I watched Hockey Night in Canada the other night in stunning high definition (HD) and I don’t pay a cent for cable or satellite. I’m one of a growing number of people who have gone back to the future and get their TV over the air with an antenna. The whole setup cost me about $175, or five months’ worth of basic cable. Not a bad price for about 20 channels of HD TV.
People of a certain age will look back on ‘rabbit ears’ without much enthusiasm. Over-the-air broadcasts in the days before cable was widely available were often like trying to make out what was going on inside a snow globe — when you could tune them in. But while today’s broadcasts still have distance limitations, they can deliver better picture and sound quality than cable or satellite.
According to rules set up by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, broadcasts in major centres must all be digital by Aug. 31. (The only broadcaster in the GTA that has not yet gone digital is TVO.) This puts us about two years behind the U.S., where major network broadcasts made this transition in 2009. The good news for those of us in the Golden Horseshoe is that with a good enough antenna you can pick up the American networks based in Buffalo as well.
If you go to YouTube and search for “install HD antenna” you’ll find plenty of videos that can help, and there are many ways to get the antenna onto your roof. I got a kit that lets you strap it to a chimney. Once the antenna is installed, you may need to tweak the direction a little with somebody inside the house watching the signal strength. (Most new HDTVs will have a built-in signal meter. Just check your manual.)
Here’s what I have learned:
You know the old joke about the three most important things in business? Location, location and location. This is also true of over-the-air TV. I bought my antenna second-hand for $80 (the regular price was a little over $100) from a friend who’s neighbour has a very tall house, blocking the view to Lake Ontario. My friend could not reliably tune in many stations. But from my roof I can see the CN Tower and Lake Ontario, so I was pretty sure I’d be fine.
I live near Coxwell and Gerrard in Toronto, just north of the Beach. I was curious about reception, so I propped my second-hand antenna on a chair in the living room and plugged it into the TV. I got 16 channels, including ABC, CBS, Fox and PBS from the U.S., and CBC (English and French), CITY TV, CTV, CHCH, Global, OMNI (1 and 2) and Sun TV.
When I installed the antenna on my roof, the signal from the U.S. stations improved and I could also get more channels, including NBC and NBC Universal Sports, bringing the total to 20.
Daniel Tonks, who runs an over-the-air website and forum , sums it up this way: “If you’re not close to what you want to pick up, you’ll need as big of an antenna as you can get, and to put it as high as possible.”
The lesson is that the higher the better, because you’ll have a better line of sight to the CN Tower and/or Lake Ontario towards Buffalo.
2. Antenna size
Generally, bigger is better. If you’re only interested in the Canadian channels, you will need a smaller antenna than if you also want to pick up the U.S. signals. There’s a terrific website, www.xtek.ca/hdtvpointer/, that will not only show you exactly how far you are from each of these, but also which direction each is in. An antenna will have a certain range, so this map will help you determine which model will work for you.
Some antennas, like mine, have different ranges for UHF, or Ultra High Frequency, and VHF, or Very High Frequency. HD TV can be sent over either one, but it just so happens that most stations in North America use UHF.
3. Get some good cable
The cable you’ll need will almost certainly be coaxial (coax) cable, the same stuff cable TV service comes on. Good quality cable will be well shielded, so other signals won’t interfere with your reception.
If you’re going to have a professional installation you won’t need to worry about the little screw-on end connectors. But you’ll save some money if you do it yourself, and I found that attaching them is not very difficult. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that show you how and the tools can be found at a good hardware store for less than $50. Just make sure the connectors are tight; you can lose a lot of signal through a loose connector.
Finally, make the cable as short as possible. If you remember your high-school physics you know that a signal will gradually degrade. It’s called attenuation. The longer the cable, the more signal loss. Mine is about 75 feet long and I’ve got no problems.
4. Ground the cable
An antenna should always be grounded in case of a lightning strike. A good professional installer should take care of this, but for home installers a grounding block should always be used. A good hardware store will have one. And it’s a good idea to have a surge protector that also has an input and output for coaxial cable.
5. Picture Quality
I was struck by the amazing picture quality. I didn’t expect that it would be better than digital cable. A friend of mine — who works in television — first noticed this during Hockey Night in Canada one weekend. He kept looking at the picture and saying “this looks better than mine,” in a somewhat irritated voice, since his television is larger.
The difference is compression. All TV signals are compressed, but cable and satellite signals are more compressed than over-the-air broadcasts. To use a gardening analogy, they are trying to move a lot of water through limited-size hose.
“In a perfect world, would the OTA signal be better?” says Hugh Thompson, who runs the popular television/broadcast website Digital Home. “Yes, because there is less compression.”
Cable and satellite companies usually give priority to some channels over others, so that a hockey game, for example, would be less compressed than a talk show. So depending on the TV, you’ll see the difference on some channels but not as easily on others.
6. Channel lineup
This setup may not work for dedicated sports fans because you won’t pick up TSN, Rogers SportsNet, etc. And during a heavy snowfall some U.S. stations — notably NBC and CBS — can be dicey. But it’s perfect for a casual TV watcher like me. I can watch all the network TV shows in beautiful HD while avoiding a monthly bill of $35, which saves about $420 each year.
Not bad for a $100 antenna, $75 in supplies and a couple hours with a ladder.