Recently, a friend asked me how much I was paying a certain large conglomerate for my cable TV service. I had one of those “all in one triple play” packages that included phone and internet, and with DVR and HBO I was paying $163/month. I knew I had to figure a way out of that, especially since I rarely used my land line, anyway, and really only needed the broadband internet connection. Now, I’m not the kind of person who would give up TV. I seemed to remember from my childhood these contraptions that we called “antennas” that we put on top of our TV sets, in our attics, on our roofs, etc. that would bring in a TV signal for free. I knew there had to be a way I could cut the cable and still watch clear, crisp, high-def broadcasts.
I am writing this because when I tried to find information about what quirks there are to using indoor antennas and getting a digital/HDTV signal in New York City, I just couldn’t find anybody else who had documented the experience. May this information help you and set you free!
Getting clear, free, over the air TV broadcasts in New York City
One thing to know: all channels since the digital transition in 2009 broadcast on a set of “subchannels” – Channel 2 is now 2-1, Channel 4 is 4-1, and so on… (a digital flat screen will have the little “-” on its remote control’s keypad). Some of these channels offer alternative programming, and I was thrilled that 11-4 is Antenna TV and I can watch reruns of All in the Family and Maude! (You can get more information and see what channels you can expect to potentially receive by going to Antenna Web and plugging in your address.)
Another thing to know: there is no such thing as an “HD antenna” – if the signal is strong enough, a coat hanger can bring in a perfectly good digital HD signal. You can, in fact, use your old rabbit ears as long as it has the UHF loop. One example is this one from RCA that retails between $5 and $10. If you live in an area with a strong enough signal, it should work.
Again, I live in Midtown Manhattan, on the third floor of a brick building – I’m surrounded by taller buildings and don’t see a lot of open sky. I attached the cheap RCA antenna to my set, scanned for channels, and lo and behold, I got in Channels 7 and 11 clearly. Channel 5 was weak, but it did come in. But nothing else. I was frustrated, but hopeful. After trying different kinds of antennas, I splurged on a Clearstream Micron High Gain Indoor TV Antenna from Antennas Direct.
It’s a fairly attractive piece of equipment about the size of an 8×10 picture frame. I plugged it in, and I got a perfect signal for channels 2, 4, 5, and 9, plus several others between 14 and 69. But I was frustrated. Where were channels 7, 11, and 13? They had a sticker on their antenna that said “call to learn, don’t return.” So I did. What I found out was that in New York, some of the broadcast channels (7, 11, and 13) actually broadcast on VHF (which requires the rabbit ears), while the others (2, 4, 5, and 9 and the others above 14) broadcast on UHF (which requires the loop antenna). That explained why one antenna was good for some channels, and why and the other was good for the rest. I have to note that the small loop on the RCA simply wasn’t strong enough to pick up a significant UHF signal where I am, but I do know that it worked for a friend of mine who lives just a few blocks from me, which just demonstrates the fickle nature the signal in New York City despite the fact that we are right near the transmitters; this is probably because the signal gets intercepted by all the buildings.
The solution for me was to use both of the antennas I had, but how? Turns out, there is a tiny piece of equipment that is called a UHF/VHF Diplexer that allows you to hook both antennas up to your set. Once Antennas Direct sent me that one missing piece, I was done. It’s kind of stunning – you can get a crystal-clear, high-definition signal that looks as good as any cable signal FOR FREE. Yes, you do have to look at an antenna or two, and yes, you do have to adjust them a little bit for different channels, BUT, you don’t have to have an energy-sucking cable box plugged in 24/7. And did I mention, it’s FREE?
And with the addition of Netflix and Hulu Plus streaming via a Roku player you can still enjoy movies or watch current episodes of a lot of TV shows on demand for a fraction of the cable price. Seriously, cable has gotten more and more expensive over the years, but they did it bit by bit so we barely noticed it until we were writing checks that were as high as $163 every month. And whereas some of the features that they are able to provide us (caller ID on the TV, remote DVR programming) are really cool and useful, I have to remind myself that their level of “cool” wasn’t really worth what I was paying every month. So I’m saving $100/month having gotten rid of cable and phone service, and now I don’t have to see crap like Tia and Tamara and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Yeah, I’ll miss Food Network and HGTV, but I can stream, can’t I…???