Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Revenge of the Rabbit Ears – Could an OTA setup be for you?

Is it time to go back to broadcast? Here are some tips and tests to help you decide.

I know why I switched from antenna to cable. In fact, I’m pretty sure you all know the story too well – the crappy picture, the static and snow, the constant adjustments and limited choice of channels. The extra cost of a cable / satellite subscription seemed reasonable given all these issues. But what would happen if all these issues were gone? What if the picture quality was perfect and the amount of channels increased … without the monthly bill? Would you consider switching back?

Here are a couple of easy tests and exercises I’ve done in the past and recommended to others to better understand their television habits and to give them a better understanding of what options they should pursue. Feel free to give them a try to see if an OTA setup may work with your TV watching habits.

Test 1: How much does it cost you to watch TV per year?

Take a few minutes to pull those bills out of the filing cabinet and fire up the old calculator. How much do you spend on TV per year? How much of that is tax going into the pockets of the government (GST, PST or HST)? Don’t forget to add in the cost of any receivers, installation fees, and equipment rentals. Are there any of these fees that you feel are a bit extorting (such as an “HD” fee or charges for having multiple receivers)?

Your yearly cost for cable or satellite is most likely easily into the three digit figures, in some cases even into the four digits (seriously, I know a guy who spent $85 a month for TV + receiver rentals … you do the math). Now think about your other expenses this past year – were you short on money for anything else? Could this pay TV money have been better spent elsewhere? It’s important to know exactly how much of an impact this has on your wallet.

Test 2: Do you really use all those channels?

Would you leave your lights on overnight or hot water running in the shower after you leave for work? Would you subscribe to a monthly magazine that you only read one page of and then chuck in the trash? Of course not! We don’t like to pay fees for something that we’re not using, that would be a waste of money. So what about that monthly bill for all those channels and extra packages … how often are you using those? Why is the cable bill exempt from the scrutiny you give the electric and gas utility bills?

Here’s a great little test that helps you understand your “channel consumption” and is especially useful if you’re in a multi-member household where each person claims they need to watch this show and that show.

On your cable or satellite receiver (or even directly on some TVs) start locking out certain channels that you think nobody is watching anymore and see how long it takes before someone notices and asks you to unlock them again. You may be surprised at what you find – maybe it’s time to cancel some extras or trim back that a-la-carte package to 15 channels instead of 30. Perhaps you’ll find your kids have grown out of the cartoon channel phase, or even that your family is now spending more time on the internet instead of watching TV. If a month (or two) goes by with a bunch of locked out channels and nobody missed them, it’s time to seriously think about scaling back and saving on those monthly fees.

Test 3: Which of your favourite shows are available locally for free?

I was actually surprised with the results when I did this test on my household. This one requires a bit more internet legwork but can be worth it in the long run. The main goal is to find out what channels and shows are available for free in your area. If the majority of them are, then why are you paying to watch them?

First step is to go see what’s being broadcast in your area for free on a site such as Zap2It:

Once you’re on the TV listing page, enter your location using your Canadian Postal Code

Then select Broadcast to see which channels and networks are broadcasting in your area for free.

Browse the schedules and take a look at what is available on this list and compare the programming to what you’re currently watching on your pay subscription service. I was surprised to find how much network TV my family actually watched. My wife’s primetime dramas were all available from broadcast. So were the daytime talks, sitcoms and reality shows. The big hockey games and other sports events were there. Even an MTV reality show my kids can’t miss about a certain bunch of yahoos hanging out on the New Jersey shoreline was available on a local Canadian broadcast network once a week at midnight.

You may be surprised at what you may find is available for free. For example, a local NBC affiliate broadcasts a movie-only subchannel that shows classic and contempory films (such as “Flyboys” with James Franco, top) and the CBS affiliate has a 24-hour weather and news update channel (bottom).

Now look at what’s leftover – what are the shows that your pay subscription service is providing that you can’t get from broadcast? In the end, I was surprised to find that my family was renting receivers and paying almost $40 a month for one reno show, a home decor specialty program and another reality TV show about teen moms. Not exactly the best value for our money, considering I could buy the whole DVD box set of each of these series and still have cash to spare at the end of the year.

