Ditching the Dish: A guide to cable cutting and over the air televison

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Not long ago, I was sitting on the couch scrolling through the channel guide looking for something to watch.  Click, click, nope, click, click, nope.  I scrolled through the list three times in search of something interesting, something new.  I passed several movies I’ve seen three times.  I’ve noticed many channels seem to replay the same shows and movies over and over, and sometimes all day long, back to back.  155+ channels are touted by my satellite provider, yet I can’t find anything to watch.  How much am I paying for this, I thought?   Well, our family has three TVs, Satellite HD service and a whole home DVR, which gets me a bill for $146 per month.   That’s right, I pay $1752 a year for TV and I can’t find anything to watch.  Over the course of 10 years, that’s more than $17,000.    This is stupid, I thought, so as a mental exercise I started to review what I did watch and which channels offered the majority of the programs I cared about.   As it turns out, we watch more broadcast TV than anything else, meaning networks with over-the-air (OTA) signals like CBS, NBC, ABC, CW, FOX and PBS.   Can’t I get that with an antenna, I thought?   As a child of the 70s, I grew up with OTA TV, but the prospect of going back to just 9 or 10 channels wasn’t that appealing.  It didn’t take much research to determine that OTA TV has a lot more to offer than when I was a kid.

What started as a mental exercise quickly developed into an obsession.  A quick search found numerous resources on the internet that offered guides to OTA TV and the deeper I looked into it the more optimistic I became about the possibility of ditching that satellite bill entirely.   Sources like nocable.org can take your street address and show you what you can receive over the air based on your distance from local transmitters.    Since I live in Southern California, I’m only about 33 miles from most major transmitter towers, which places them within reach of a modest antenna.  Nocable.org revealed there were 23 HD signals in my range.   Other sources, such as antennasdirect.com indicated that there are a total of 146 OTA channels available, some in HD and many of them in standard definition, but 146 was impressive.  In fact, the actual number turned out to be 148.   Follow along and I’ll tell you how I got 148 channels and explain what worked and what didn’t work.

Ditching your cable or satellite service is a big deal and I had two others on my house to consider.  Both my 14 year-old son and wife were open to the idea, but they wanted to see what we could get before making a decision.  I took this as a challenge.   The first step was trying to find an antenna.  There are several indoor models that were highly rated, but whether or not they’d work depended on a variety of factors, such as the location of the TV in your house.  My master bedroom is on my home’s second level on the south side of the building.  The signal comes from the northwest.   I figured the upstairs TV would have an easier time receiving signals through walls than the downstairs TV, so I tried the 1byone 50 mile paper thin indoor antenna.  At $20, it offered impressive results and it immediately picked up 148 channels.  I was shocked.  What was more impressive is the HD picture was slightly better than the one from my satellite provider.  I later learned that cable and satellite providers compress HD signals to increase the available bandwidth they have to work with.  OTA transmitters send uncompressed signals and the picture is awesome.  There was no snow, or scrolling lines like I recall from childhood, just a rock solid, crystal clear image.  It seem with digital either you get the channel or not.  There isn’t a lot of in between.  Once you connect the antenna, you have to switch modes on your TV from “cable” to “antenna” and scan for channels.  This takes a few minutes for the TV to search for all that are available, but once that’s done, you’re good to go.   Additionally, since many networks like CBS, NBC and ABC offer multiplexed signals, there are generally 2 or more channel signals offered by each network and may show up as 2-1, 2-2, 4-1, 4-2, etc.   The primary one is the normal HD signal (if offered) that you’d expect, but there are several standard definition channels running different shows on each feed. I couldn’t believe it was this easy.

Okay, so now I need to test the TV downstairs.  Well, this is where I got frustrated.   My living room TV is on the bottom floor, also on the south side of my home.  The additional floor was just too much for the antenna deal with.  I was missing key channels that were important to me.  I tried other thin indoor antennas costing twice as much but couldn’t pull in those much desired channels.  Line filters and powered amplifiers made no difference.

