Though most viewers have never attached an antenna to a TV, they’ve also never experienced the novelty of free TV. Cable and satellite services are laden with monthly fees, but an antenna is a one-time purchase. So, depending on your location and whether the channel selection is sufficiently satisfying—you can always supplement a lean program diet with discs or online offerings—terrestrial broadcasters could be just the cavalry to rescue your budget from going over a cliff.
If you live in or near a city, you can probably receive signals from local stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS and others. Foreign language and independent stations may be available, too. Talk to your neighbors to see what, if any, over-the-air stations they receive. If you live in an apartment building, ask your super if the building has a master antenna and a connection convenient to your apartment. If so, you may not need a private antenna.
If you live more than 70 miles from a city, the number of stations you can receive will be severely limited. Then, your only option might be satellite service. (A satellite dish is an antenna, but the satellite program operator supplies and installs the dish.)
Before you decide to purchase an antenna no matter where you live in the U.S., it’s worth entering your street address at AntennaWeb.org. The site, co-sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, will list the stations you should be able to receive and suggest antenna types.
Antennas are categorized as indoor or outdoor models and amplified or passive models. Indoor models often look like miniature trees, though horizontally-oriented and with metallic branches. But they can also look like a pole or a rectangular plate. If the antenna comes with an AC adapter, you plug it in to, hopefully, improve reception. Outdoor antennas are larger and are designed to be professionally mounted on the roof. (An attic housing electrical wiring, metal conduits or pipes will interfere with reception, so don’t even go there.)
Extending from the antenna, whatever the model, is the same type of round cable used by cable TV operators to wire homes. You screw the cable end into the antenna (RF) input on your TV. To be called a TV (as opposed to a monitor) the display must contain a tuner. Every TV sold since early in the last decade must include a digital (ATSC) tuner. Accessory cables and couplers are available if you need to place the antenna at a greater distance from the TV than anticipated.
After hooking up the antenna, you use the TV’s setup menu to scan the airwaves for receivable station frequencies. Stations are automatically stored in the TV so that you won’t have to step into static or a blue screen later. The critical thing to know is that the number of stations you receive will likely vary according to the orientation of the antenna. So, anytime you reposition the antenna, it’s important to rescan. Also, you need patience and resolve to try varied positions before settling on the one.
If you own a digital video recorder like a TiVo or an over-the-air DVD recorder, the devices have their own tuners which bypass the TV’s tuner. So, during setup, you’d scan the airwaves using one of these source components rather than the TV to lock in stations.