Getting the Broncos without paying for cable . . .

Hey Gus!

I am paying almost as much for cable each month as I pay for my son’s college education. There has got to be a cheaper way seeing the Broncos on Sundays, and watching some of my favorite shows.

Perplexed Pauper

Dear Perplexed,

There most certainly is. The Broncos are broadcast over the air, known as OTA, in High Definition (HD) for free. If you are willing to do a little work installing and setting up an antenna you will be able to watch the Broncos for free – and watch some of your favorite local channels too.

Here at the Geezer Gastehaus, in the city limits of Littleton, I am receiving about 75 channels with a small antenna mounted outside on the edge of the roof, about 15 feet off of the ground. Some of those 75 channels are duplicates so it really amounts to about 68 – 69 unique channels. Sixteen of those channels are HD (high definition), the rest are SD (standard definition). I have been viewing the Broncos in HD for 2 years now and have not missed a game because of poor reception – even during storms. So yes it can be done, and you will save a bunch of money. And many times the picture quality you get with a plain ol’ antenna is better than Cable.

Here is what you need to know about getting over the air (OTA) broadcasting on your TV.

First of all your TV needs to be able to receive digital broadcast signals, since all broadcasts are now digital.  All TVs manufactured after March 2007 should have a digital tuner, also known as an ATSC tuner,  built in.  If your TV does not have a built in digital tuner you will have to buy an external digital tuner. If you have a really old analog TV you will have to buy a “Converter Box” to “convert” the new digital signals to work on our older analog TV.  External digital tuners and digital to analog converter boxes are available at Best Buy or on-line.

Second you need an antenna. Depending on where you live in Littleton and how many channels you want to receive, you might be able to get by with a simple indoor antenna – otherwise you will need an eternal antenna. There are a number of web sites which will predict which channels you can receive using an indoor antenna and an external antenna.

 The image below is from ChannelMaster and shows the broadcast stations that can be received in the 80120 zip code area, along with their predicted signal strength for each station. As will this interactive page at Antennas Direct.

However the site I like best is TVFool, because its information is based on your actual address rather than a zip code, plus your estimate of the height of your antenna. TVFool has terrain data it uses to adjust its predictions of TV reception and what type of antenna you’ll have to get.

You may have an old antenna from your pre-cable TV days – I had one located in my attic. The problem with using an older antenna is there is a good chance it will not pick up the newer UHF broadcast frequencies used by many TV stations.  TV frequencies are:  low VHF (LVHF) for channels 2-6, high VHF (HVHF) for channels 7-13, and UHF for channel 14 and up. While some stations, such as channels 7 & 9 in Denver broadcast on both VHF and UHF frequencies, you really want an antenna that will pick up all the frequencies.

Another problem with using an older antenna is it might use old style antenna cable. Really Old Antennas use a 300 ohm two conductor flat ribbon style antenna cable; the antenna input connector on newer TVs is designed for 75 ohm coax cable that uses screw on connectors. So if your old antenna uses the flat ribbon style cable you will have to buy an “adapter” to adapt the older “ribbon” style to the coax style input connector on your TV.

Twin Lead Flat Cable to COAX Converter

I chose to purchase a new external antenna because I didn’t know what the old antenna was designed to pick up and I didn’t want to mess with the an adapter.

If you are going to use an external antenna the rules of thumb are:

  • The higher mount the antenna the more channels you will receive.
  • Don’t mount your antenna on the top of the chimney – it blocks areas of the antenna and ruins reception.
  • Try to locate your antenna to minimize obstructions between the antenna and broadcast towers.
  • If you purchase a directional antenna, point it at the main broadcast towers for the channels you want to receive. If you purchase a non-directional, i.e. an “omni-directional” antenna you don’t need to point it. But as with a regular antenna makes sure there are no large groves of trees or anything that might block the signal.
  • Minimize the distance between the antenna and your TV. The longer the run of coax cable between the antenna and the TV, the weaker the signal from the antenna. But these days that length can be pretty long.
  • Keep your antenna cable away electrical devices. And don’t coil the excess antenna cable since that can cause the cable to become an antenna itself and interfere with your picture

The web sites, such as ChannelMaster or TVFool, that show you where the broadcast towers are located also show you the heading, in regular compass degrees, for each tower. You can use those headings to point your antenna toward the tower(s) that broadcast the channels you are interested in.  I used a compass app on my smartphone to orient my antenna.  And since I am using a directional antenna I pointed my antenna between the two largest clusters of broadcast towers to maximize the channels I receive.

RG6 COAX Cable with crimp on Connector

If you have a long length of cable from your antenna to your TV, or you want to connect multiple TVs to your antenna then you may need to buy a High Gain Antenna or an antenna with a Line Amplifier, or a separate antenna amplifier. An Antenna Amplifier boosts the signal coming from the antenna to make whatever the antenna can bring in more powerful, and to insure the signal from the antenna is strong enough to be used by your TV or TVs.

One kind of Signal Amplifier of many that are available.

Since you are switching from Cable or Satellite TV your house will already be wired with high-end coax and possibly even splitters for connecting multiple TVs. You  can use that coax for your antenna signal, provided the entrance of that coax into the house is close enough to your antenna to be useful. If it is, you can probably just connect your antenna to where the cable TV comes into the house. Otherwise, you may have to run a new piece of coax from the antenna to your TV.

The 2 to 3 hours and $150 – $200 you spend on an antenna and coax cable should get you all the local TV stations which broadcast  the Broncos games. Plus you will also get many additional stations and save a bunch on your monthly cable bill. But you probably will still be subject to the Bruce Springsteen lament: “57 Channels and Nothing’s on.”