I know a little about antennas, having built one for aviation monitoring with my handheld scanner, but  just enough to be dangerous.  I did know the bigger the antenna the bigger the gain.   I live in a town home, so an outdoor antenna was out of the question, but a larger attic mounted model could work.  Through my research, I also learned that the walls and roof of the house can take 10-20 miles off the rating of the antenna.   I therefore started to research 60-70 mile models, but I still had a few criteria.   I wanted it small enough so that it did not takeover my attic, which I used for storage, and I also wanted a passive antenna.  There had to be no powered amplifiers to deal with.   I felt that would be the achilles heel of the antenna.  Based on my research and numerous reviews, I narrowed it down the Antenna Direct ClearStream 2MAX UHF/VHF Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antenna and the Channel Master ULTRAntenna 60.  Both were rated at 60+ miles and reviewers from various sights gave them both high marks.  The Antenna Direct ClearStream 2MAX included a mounting mast and mounting bracket and was in stock at my local Wal-Mart. I bought it along with a 25 ft coaxial cable (sold seperatly) and mounted the antenna temporaility for testing.  Only after I was certain it would work wold I fish the cable down inside the wall where I could plug it into the prewired coax in the house.    I knew to mount the antenna high enough in the attic to be above any roof flashing that can run about two feet from the edge of the eves and can block signals.   This ensured I gave the antenna every advantage.   It also took a little bit to get it pointed accurately.  An antenna needs to be pointed in the direction of the transmitters.  The ClearStream 2MAX has a beam angle of 60 degrees, so even if you’re off a little, you’ll still receive the signals.   Antennas Direct offered direction help so you know what compass bearing you can find the transmitters.   The vast majority of local transmitters were located at a compass bearing of 329.65 degrees (true) from my house, so armed with a compass, and a helper at the end of a walkie-talkie (you can use cell phones), my son watched the picture, changed channels and gave feedback as I made adjustments.   I made several small adjustments, used the TV’s auto-channel scan feature to scan for new channels each time, but after a few iterations, voila!  148 channels.   Now, in the interest of full disclosure, many of the channels were dedicated religious or foreign language, which may or may not be useful to you.  After sorting through all the channels and eliminating those that were unimportant to me, I ended up with 64 useful channels and the content is great.

Knowing our needs and to ensure a positive experience, I supplemented the OTA TV with two streaming services, Netflix and Hulu.  We also have accounts with VUDU and Amazon for renting newer movies to make up for the lack of pay-per-view.   At $18 per month for both streaming services, this seemed like a reasonable alternative to satellite.  You can even piggy-back premium networks like Showtime and HBO on some of these services or add newer services like Sling TV to round out a cable-like experience at a fraction of the cost.  It may be relevant to note that I have a cable modem and dependable WiFi capable of delivering 70Mb download speeds, making the streaming services perform at their max resolutions, even if multiple TV’s and devices are running.  I suspect 10Mb is all that is required for two TVs, but more is better, I say.

After several weeks of use, we found the lack of a channel guide and DVR were detracting from our enjoyment.  Even though TV Guide offers free smartphone apps, it wasn’t the same as the scroll and click capability of channel selection we were accustomed to.   Our bedroom TV is a newer Samsung smart TV, which can build a guide with OTA data, but it’s slow.  The living room TV is a 10 year-old Sharp Aquos, which can’t build a guide at all.   After some research, we ended up purchasing a Tivo Roamio 4-channel OTA DVR for $399.   It has a lifetime subscription to TiVo’s excellent guide service and performs like a cable or satellite box.  Additionally, it has a 1TB hard drive, 4 built-in tuners so I can record 4 shows at once, and it’s loaded with all the apps needed to run streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, VUDU, You Tube and even Pandora and iHeartRadio.  Our Samsung had these apps built in, but the Sharp didn’t so we had been running them on our son’s Xbox One, but the TiVo just makes it easier because we don’t need to boot up another device or switch inputs.    I had considered a Channel Master DVR+ due to its low cost and subscription free guide service.  At only $249, it’s a bargain, but you have to add your own external hard drive (another $50).  The DVR+ doesn’t have a built in hard drive and only offers two tuners and no streaming apps.  Although we had an alternative with the Xbox, the 4 tuners and ability to expand to a whole home system with the addition of a TiVo Mini ultimately sold me on the TiVo system over the Channel Master.   Over the coming months, we plan to add a TiVo Mini ($149) to our upstairs TV, which will communicate with the Romaio for a whole home DVR system.  We can add up to 11, so expandability isn’t a problem.  The TiVo mini is not WiFi enabled like the Roamio, so you’ll need a WiFi bridge to receive a wireless signal and allow you to plug in your TiVo mini with a network cable.

Cost to date for the antenna, coax, and TiVo Roamio is $524, which will be paid back in just over 4 months, factoring the savings from dropping satellite plus the monthly costs of the new streaming services.  On a go forward basis we expect to save just over $1500 per year and so far, we haven’t regretted the decision one bit.  We’ve found great content that we didn’t know existed and still have access to 95% of what we liked with satellite at a fraction of the cost.

I will say that the number one advantage I had going in was a good wireless network.   Adding the devices wasn’t difficult by any stretch, but having a basic understanding of wireless networking, not to mention a fast broadband internet connection make this project both fun and rewarding.

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About Author

Chris Morrison

Chris is an avid amateur astronomer, birder, photographer and general nature and science nut. He was a Vice President at a major telescope manufacturer, where he was directly involved in product development and testing for much of his 15 year tenure. His passion for all things science and nature is what led him to found localmeridian.com, an online outlet for his desire to share his love of the natural world.

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