What's the best way to set up broadcast TV?
July 25, 2006 6:48 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to set up broadcast TV?

It took a while, but I finally convinced my girlfriend to give up cable TV when we move to a new place. The condition she gave me is to have regular broadcast channels still available. Well, we moved, but now I'm facing a problem - looks like the antenna is pretty weak, because when I connect it to the TV, half of the channels are not available, and the other half are very bad quality.
What's the best solution to this problem? Maybe getting a better antenna? Or connect TV to the computer with a TV card? This has to be done fast - my girlfriend is getting impatient and is threatening to order cable! :-)
posted by zavulon to Technology (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Fastest, cheapest solution. Hook a VCR upto the antenna, then the VCR into the television. You will need to change the channel with the VCR remote, but the VCR will boost your signal.
posted by killyb at 7:11 AM on July 25, 2006

Better antenna, preferable an rooftop mounted antenna.
posted by Ferrari328 at 7:17 AM on July 25, 2006

A powered antenna from Radio Shack will do wonders.
posted by waldo at 7:26 AM on July 25, 2006

There is no substitute for placing the antenna higher. Adding the VCR in line is not going to help.
posted by kc8nod at 7:26 AM on July 25, 2006

Licensed broadcast engineer here. How far are you from the broadcast transmitters? What is the natural terrain and building environment immediately surrounding your home? The answers to these two questions almost entirely determine your antenna requirements.

In the U.S., we are also undergoing a conversion from the old NTSC analog broadcast system, to the newer digital system. Analog signals degrade more smoothly in fringe areas, whereas digital signals offer superior picture and sound quality, but are a go/no go proposition. Therefore, generally digital signals are going to require better antennas on higher mounting points on the part of home users, than analog signals did.

If you are within 10 miles of the broadcast tower, and don't have large buildings, hills or intervening city structures between your home and the tower, you should be able to enjoy adequate reception with an appropriate indoor antenna, such as "rabbit ears" or a "loop". Beyond that distance range, or particularly with buildings or intervening hills or similar surface topology, you are going to need an outside antenna, mounted 20 to 30 feet above ground, for good reception. By their nature as electromagnetic waves of high frequency, TV signals are "line of sight" types of transmissions. The strength of a TV signal therefore increases rapidly with height above ground, so that raising an antenna of simple design higher, will almost always provide a more reliable signal, than adding an antenna of higher "gain" design.

If you are within 20 miles from the broadcast towers of your city, and they lie generally in a single direction, you may be able to get an adequate DTV signal in a single family detached home, with something like a Channel Master 4228 antenna on a simple roof mount bracket and a short mast. You might even get away with a simple interior attic mount, if there are no intervening tall buildings or hills. Beyond the 20 mile range limit, you are probably going to need to go higher than 30 feet, and use antennas of higher gain design to get consistently acceptable signals, particularly if there are terrain issues at your location.

And I agree with the advice upthread that VCRs, "boosters," "active amplifiers," and "active antennas" are generally worthless for improving reception. Go higher, or if that is not practical, use a higher gain design antenna to collect adequate broadcast signal.
posted by paulsc at 7:31 AM on July 25, 2006 [6 favorites]

well guys...a VCR may not be the best solution, but it's not worthless, and the poster asked that it be fast. Investing in analogue equipment is a waste and isn't going to a fast fix.
posted by killyb at 8:01 AM on July 25, 2006

killyb, the only situation where your suggestion to insert a VCR in the signal chain as the tuner would improve picture quality, would be where the VCR happened to have a tuner with a better signal to noise ratio specification than the TV tuner of the main set. If the television set has been manufactured in the last 5 to 7 years for sale in the U.S. this will not be likely. That is just the physics of the situation, and nothing to argue about.

I don't understand your comment about "analogue equipment," but if you are under the impression that there is anything markedly analogue or digital about reception antennas, let me say that except for the frequencies involved, where DTV signals are essentially all UHF, replacing analog signals that may formerly have been lower frequency VHF signals in major markets, there is no intrinsic difference. Reception antennas and conventional signal distribution system that have UHF elements will generally work adequately to recieve off-the-air DTV signals.
posted by paulsc at 8:19 AM on July 25, 2006

Well, paulsc, in my experience, even recent model TV's tend to have crappier tuners than recent model (and even older model) VCR's.

Bright House Cable in Pinellas County, FL, has mediocre signal levels on quite a few channels, and in general, my sister's 2 7 year old VCR's both get better pictures with less noise than her 2 year old RCA TV.

So it's not completely unreasonable...

My question to the OP, though, is "how are you going to live without a cablemodem?" :-)
posted by baylink at 8:21 AM on July 25, 2006

It helps to know where the broadcast signal is coming from. (Don't worry about all the fields, you only have to enter the zip code)

This is the site that convinced me to buy the cheapest set of rabbit ears I could find and this one is just cool.
posted by klarck at 8:23 AM on July 25, 2006

When I have a problem around the house I normally tinker aronud with things I have around first. I assume this is standard, yes? Esp. if you're in a hurry. My first move, if I were in his shoes would be to try the VCR. It's worked many times here at work when I need to pick up the baseball game for coworkers. Simple. Costs nothing (obviously only if you have a VCR around the house). And it fixed the problem. If that wouldn't work, then I've move on to something else. Eventually buying something if nothing else worked. I'm not arguing as there is nothing to argue about. It's just something to try.

by analogue equipment I ment buying new equipment like boosters, those little coax filters, equipment ment for analogue signal. Where did this talk of DTV even come from, he wants to get rid of cable. I don't think he's going to invest in an hd box/new TV.
posted by killyb at 8:32 AM on July 25, 2006

That is an incredible resource. Thanks, klarck!
posted by Songdog at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2006

Thank you for the responses.

