If you don't want or need the extra programming provided by cable or satellite TV -- or you just don't want to spend $100 a month or more for these services -- you can still find lots to watch. All you need is a TV with a digital tuner, or an older TV with a digital converter box, and a TV antenna. If you have an HDTV with a digital tuner, you can also access high-definition programming from networks and local broadcasters at the highest possible quality. The digital broadcasting system makes it possible for local broadcasters to add extra digital channels to their main channel, and many offer new public-interest or niche programming that you can pull in for free.
However, there's a caveat. Because of the nature of HDTV and other digital TV signals, receiving them with a television antenna is more of a challenge than with the old analog system. Tall buildings, hills and other obstructions are major hurdles. In addition, the signals don't cover as wide an area as the old analog ones did. All of that means you might need to pay special attention to your HDTV antenna to get the best over-the-air digital TV.
In stores, you'll see many television antennas being promoted as designed for HDTV, but in reality you don't need a special HDTV antenna design to receive digital signals. In fact, in most cases, the best antennas are those based on the same designs used for decades for analog TV reception. If you already have a good antenna with which you received analog TV, it might be all you need.
One thing to watch for when selecting an antenna for digital TV is that many so-called HDTV antennas are designed to cover only the UHF band -- channels 14 to 69 -- which is where most digital TV signals are found. However, that band has been cut back so digital stations are now restricted to the lower part, channels 14 to 51. The problem is that some stations were permitted to return to their original VHF frequencies of channels 2 to 6 and 7 to 13 once the digital transition was complete in June 2009, leaving viewers with UHF-only HDTV antennas in the dark.
If there's a VHF station you want to receive in your area, you'll need to select a TV antenna that covers those frequencies, as well. Otherwise, a UHF-only antenna will fit the bill nicely. If you don't know what stations you can receive and what frequencies they use to broadcast on, sites such as AntennaWeb.org and TVFool.com can help.
Television antennas -- and the availability of local over-the-air programming -- can play a big role in deciding whether to ditch your cable or satellite TV provider. As noted in our reports on video streaming and digital media players -- and in this blog post -- more people are abandoning traditional premium TV sources in favor of streaming content online from Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus and more. But an over-the-air (OTA) antenna and a TV with a digital tuner are still the best way to view local programs, including any sports carried by your local TV stations, and network TV shows at the same time as they're originally broadcast. This is also sometimes the only way to see that programming for free.
One problem with finding the right TV antenna is separating marketing spin from actual results, and that's complicated by the fact that an antenna that works great for one person because of their locale could be a miserable failure for someone living even a short distance away. The best reviews of TV antennas come from those who've tested a good number of them, and done so under relatively uniform circumstances. Likewise, user reviews can be helpful, especially for antennas that are evaluated by hundreds if not thousands of owners. That helps normalize the feedback so results aren't skewed by those living in extremely difficult reception areas or where OTA signal strength is so strong that a bent coat hanger would be acceptable.