Off-Air TV Reception

off-airWelcome to the art of the invisible, challenging and sometimes frustrating science of off-air TV reception. Part science and part art, the process of collecting these invisible TV signals has been going on for a little over 50 years, and it has literally (virtually..?) changed civilization in the process. Not only do we know about events occuring anywhere in the world immediately, but we have invented TV families, game shows and soap operas where fantasies are played out on a daily basis. Books have been written about the effect of TV on not only the American culture but on the world culture. It has become a part of all of our daily lives and though the great dreams of the early TV pioneers where to educate and illuminate the world, the medium as a whole does not seem to have entirely lived up to it’s promise.

Whether we admit it or not, we watch a LOT of TV and will continue to do so. Some of us watch only news and informational TV shows while others are devoted to soap operas or nightime adult sitcoms. Whatever your poison, it is our job to assist you in getting the most from your TV watching hours. The old adage, “If you’re going to do something, do it well” applies to TV reception. You spend a lot of time watching TV so you may as well have a decent quality picture.

Back in the 1950’s when television was still in it’s infancy, reception was sketchy and limited. In any given metropolitan area there were fewer stations to tune to and much less clutter riding on the “airwaves”. No cellphones, pagers, Wi-Fi, cordless phones or even garage door openers. A little extra tin foil on the rabbit ear antenna together with some judicious antenna positioning and we could achieve “watchable” TV reception. Color sets were a luxury and only the wealthy had an outdoor antenna.

Then came CABLE TV with it’s promise of “commercial-free” television. A dozen channels delivered to your home via a coaxial cable for a nominal fee. Usually delivering the local off-air channels and a single HBO feed for about $10.00/month, CABLE TV was the harbinger of things to come.

Signal and customer service quality were very good at first, but then as systems aged and grew in size and complexity things started to change for the worse. Service interruptions, lousy customer service, diminishing signal quality and rising subscription prices had caused the need for competition in the marketplace. Soon direct links such as Full-Arc satellite and now the newer small satellite “digital” delivery systems of DirecTV and DISH Network were born. Soon the internet itself may play a large role in program content delivery. So now with numerous delivery systems and choices, many folks have hearkened back to the “good old daze” when limited choices meant easier choices.

There are many reasons for installing an off-air antenna. You may simply want only the local channels available in your area. Local channels provide information that is vital to the community such as weather alerts, news, sports and other items of local interest. You may have a CABLE TV system that has become increasingly expensive and frustrating to deal with. You may have opted to purchase a satellite delivery system only to find out that your local off-air channels are not offered or are limited to only the bigger networks and Public Broadcasting. You will find that HDTV broadcasts are more redily available using an off-air antenna than any other current technology. Whatever your reason for pursuing information about local off-air antenna reception, you will find here many of the answers you have been looking for. If not, you can send me e-mail at sodac@sodac.com and I will do my best to help you find the best answers to your TV reception questions.

To begin with, it is vital that you keep in mind that surrounding terrain, distance from the transmitters and specific channel reception characteristics all will affect your television picture quality. Roof-mounted or attic-mounted, one TV or a dozen quality reception of off-air channels is not as easy as simply hooking up an antenna. HDTV also adds it’s own wrinkle to the mix. Reception characteristics will vary by location and there is no “one size fits all” antenna. Besides, simply stated: “a bigger antenna is not always a better antenna”. Many folks will go out and buy the biggest antenna in the store. While it will pick up signals from farther away, the trade off is that the longer the antenna – the straighter ahead it will look. If you are 5 miles from your city and the transmitters are spread out, you may only get decent reception from the transmitters that are directly in front of the antenna. In the city, a smaller more wider looking antenna is necessary. (This specification on an antenna is known as “beamwidth”.)

Experience, trial and error or a local professional are needed when determining proper antenna system components and placement. Since “antenna-men” are becoming increasingly hard to find and since I have been on literally thousands of roofs over the last 30 years, I decided to put this site together to try to help.

When you consider an off-air antenna, the questions you should ask yourself are:

  • What channels are available to me?
  • From what directions?
  • Are there any hills or buildings between me and the transmitters?
  • Will I be using the antenna system for HDTV reception? FM radio reception?
  • How many TV sets are to be connected to the reception system?
  • How many sets of “eyeballs” will want to watch different channels at the same time?
  • Will the antenna be mounted on the roof, alongside the house, free-standing on a tower or in the attic?

While an antenna by itself can deliver reasonable reception in metro areas nearer to the station transmitters, in some areas and depending on the number of TV sets to be connected, a pre-amplifier could significantly improve your reception quality. An antenna performs best if mounted above the roof-line but unfortunately, this is far from the most aesthetically pleasing location. In situations where the aesthetics are important or where there may be covenants prohibiting outdoor antennas you CAN mount the antenna within the attic space to provide reception of the local off-air channels. If you live substantially outside your metro area, a larger, more powerful antenna and/or amplification may be necessary.

Amplifiers are great devices. They take a low level signal (snowy picture) and boost it to more useable levels (clear picture). But the assumption that an amplifier is a cure-all has to be addressed. Being as non-technical as possible, I have to say that you can’t amplify nothing. If the antenna is not receiving much signal and you add an amplifier, you are increasing the level of the received signal but you are also adding some noise to the equation. You may go from black and white snow to colored snow.

It is best to try to get as much gain from you antenna as possible. Then if it is still not sufficient, you add an amplifier and observe the results.

I have come across an extremely useful website for determining what size and type antenna would best suit your individual location. (Consumer Electronics Association) This site uses charts and studies made over the last few years to help you determine the relative direction and strength of your local area channel broadcasts. I am of the opinion that they should always be taken with a grain of salt. My experiences have shown that there is no substitue for on-site experimentation.

The Consumer Electronics Association sponsors this site and I highly recommend it to anyone contemplating the installation of an off-air antenna.It will show you the direction of each transmitter from your geographic location and should be taken with a grain of salt. While the folks at Antennaweb do their best it is still impossible to tell what reception you will get at your site. A slight hill between you an the transmitter can throw out all your calculations and may make it necessary to point the antenna in directions different from those shown.

Remember:
you have to start somewhere and work out from there. Every home is different  and what works great on your neighbors house is a good indication of the reception at your house but certainly not a guarantee. I have had numerous situations where I would duplicate the antenna system on a house right next door to a previous successful installation and receive only 1 or 2 channels clearly.


The following link will explain what I consider to be the best all-around analog and HDTV off-air antenna system available.

A Pretty Darn Good Antenna System


A word about antennas and shipping:
Many antennas are too large to ship via the normal carriers of UPS and FEDEX. The boxes are simply too long to meet the shippers requirements. I have noted both here and in the E-Bay section Shopping Cart which antennas are UPS-able. In the event that you want to order an antenna that is NOT UPS-able, be advised that truck freight charges can sometimes be as much or more than the cost of the antenna desired.