Clarifications: I live in Brooklyn, NY, so it's a pretty dense neighborhood, on a 6th floor of a 7-story apartment building.

VCR idea sounds good, I don't think I have one around though... I do have a DVD player, would that work?

Also, I did get a cable modem installed (from Cablevision), but I'm only using it for the Internet. In fact, I'm using the antenna from that to connect to my TV (one end of it after being split in two, the other end goes to the cable modem).
posted by zavulon at 10:10 AM on July 25, 2006

Oh, Brooklyn! You should be able to get digital television just fine. If you're going to spend money, I would move in that direction. The EyeTV 500 is really sweet if you have a Mac with a decent size monitor, then you can jettison the t.v. entirely and watch free HDTV.

The equip. is kind of pricey, at $300 for the tuner and $50 or so for an HDTV antenna (required). But it can pay for itself in less than a year vs. cable. (Not to mention the improved quality, and less time spent watching crappy programs because the t.v. is always on.)
posted by Doctor Barnett at 10:44 AM on July 25, 2006

Wow. Between killyb and zavulon, this thread is a complete derail. Nothing we're talking about here now involves over the air broadcast television signals.

Cable system signals are transmitted differently than broadcast signals. For killyb's benefit, it is quite possible that the Florida cable company is delivering a "hot" signal that is capable of swamping your sister's television tuners, if they are hooked up directly as CATV, and not through a cable box. Drops put in without corresponding cable boxes are often left "hot" by the installer, because they expect the user will be putting on their own splitters for additional TV's in other rooms, and they don't want to have to come back to raise the signal level out on the pole when that happens. Putting a VCR or DVD in apparently helps her, not because the VCR or DVD has a better tuner, but in fact, because it has a less sensitive tuner, that isn't swamped by the hot signal. A $2 passive splitter or anything else that inserts a 3 to 9db level loss might work as well as a VCR, in such a setup...

For zavulon's benefit, the set up you are running is not broadcast TV. You'd be getting broadcast signal if you disconnected your televisions entirely from the cable system, and put antennas on them. In Brooklyn, on the 6th floor of a 7 floor building, they might actually work on a simple indoor antenna. What you're getting now is either residual basic cable service signal, which may not have all local channels, leakage, or broadcast signal ingress. If you want to use the signal feed from the cable system, a competent technician can diagnose and fix the problem in a few minutes. Often, it's a simple matter of replacing wiring, installing filter, and setting the service parameters "on the pole" or from the service distribution point.
posted by paulsc at 11:11 AM on July 25, 2006

paulsc, the DTV people are talking about is broadcast DTV, received over the air via an antenna that picks up a relatively local transmission. From your first comment I thought you gathered that but after your last one I'm not so sure. The date has been pushed out at least once but U.S. broadcast TV stations are supposed to be all digital within three years, so setting up to receive OTA DTV now is not a bad idea, nor is it a derail.
posted by Songdog at 12:26 PM on July 25, 2006

"From your first comment I thought you gathered that but after your last one I'm not so sure."
posted by Songdog at 3:26 PM EST on July 25

Reminder to self: Stay out of TV technical topic threads.

Songdog, I don't see anything in my comments that could call into question whether I understand how DTV signals are broadcast, or received. From the standpoint of over the air signal reception, there is no substantive difference between the antennas and equipment you would use for conventional analog UHF TV reception, and DTV. Here's a pretty easy to understand FAQ from KQED that discusses the situation from the standpoint of one nationally known public broadcasting entity. DTV assignments are being made during the current transition period as UHF band co-assignments for existing VHF licensees, who may continue to broadcast VHF NTSC analog signals until the end of the transition period, in addition to their new DTV UHF signals. At the end of the transition period, they will give up their VHF assignments to the FCC, so that this valuable VHF spectrum can be reassigned for other uses, including public safety radio services, cell phone and data networks, and wireless networking and communications, where the physics of VHF bandwidth will be useful in overcoming transmission problems with low power, wide area services.

Peace, out.
posted by paulsc at 12:53 PM on July 25, 2006

I decided to get the antenna paulsc recommended, as it looks to be the cheapest solution. Thanks all for help!
I'll let you know how it works.
posted by zavulon at 1:24 PM on July 25, 2006

Calm down, folks.


As it happens, paulsc, we're splitting that drop about 6 ways, maybe 7. So if it was hot, it isn't anymore.

And paul's right, zav: if you have your TV *hooked up to the cable*, you're getting cable TV, not direct-broadcast.

It is very likely that *what's watchable on the cable* is the basic broadcast channels for your market, but why those wouldn't look as good as they should be expected to with a cable hookup, I don't know.

(In some markets, the cable company will actually give you broadcast basic very cheap or free, and (shhhh) there are lots of people ordering only cablemodem service, and splitting at the modem to get broadcast basic for free anyway.)
posted by baylink at 1:25 PM on July 25, 2006

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