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Over-the-Air TV Broadcasts: Making a Comeback

There are times when I am so far behind a trend that I actually end up at the leading edge of that trend’s rebirth (think of those skinny and wide neckties). The latest example is the increasing number of cable-TV users who are “cutting the cord” and going with over-the-air (OTA) TV broadcasts, in combination with Internet-streamed video. Since I have never been a cable (or dish) subscriber and stayed solely with the free OTA signal, I feel my procrastination has been rewarded – at least in an ironic way – as I am riding a trend wave even though I haven’t shifted.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal discussed this “back to the future” situation, “Millennials Unearth an Amazing Hack to Get Free TV: the Antenna” and it included some fascinating points (sorry, it may be behind their paywall). Unlike many of these purported “trend” articles which are supported only anecdotes and speculation but no data, this one had some hard numbers as well. Among them: in a survey by the National Association of Broadcasters, almost a third of Americans (29%) were unaware local TV is available free over the air.

Others thought that the transition to digital TV killed OTA TV signals, rather than replaced the historic analog signals with digital ones.

Unlike the old, ubiquitous pre-cable VHF “rabbit ear” antennas, Figure 1 , which were eyesores, dust collectors, and the subject of countless jokes, many of today’s OTA antennas, such as this one from Mohu, are wall-hung flat panels, and some come with a preamplifier powered by a USB source for improved SNR, Figure 2 .

Figure 1

The classic 'rabbit ear' TV antenna served the VHF analog TV band for decades, and came in simple configurations (shown) as well as more complicated versions with additional appendages and even antenna-match tuners.

The classic “rabbit ear” TV antenna served the VHF analog TV band for decades, and came in simple configurations (shown) as well as more complicated versions with additional appendages and even antenna-match tuners.

Figure 2

Today's OTA broadcast antennas, such as this ReLeaf 30 HDTV indoor antenna from Mohu with 30-mile (nominal) range are small (9 × 11.5 in/23 × 29 cm), lightweight, unobtrusive, and easily mounted to a wall; some also come with a preamplifier for improved performance. (Image: Mohu)

Today’s OTA broadcast antennas, such as this ReLeaf 30 HDTV indoor antenna from Mohu with 30-mile (nominal) range are small (9 × 11.5 in/23 × 29 cm), lightweight, unobtrusive, and easily mounted to a wall; some also come with a preamplifier for improved performance. (Image: Mohu)

Sales of antennas corroborate the OTA trend. The article noted that antenna sales in the U.S. are projected to rise 7% in 2017 to nearly 8 million units, according to the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group (previously known as CEA, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the sponsor of the massive Consumer Electronics Show). The article also cited Richard Schneider, founder of manufacturing company Antennas Direct, who said he started selling antennas as a hobby more than 15 years ago, while expecting to sell a few hundred each year. Instead, he sold 75,000 antennas in June of this year alone; their web site is very useful for estimating which TV stations you can receive with different antennas. Market research firm Parks Associates has a report which claims that the percentage of broadband-connected households using antenna-delivered broadcast TV has jumped from 9 percent to 15 percent over the past three years.

Of course, there’s an analog challenge here. In many locations, due to distance from the transmitter, geography, or indoor siting, the flat antennas don’t have the gain needed. Instead, an outdoor antenna may be needed in weaker signal areas perhaps with a more directional array (and perhaps even a mast rotator in extreme cases – now we really are going back to the future!). The AntennaWeb site (co-sponsored by CTA) also helps you decide what reception zone you are in, which stations you can expect to receive, and what sort of antenna you need; there are six levels for antenna “strength” (actually gain and directionality) defined by CTA standards.

It looks like we are coming full circle in “TV land” and users are re-learning how to deal, directly or indirectly, with the classic analog issues of propagation vagaries, received signal strength, SNR, antenna gain and directivity, and more. For analog-RF specialists, it looks likely that some of their traditional skills and understanding will be in demand to an even greater extent. For broadcasters, there’s one simple fact: the cost of supporting incremental OTA users in their range is zero, and it’s not often you can make that sort of statement.

Did you stick with OTA reception, or come to it lately? What’s been you experience? Have you considered cord cutting supplemented by an OTA setup?

Related content

My Antenna Dilemma: Preamp or Passive?

Antenna Diversity: Blessing, Curse, or Both?

Do They Know that “Analog” Makes Digital TV Possible?

MEMS Antenna Tuning Offers VSWR Relief

9 comments on “Over-the-Air TV Broadcasts: Making a Comeback

  1. vbiancomano
    September 1, 2017

    I'm still with OTA and don't regret it. I particularly liked the old analog black-and-white TV and enjoyed the adventure provided by weak signals—-e.g., heavy “snow” on the screen made it seem as if an NFL game was being played in a storm. And old (analog) OTA gave an excellent alert of an e-skip opening to the midwest at 2-meter VHF (amateur radio).

    One drawback of OTA in recent years, however, has been the arrival of the “death merchants,” as I call them (don't know if this is the case with cable or satellite). Few commercials anymore are of the Kellogg's Frosted Flakes variety. No, the commercials are a steady barrage of negativism: What lawyer or hospital to seek out when you contract a terminal disease. But, it opens up a possible project for the EE to design some circuitry to at least mute the audio during such times!

