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April 18, 2013

O.T.A = Over The Air = FREE TV

In the good old days, we used to refer to this as "TV". It might more accurately be described as Antenna TV. That is, getting your television signal for free (Over The Air) like we used to in the old days. Now of course anyone who remembers "the old days" with an antenna supplying the TV signal, probably has no burning desire to return to that era. Everyone old enough, recalls snow filling the screen and trying to position the antenna just right and finally getting a station (hopefully clear enough to watch). Visions of tin foil and standing on one leg come to mind.

Well, the antenna itself hasn't changed much since then, but the experience sure has. Well, I suppose the antenna has changed too. Not that it has actually changed, but today the preferred antenna is a UHF antenna which is usually smaller than the antenna of old (VHF antenna). That however is primarily due to most of the broadcasts now being in the UHF band (channels 14 - 69) rather than the old days when almost everything was VHF (2 - 13).

Now, OTA (antenna TV) is not for everyone. In this day of spoiled consumers it is probably for very few people.

Who is it NOT for?

Okay we just lost 90% of you

Who is it for?

Now of course almost everyone watches network television for at least some of their programming. Network television is where most of us watch our "prime time" tv shows. You know what the networks are right? ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, CBC, Global etc.. There's a lot of good shows on network television. There's a lot of garbage too. The real determining factors are 2 things. How much TV do you watch? And what do you watch?

If you subscribe to "basic cable" (if there is such a thing anymore) then you currently get about 30 channels. And depending on what you watch, you might be the perfect candidate for OTA. If you subscribe to the far more common digital cable packages then you probably get about 300 channels of which you likely watch 12. Depending on which 12 that is, you too could be an OTA viewer.
If you're a sports nut, or you have to have your CP24, ROB, CNN, HBO, TLC or The Weather Network, then this is definitely not for you.

If you like watching crystal clear HD network television, then OTA may well be for you. Most modern television sets come with an ATSC tuner (old TVs came with an NTSC tuner). The significant difference is that broadcasters stopped broadcasting the old snowy analogue picture from the "old days" and started broadcasting a new (often High Definition) crystal clear digital signal (complete with error correction). The new ATSC tuner is designed to pick up this new digital broadcast. Even if you have an old set (with an NTSC tuner) you can buy an inexpensive digital tuner that will convert the ATSC broadcasts for display through your old TV (even in HD if your old set supports it).

Now of course, nobody wants to cancel their cable or satellite service to see if maybe they want OTA. And probably 95% (or more) of people who would be perfectly happy with OTA will never even be willing to try it (luxury can be fickle that way). Here's the best part, you can check it out for virtually no cost. Well, some of you can. And I say "virtually" no cost because of course in this day and age, nobody has an antenna and so it will cost something to get an antenna (even a cheap indoor loop antenna or rabbit ears for testing). If you're mildly ambitious, you could build your own DIY UHF Antenna. And of course, if you don't have an ATSC tuner then there's a little more cost, but it's really NOT worth buying an ATSC tuner just to test this (even though they are fairly inexpensive).

If you have an ATSC tuner and can borrow (or build) a cheap antenna, you can connect the antenna to the back of your TV (or ATSC tuner) and see what kind of luck you get. Normally speaking you will have to tell the tuner to "search" for channels. Now before you do this you want to point your antenna in the direction of the signal(s) that you most want to receive. Typically this will be either toward downtown Toronto (for Global, CBC, OMNI, CTV, TVO and CITY) or toward Buffalo NY (for the American networks like NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, MYTV, TheCW, PBS etc.). Now depending on your location (and the location, position and type of antenna) you should be able to very clearly pick up some channels.

At my house for instance, I can point my (outdoor) antenna almost directly at Buffalo NY and pick up virtually all of the U.S. networks as well as all of the broadcasts from downtown Toronto. I don't expect that your results with an indoor antenna would be quite up to this, but if you have a high southern exposure, you might do fairly well. You can of course, reorient the antenna to try to improve reception or to pick up other channels (and you should). Once you've maxed out the channels you can get, scan through them and see the quality. It should be as good as (or better than) your cable or satellite picture.

