There's a good chance you have a spare TV in the house not hooked up to a cable or satellite box. Or, every month when you get your cable or satellite bill, you blanch and mutter a string of obscenities while imagining chucking the box out the window.
With the increasing availability of an assortment of Web-based streaming movie/TV services such as Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime available via a variety of devices such as Blu-ray players, Netgear's NeoTV, Roku, Apple TV, WD TV Live, et al, and recently-run TV shows available on the networks' own sites, you may be able to cut your cable or satellite connection (or just hook up an old unconnected set in a second room) and receive your local HDTV channels the old-fashioned way – over the air with an HDTV antenna.
The great sticking point in cutting the cable/satellite cord is local sports – there is currently no way of seeing these games other than via cable or satellite.
But you'll get a lot more local channels over-the-air than you think. Most local broadcasters "multi-cast" – broadcast four or more digital channels simultaneously. These extra channels are indicated via a decimal point – channel 5.1 may be the primary CBS affiliate, for instance, but you may also get channels 5.2 or 5-2, 5.3 and 5.4, each broadcasting different content from the same station.
And none of what I'm about to explain will work downtown in a big city. All the tall buildings play hell with over-the-air TV reception. Your neighbor may get great reception from an indoor antenna, but you may get no reception at all.
HDTV antennas, step-by-step
For most suburbanites, cutting the cable or satellite cord could be a great cost-saving idea. But choosing the right HDTV antenna can be a challenge. So I contacted two major antenna makers – Antennas Direct and Terk (part of Voxx, née Audiovox) to get the whole story on how to buy an HDTV antenna.
First off, if your old TV is an analog set, make sure you have a digital converter box attached to it. If by some chance you didn't get one a couple of years ago during the transition from analog to digital TV, you can get one for less than $60 from Amazon, Radio Shack, Best Buy or any local electronics store.
If you have a flat screen HDTV, you're all set – no converter box necessary.
Once you have a digital converter box connected, here's how to choose the right HDTV antenna.
1. Where are the TV broadcast antennas?
You'll have to aim your HDTV antenna toward the broadcast transmitter towers. Thankfully, in most municipalities, all the broadcast towers are located near each other.
In both cases, type in your address. You'll see a list of over-the-air TV stations in your locality and a map, their channel numbers and their distance from your home. The green-tinted channels will be the easiest to receive. Click on the call letters of a channel to locate its transmitter.
2. VHF or UHF?
You'll notice some stations are labeled UHF or VHF or, on the FCC site, Hi-V. VHF stations – channels 2-13, which represent only 20 percent of all over-the-air channels – are more difficult to receive.
All HDTV antennas receive UHF stations (channels 14 to 51). Pure UHF antennas do a better job of pulling in these UHF stations than do dual UHF/VHF antennas.
When choosing an HDTV antenna, determine how critical pulling in those few VHF stations (if any – St. Louis is the largest of seven UHF-only markets) is for your viewing pleasure. If you can live without the local VHF channels, a UHF-only antenna will do a better job.
If you can place your antenna so it can "see" a window which faces the general direction of the transmitter towers location, and those towers are located within 20-25 miles you can use an indoor antenna. Placing it in the window, especially high-up, is best (for best reception, at least; the trailing coax cable is admittedly an aesthetic nightmare).
Even if your window faces the transmitter locations, other factors could interfere with reception. If there are trees or other tall buildings or tall hills blocking the antenna's view, you may not get optimal reception. If your TV room features Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a microwave oven, fluorescent lighting, steel-frame construction, aluminum siding, or other wireless devices – even the running of a vacuum cleaner motor – you may not get optimal reception.
And you don't need to plug an indoor antenna into an AC outlet. Powered antennas use amplifiers that are largely unnecessary unless you're running a long cable – 100 feet or so – from the antenna to the TV, or you're splitting the antenna to feed several TVs.
Antenna makers admit choosing the right antenna is literally an inexact science, a hit-or-miss process. When in doubt, choose an outdoor antenna. Just be prepared for some D-I-Y installation.
For instance, my mother-in-law has an old analog TV in the bedroom of her San Antonio, Texas, home. The room has a north-facing window – except all the broadcast antennas are located south of her home.
After trying both Terk and an Antennas Direct indoor antennas, I determined she needed an outdoor antenna that needs to be roof mounted.
Antennas Direct sent her one of their ClearStream2 outdoor antennas. I'll report back once I get it installed for her.