  2. jonharris0
    September 6, 2017

    I went back to OTA TV about 6 years ago before the new trend really took off.  I haven't looked back.  We actually ditched our satellite dish so I consider myself a dish ditcher as well as a cord cutter since we'd cut the cord on cable TV before going to satellite.  Now we enjoy the local programming and use Netflix and Hulu.  I found myself flipping through endless channels with nothing on that I wanted to watch with pay TV.  Now we just flip on Netflix or Hulu when we want to and watch what we want.  It is a MUCH better approach.  The only downside for me is live sports, specifically college football.  I supplement Netflix and Hulu with SlingTV only during the season and then turn it off.  I don't regret at all going to OTA. 

  3. Steve Taranovich
    September 6, 2017

    Welcome @smactechnical—-I trust that you will be contibuting technical comments about our many blog topics that will benefit our audience. I see that your profile is an advertisement of your services to help with Apple Mac users' problems—I will allow that in a profile, if and only if, you–the member, contributes good tech information on our blogs and never advertises with links in any of the comments—this will result in immediate deleting of such comments as well as deleting the membership of any member who does this on Planet Analog. We have far too many of such occurances on good tech sites such as this and I welcome you as a true Analog contributor

  4. DaveR1234
    September 6, 2017

    Jon, I'd love to cut the cord myself, but a few questions: do Netflix and/or Hulu give access to current shows on FX, Sci, Fox News, A&E, USA, and the normal networks: ABC, NBC, CBS?  Do the shows have to be watched when broadcast or can you download them after they are normally shown?  Is a DVR available to record the shows that are not downloadable?

  5. cookiejar
    September 7, 2017

      We've never had cable or satellite, only OTA, using a VCR to time shift since the early 80s.  The newer VCRs could automatically skip commercials – nice.  The beauty of recording is you can quickly scan a program to see if it's worth your time to watch.  I find that most that I've recorded, even in my field of interest aren't worth my time.  You can get that way as you get older and time gets more precious.

      We live in the boondocks and are fortunate enough to get over 30 OTA stations with our 8 bay bow-tie antenna with preamp, which we simply mounted just outside a window.  Decent UHF antennae are a lot smaller than the VHF fringe models. 

       I enjoy watching OTA HD, which has much higher quality than the overly compressed cable, satellite and Internet signals and was thrilled when ChannelMaster introduced its DVR+.  It can be programmed to record 2 OTA channels simultaneously in full high quality HD, while you watch a third with your TV's tuner.  And no monthly fee!  It can use an external USB hard drive which can hold 180 hours of full HD on 1TB.  This forces  you to delete the programs you'll never watch again instead of letting the VHS tapes pile up.    The DVR+ picks up its program guide off air or off the Net.  It also features an ever growing access to on-line services, which you cannot record, duplicating smart TVs.  Unfortunately the one step backward is you have to fast forward through the commercials manually, which soon becomes second nature.  Why don't remotes use the simple game style joystick switches?

      I've found it immensely frustrating to be stuck in a hotel with nothing of interest to watch when you only have cable.  We are creatures of habit.

      My big fear is that the stations I watch will turn off their transmitters.  PBS, 125 miles away, has cut back on its power, now making reception flaky at times.  In Ontario Canada, the educational network TVOntario has shut down 122 of its OTA transmitters leaving only 1 in Toronto, then changed its mind and now there are 9.  This move forces many of their viewers to cable or satellite if they don't have broadband Internet.  It's the God given duty of entrepreneurs to turn free lunches into cash cows, so why do they call it the free market?

  6. Victor Lorenzo
    September 11, 2017

    In the case os Spain you can still receive many channels OTA (digital TV, not anymore Analog TV). But their content quality is, at most, poor. I can only recall one good tv show, it is called “Quèquicom” (whatwhohow) and is broadcasted by the local Catalonian TV. It covers interesting scientific, nature and history topics for all audiences.

    We have netflix at home, it indeed has a huge amount of content, but we effectively run out of quality content to see, at least according to our standards ;).

  7. Measurementblues
    October 26, 2017

    We have cable, but I could easily live without it. The only thing I watch, which requires cable, are local MLB games and often, I just listen on the radio becuase I can't spent time in front of the screen.

    Other family members watch TV, usually online from Hulu, Netflix, and a few other apps (ipad) or browser (laptop). But these services don't keep shows on forever, so we have to TVs for recording. The OTA TV records onto DVDs. The TV with cable records to VHS. But, these recordings are just for backup in case a show is removed from online. So, most of the DVDs and tapes are never watched.  

  8. Measurementblues
    October 26, 2017

    You can always connect an atnenna to a spectrum analuzer to use for EMI troublshooting.

  9. Measurementblues
    October 26, 2017

    Those with cable/satellelite won't care, but those who use OTA will have to rescan their stations over the next few years as TV frequencies get repacked to open spectrum for wireless communications.

    Even the rabbit ear might make a comeback as some TV stations are moving fown to the former analof RF channels.

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