[Antenna PIC] With just this (4 to 14 inch) extendable antenna standing on a first floor window sill (facing downtown) I could pick up the following channels (with perfect clarity).
5.1 CBC (CBLT)
9.1 CTV (CFTO)
19.1 TVO (CICA TV Ontario)
23.1 TheCW (WNLO)
25.1 CBC (CBLFT French CBC)
36.1 Crossroad (CITS)
40.1 OMNI.2 (CJMT)
41.1 Global (CIII HD)
41.2 Global (CIII Standard Definition)
57.1 CITY (CITY)

Compared to my rooftop antenna (see below), I managed to catch all of the Canadian channels except for CTV2 (42.1) and OMNI.1 (47.1). I'm sure that I could find those 2 channels by playing with the antenna position. But also notice that I managed to pick up TheCW (23.1) from the USA which has a very strong signal.

Now if you've done this test with an indoor antenna, odds are good that you will do better with an outdoor antenna (but there are no guarantees). has a good list of TV stations you "might" be able to receive in the Toronto area. To give you an idea of what you might expect I include here a list of the channels that I do receive with my rooftop antenna (without turning it from it's usual position, pointed at Grand Island, NY).

2.1 NBC (WGRZ network TV)
2.2 (Oldies TV)
4.1 CBS (WIVB)
5.1 CBC (CBLT)
7.1 ABC (WKBW)
9.1 CTV (CFTO)
17.1 PBS (WNED HD)
17.2 PBS (WNED SD)
17.3 PBS (Think Bright Children's programming)
19.1 TVO (CICA TV Ontario)
23.1 TheCW (WNLO)
25.1 CBC (CBLFT French CBC)
26.1 TCT (WNYB Religious Programming)
26.2 TCT-HD (Religious Programming)
26.3 TCT-Kids (Religious Programming)
26.4 TCT-Span (Religious Programming (Spanish))
29.1 FOX (WUTV)
29.2 TCN (Country Music)
36.1 Crossroad (CITS)
40.1 OMNI.2 (CJMT)
41.1 Global (CIII HD)
41.2 Global (CIII Standard Definition)
42.1 CTV2 (CKVP)
47.1 OMNI.1 (CFMT)
49.1 MyTV (WNYO)
57.1 CITY (CITY)
67.1* METV (WBBZ in 720p)
67.2* This TV
67.3* METV (in 480i)
67.4* Daystar (religious programming)

* - this channel works sometimes and sometimes doesn't (I can turn the antenna to improve reception)

So as you can see, I get ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS, TCT, TheCW, and MyTV from the USA and CBC, CTV, TVO, Crossroads, OMNI, Global and CityTV from Canada.

Now, to be clear. I cannot promise that anyone can reproduce my results in their own home. On my roof I have an 8-bay UHF antenna with a rotator (to enable changing it's orientation). Most times (almost always) it remains pointed directly at Grand Island, NY. If I didn't have a rotator, I would be fine, but it would have taken some time to find the perfect angle. For me this is generally 156 degrees (clockwise) from North. Visually that's just slightly east of south (point your antenna south and then turn it a tiny bit toward the east). That should provide a good starting point (you can fine tune to match your needs from there). I can generally get all the same channels at 180 degrees, but in that orientation the US channels are not as reliable (although the Canadian Channels are better). If you're only concerned about the Canadian channels, point your antenna at the CN Tower (from which a few of the signals are broadcast).

