How to Watch Free HDTV Channels in Your Area with a Digital TV Antenna

outdoor tv antennaTwo years ago, I looked at my cable television bill and I decided that I had had enough. I multiplied my bill by twelve and thought of all the things that I could have spent a year’s worth of cable TV on. My family wasn’t ready to cancel cable and stop watching TV altogether, but we wanted to stop throwing our money away on all of the lousy content that was on most of the channels.

Around the same time, the conversion of television stations from an analog format to digital broadcast was in the news, and it piqued my curiosity. The idea of receiving television for free was great, but I had major concerns about the quality. I had given up attempts to pull in a decent picture with an antenna decades ago, and I really did not ever want to try that again. But I dug a little deeper – what if the digital conversion meant that I could get  a few high quality channels for free?

How Good Is Free Digital Television?

After some research, I decided that over-the-air digital television is the most under-rated and under-appreciated technological breakthrough of our time. With a small, inexpensive antenna, most Americans can pick up dozens of channels in perfect high-definition.

Unlike the old system, which is no longer even broadcast, there is never any picture degradation or “snow” with digital television. 99% of the time, you either get the picture, or you don’t, so picture quality is rarely an issue. In fact, it has been shown that cable and satellite services actually compress their HD signals more than over-the-air broadcasters. The result is that my neighbors who pay for their television channels actually get a lower quality picture than the one I watch for free!

Another surprising benefit is the channel guide feature that you get with over-the-air digital television. Just like a cable or satellite program, a broadcast digital signal is encoded with information about current and future programs. Any compatible television or converter box should include a guide feature to display this information.

How to Choose a Digital TV Antenna

To get free, over-the-air, HD TV, you need an antenna, which can be either outdoor-mounted or located indoors on top of your television. Outdoor antennas are larger and more expensive, but they are able to receive signal from further away. Remember, it is not a question of signal quality like the rabbit ears of yesteryear, it’s merely a question of if you get the station or not.

So which one should you get? Fortunately, there is a great, non-profit website called AntennaWeb that can help you figure out how far you live from the broadcast towers, and what kind of antenna you should buy. My personal rule of thumb is that the amount you will need to spend on an antenna will roughly be equal to your distance from the broadcast tower in miles multiplied by $1-$1.50 per mile. I spent about $40 for my antenna, an Antennas Direct DB2 Multi Directional HDTV Antenna (and the transmitters are on top of a mountain about 35 miles from my house).

The antenna I use is about 1 square foot, and I mounted it on my roof with ease. I know others who live even further away who use the same antenna successfully. I also know some people who report great success with smaller, indoor antennas that can rest on top of your computer (e.g. Terk HDTVa Indoor Amplified High-Definition Antenna).

Will It Work with My Television?

Once you have an antenna, you just need a television capable of receiving the digital signal. Most modern flat screen televisions can receive digital signals, but most of the old style picture tube televisions will require a converter box.

When the analog signal was being phased out, the government actually offered each household vouchers that would cover most of the cost of the converter box. Today, you can still find these boxes for under $50 (e.g. Zinwell Analog to Digital TV Converter Box for $40). Once you connect your antenna, you need to go to the television’s setup menu and scan for digital broadcast channels.

How Many Channels Will I Get?

Currently, I get about 40 channels for free. The downside of relying on free TV is that a host of channels available by cable or satellite (e.g. DIRECTTV) aren’t broadcast. Frankly, it’s a pleasure not to waste hours of time watching cable news channels, but many people will miss ESPN or other sports channels. When it comes to premium content on channels like HBO, I have found myself renting the DVDs at the end of the season on services like Netflix or Blockbuster.

On the other hand, I have found several commercial-free public television stations that I had not known of. If I spoke Spanish, I would also be enjoying about a dozen Spanish language channels. Nevertheless, I am now able to view some great programming on everything from nature documentaries and cooking to current events.

Final Word

Cable and satellite TV would be great services, if it were not for their skyrocketing monthly costs. By spending a little time and money buying and installing an antenna, you can have high-definition, digital television without the monthly fee. Yes, you will miss out on some channels, but you will still get a great picture and you’ll have one less bill to pay.

Do you watch free digital HD television by using an antenna? How do you like it? Share your thoughts here.

  • Melyssa

    Oh COOL! I currently have basic cable and Netflix. Costs me about $25/month. This would be an awesome addition. Thanks for the tip!

  • dullgeek

    My story is similar to yours, except mine happened in July 2010. I got tired of the $3/mo increase that managed to show up on my DirecTV bill every single year. I had started paying about $40/mo for DirecTV and after 7 years I was up to nearly $65/mo. So I cut the cord.

    I bought a ClearStream2 antenna from AntennasDirect. And it’s plugged into a TiVo HDXL that I use as a DVR for the broadcast TV stations that I receive. The TiVo also gets Netflix, Blockbuster Ondemand, YouTube, Live365, pandora and a bunch of other services. I subscribe to TED talks which are automatically downloaded to the DVR almost every day.

    In addition, I have ripped all the DVDs that I own and put them onto a server that I have. And I can now select the DVDs from a menu on the TiVo and watch them when I want.

    I made a video for some friends of mine who asked about it. The video is pretty boring, but it does show a lot of the content that I have available because of my set up. It’s here:

    • Hamid Ali

      Sir, can u help for making me presentation on HDTV Cable service,please?

  • Chris | JumpstartMyPC

    @Jason – great article and I couldn’t agree more with the thought and comments that you and @dullgeek have posted.
    My DirecTV bill got up to $120 a month and I had to do something. I researched, decided on a package of TiVo w/2 HD antennas and implemented. I could not be happier.
    Check out my story here:

  • Bob1916

    i,ve also decided to go with hdtv to save money

  • cur8tor

    I cut the cord in October 2010, got a ROKU, then added PLEX to the roku as my media server – the FREE version of PLEX. I have only Netflix as a monthly charge. I have to check out ‘dullgeek’s’ video – sounds pretty cool.

  • Judy

    Can you get the History Channel with an antenna? Thank you.

    • Chuck


    • Bruce

      I also would like to watch the History Channel
      Off my digital over the air antenna.

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  • janice

    I bought a uhf,vhf, antennae which cost 39.95. I get about 16 channels. But, I have the antennae positioned slightly above my mobile home. Should it be positioned higher to get more channels? This is new to me, so I’m not sure if I’m getting all the channels that is available. Thank you for your input. Jsnice

  • pi2r2

    For those who can’t get over-the-air digital broadcast but have good Internet provider service, Internet TV apps like open source Kodi offer rich content at no subscriber cost, usually much more content than cable. If a person already has a good cell phone and Wi-Fi, he needn’t buy anything more.