Depending on the results of this test, you may want to start looking at alternatives. This can include considering a digital OTA setup with a one-time setup cost to take advantage of the free broadcasts, ether as a replacement or to compliment a scaled-back cable/satellite TV package.

Test 4: Can the authentic, unaltered broadcast from an OTA setup improve your TV experience?

While cable and satellite companies argue over who has the best image quality, OTA HD broadcasts are quietly drawing more and more rave reviews from viewers. Fact is there is only so much you can cram into a satellite signal or coax cable, heck even fiber-optic. OTA on the other hand, has entire bandwidths of real estate to let HD signals stretch their legs. Therefore OTA DTV providers broadcast without any compression of the image feed. What you’re receiving is digital television - and where applicable, 1080i HDTV - in its purest form.

I also mentioned in my first post how local cable and satellite companies practice sim-subbing (short for simultaneous substitution) of commercials coming from American broadcasters. This is why you can’t watch the “real” SuperBowl commercials on cable/satellite in Canada. This is also why sometimes you may find that certain shows cut to an advertisement too early or seem to come back from commercial when already in progress.

If you live near the border, you may be lucky enough to have the option of receiving the direct American network broadcast via those TV signals slipping over the 49th parallel. For example, Toronto benefits from transmissions coming from Buffalo, NY and Montreal residents can easily pick up signals from northern Vermont. If having the option of watching unaltered US network programming is of interest to you, simply go to and perform a lookup with your Canadian postal code to see what programming crosses the border into your area.

On the US DTV website, check out the reception maps (top). Simply type in your city or postal code and you’ll get a list of American OTA networks whose broadcasts reach your area and how strong the signals are at your location (bottom).

Think about it: crisp images and an unaltered feed… you may just be the hero the next time the SuperBowl party is at your house.

Ready for more?

Be one with your TV. Take time to bond together and learn, and to be honest with one another. Find your true inner TV viewer and discover your deepest TV-watching desires. Take some time to do these little tests over the next few weeks. If you end up thinking an OTA setup could be interesting for you - whether it be for financial reasons or just to add some more flexibility and choice to your TV viewing experience - well, you're in luck as I'll be discussing the types of setups next.

Next episode: What are some possible OTA setup scenarios?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Revenge of the Rabbit Ears – The Digital Transition

The broadcast spectrum changes – and so does the picture on your TV screen.

Up until now, you could take that old black-and-white TV out of the attic, plug it in and sure enough you could watch a show or two. Why? Well, television broadcast technology hadn’t changed much since the advent of colour TV. Even then it was based on the same standards and resolutions as the early heydays. Sure the vacuum tubes were gone, clunky dials were replaced with remote controls and flat screens appeared … but the underlying tuner technology just didn’t fit in with the digital age.

Cue the digital transition. Across the world, governing bodies and TV technological consortiums planned the new standards for terrestrial digital broadcast (fancy term for “not the analog broadcasting we used when TVs still came as wooden floor models”). The result: the biggest change in television history. Out goes the old analog (NTSC) tuner, in comes the new digital (ATSC) tuner.

As I mentioned in my last post, think of an old vinyl record being compared to a CD. With a record, every scratch, fleck of dust and jump of the needle resulted in the famous hisses and pops, while a CD provides clear, crisp sound even with a few scuffs here and there on the surface. That’s sort of how analog and digital TV stack up against each other. The old analog tuner had no choice but to follow the incoming signal line for line, much like the needle going along the groove of the record. Any disturbance, reflection or interference resulted in the static, snow and ghosting that plagued antenna-based TV. With the new DTV signal, the analog waves are gone and replaced with a digital data stream beaming from the tower to your TV. So much extra picture information is contained in the broadcast that the digital tuner is able to process even the most contaminated signals to display the images cleaned and refined. (Look up “forward error correction” on Wikipedia if you’re interested in how the signal gets “fixed”) In the end what does this mean? Goodbye fuzzy pictures, hello crisp 1080i HD image… all from an antenna.