Now of course, I call it "FREE" TV. But it's not really free. Like many things that are "free" there is a set-up cost involved. I had to buy an antenna and a tripod and mounting hardware. I also bought an 8 way splitter with signal amp (so that I could run the cable to all the rooms in my house that might have a TV). I also purchased a couple of ATSC tuners for my older TVs. All in all, I spent just over $400 (I already had the coax, grounding wire and miscellaneous other things). I could have gotten away with just over $100 to run the signal to one or two TVs (with no rotator). In all, the antenna supplies up to 8 TVs with a signal at any given time (and yes they can all be on different channels). But for comparison sake, I used to have Rogers cable with the VIP package (I didn't need all those channels, but with the add-on charges for extra TVs it was the cheapest way to go). So, although I had an initial outlay of about $400, I saved that money in 4 months of not paying Rogers $100 per month for that VIP package. Of course, professionals can be hired to install antennae (and should be if you don't know the local regulations) which will cost a little bit more, but again the money saved can be in the thousands if you can live with the limited number of channels (I saved about $1200 per year). Just one warning about "professionals". Often they will try to install 2 antennae (one for the US stations and one for the Canadian stations). Tell them that you are only concerned about the US stations (most of the Canadian stations have a strong enough signal to be picked up even by an antenna pointed in the wrong direction). Ghosting and other artifacts they might warn you to be concerned about are not nearly as prevalent with the digital broadcasts (which have error correction). The advantage to 2 antennae is that it allows a wider reception area at any given time (as opposed to a rotator which can turn the antenna). But on the other hand if you have the money (and just don't want to give it to Rogers) it's probably cheaper to have them install 2 antennae at once then to have them come back if you're not happy with just one (although if you're in Toronto I really can't see two being required). I should point out as well that a professional installation to supply eight TVs would likely cost a considerable amount more than my $400 as I did all of the labour myself and already had much of what was required.

With complete disclosure in mind, I did miss the "SPACE" channel for a while and my wife HATES that she has to enter the ".1" after than channel to tune it. And of course, it is Antenna TV. The signal can be affected by weather and atmospheric conditions. What that means is that "sometimes", the signal of marginal channels may drop for short periods of time. It's rare that I lose signal, but when it happens, it's invariably an American station and "almost" always the same program is available on a Canadian channel. None of the OTA supporters like to voluntarily admit that this happens and although it's very rare (I have a good antenna in a good position) it can happen. I don't find it nearly as bothersome as I did when Rogers used to lose the HD signal that I was paying extra to receive. With this same point in mind, some tuners are better than others. As an example, the TV in the kitchen (the wife likes to keep on top of things while she cooks) has some difficulty with FOX when the signal is not perfect (although, at the same time, all of other TVs in the house can tune it with no trouble).

Speaking of HD, I should point out that literally all of the .1 channels listed above are broadcast in HD (High Definition) except for channel 26 (where HD is on 26.2). Because of the digital nature of the broadcast, the tendency is that the picture quality is virtually perfect (almost always). The heuristic error correction allows for some signal loss to be corrected with no picture loss, so the tendency is to have either a perfect picture or no picture at all. What this means is that the picture can be better than you would get on cable (since no lossy compression/decompression is performed).

The actual advantages to OTA TV are few. Most importantly. It's free (after your original investment). This can save thousands of dollars. The picture quality is superb. Programs are not replaced by the "local" version of the same content (which means that if a show "runs over" it's allotted time, you don't get the end cut off while they switch to a local version of the next show). Commercials are not replaced by local content (can also be a minus if you end up at the local McDonald's asking for a special that's only available in the USA).

In this day and age, when much of our entertainment is available on the internet, you might find that this antiquated idea of having an antenna just might fit in your lifestyle. And since the signal runs through coax cable, all the existing cable outlets in your house can be used for antenna connection. As a matter of fact, I literally went out and ran my antenna to the Rogers box on the side of my house. Since that box was already connected to every cable outlet in my house (and provided the needed grounding block for the coax), it was perfect (as every "cable outlet" is now an antenna connection).

And I would be remiss if I did not tell you...
EVERY outdoor antenna must be fully and properly grounded in accordance with local code. Just grounding the coax via a grounding block is NOT sufficient (but it is a part of what is required).

I would also like to point out that I had considered telling people about OTA on my website before but thought that people who can afford to hire a window cleaner are generally not interested. I changed my mind when I realized that I have seen 4 (up to this point) very well-to-do customers erect antennae on their roof and switch to OTA. When I inquired, the usual response was that between Netflix, the internet and OTA, they got enough news and "screen" entertainment that they didn't feel a need for cable or satellite. So maybe there is a market for OTA. And just maybe, you could be a part of that market (after all, you did read all the way down to here, didn't you?).