Before you run off to buy an antenna (and drop your cable or satellite service), you need to know that depending upon the location of your home, your antenna may not be able to pick up the signals of all your local channels. You may live too far away from the channel’s tower to get a decent signal, or you could have a major obstacle in the signal’s path, such as a high-rise office building or mountain.
Also, since the nation’s transition to Digital TV in 2008, many antenna owners complain that it’s been more difficult to capture local signals. Unlike the old analog signal, you need a perfect connection to capture the digital signal or it will not display on your set. There is no middle ground. You either get a digital signal or you don’t.
So how can you tell if an antenna at your home will receive all your local channels?
AntennaWeb.org offers an easy-to-use guide to determining what kind of antenna you would need — and how many channels that antenna will pick up. You type in your address, zip code and whether the antenna will be 30 feet or higher above ground level and then antennaweb.org will display a list of stations that you probably will be able to receive.
I say ‘probably’ because until you actually test it at home, you can’t be 100 percent sure. Antennaweb.org might say your address can pick up all four major broadcast networks, but the site isn’t aware of that group of large trees that surround your home, or that high-rise building that sits all too inconveniently across the way.
The good news here is that antennas are inexpensive so you could buy one to test without spending much.
Con: You May Get Some Bonus Channels
In addition to the major networks (CBS, etc.), there are numerous independent channels that broadcast locally. Some feature old movies and TV shows while others specialize in niche categories such as religion. If your antenna signal is strong, you’ll get more programming than you might have expected.
Pro: The Technology Is Improving
As noted earlier, in the last few years, the antenna companies have done a great job of beefing up their products, offering indoor antennas that can pick up signals as far away as 75 miles. Yes, indoor antennas. If you had a bad experience with an antenna several years ago, you might be pleasantly surprised at how far they have come.
In addition, NextGen TV is rolling out across the nation! The new technology, which tech enthusiasts prefer calling ATSC 3.0, will permit your local station to transmit 4K channels, more HD channels, and it promises to improve indoor antenna reception. Even better, you can receive the NextGen TV signal with a current antenna if you purchase a new TV that is ATSC-enabled or get an external tuner that can be connected to your old set. Read this informative CNET article for more details. And you can check whether NextGen TV is available in your area here.
Jennifer, hope that helps. Happy viewing and stay safe!
Have a question about new TV technologies? Send it to The TV Answer Man at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your first name and hometown in your message.
— Phillip Swann