Same TV, same antenna, two different worlds. Check out the difference between the analog (top) and digital (bottom) signal. Now you can watch Don Cherry in glorious 1080i and Dolby 5.1 (don’t say we didn’t warn you).

To see the difference in action, simply do a YouTube search of “NTSC vs ATSC” and watch various examples of how your TV can almost miraculously pull HD TV off the airwaves where there was only static and snow before. My favorite video is this one that does a split screen side-by-side comparison of the analog signal vs the digital signal, you can access it here:

Here are some other key things you should know about digital broadcast TV:

Believe it or not, it’s still free!

The biggest advantage with OTA DTV is that besides the initial cost of equipment (which for some people may already be zero) it’s free to watch. Try asking your cable or satellite company about switching from analog to digital and you know the drill – you’ll have to buy all new receivers and of course sign up for the HD package and pay the wonderful HD fees that come with it. So with OTA, you can’t beat that deal.

DTV does not necessarily have to be only HDTV

DTV does not necessarily mean HD. Sure DTV can deliver uncompressed 1080i signals that are crisper than satellite and cable, but the DTV requirement is only that stations broadcast digitally (For USA: June 13th, 2009 and for Canada :August 31st, 2011). This means that in certain cases your TV set will still benefit from the “clean” digital signals but the resolution may be 1080, 720 or even 480.

DTV is the base of HDTV. While all 3 mean digital TV, the 2 top logos are to identify equipment that is ready for terrestrial DTV broadcasts. HDTV refers exclusively to the highest quality of DTV possible.

So why is this important? Well, if your TV has the DTV logo on its casing or in its user manual, that means you’re ready to go for digital OTA right out of the box. In this case, your TV is your receiver - just slap on an antenna and no additional cost is required.

Digital means binary: 1 or 0. Just like your image will either be on or off, but not in between.

With digital signals there are no more “snowy, but watchable” channels – either you get crystal clear reception ... or nothing. Most new TVs and OTA receivers will have a built in signal strength meter to help you point your antenna and maximize DTV signal reception. Obviously, you want the signal as strong as possible as it means you are getting a clear, strong stream of digital data from the transmitter tower and the tuner is doing minimal corrections.

Ready, aim and fire - unlike the analog days, new TVs have built-in signal meters to help point your antenna and maximize DTV signal reception.

As the strength decreases and more errors are introduced, the tuner is working harder; it is replacing missing bits of info needed to build the picture. Once your reception drops down to 10-20% the sound may start to degrade and you will begin to see freezing or “marcoblocking” - large coloured squares that will make the hockey game look more like a Picasso painting. Marcoblocking is what happens when there are large chunks of contaminated data in the signal and the tuner does not have enough info to clean the image. Any signal degradation beyond this and you’ll have no picture at all.

The various stages of DTV reception: Perfect picture (top) until the signals drops to about 10-20%, at which point your TV will go neo-cubist on you and macroblocking occurs (middle). At this point as well the audio will start to sound like a T-Pain song. Anything below this and you'll get the “signal screen of death” (bottom) … which I guess is still better than the old blast of black and white static of the analog days.

Virtual channels – and you thought imaginary numbers didn’t exist

While it would be great to think that the government and TV manufacturers pushed all these upgrades because they wanted to give the consumers a better television experience, fact is that wasn’t the only reason for the shift. Here's a bit of background info so bear with me:

The FCC and other governing bodies that assign and allocate the bandwidth for aerial transmission is using the digital transition to move some things around in the broadcast spectrum. One goal is to make room to sell the airwaves for more wireless products and emergency communication and to make more efficient digital use of the suddenly crowded broadcast frequencies. Like an old industrial building being knocked down to put up new condos, the FCC has taken a wrecking ball to the low VHF bands. As part of the digital transition, all VHF-Low stations are required to vacate and broadcast on a different frequency. That means no more channels 2 through 6, the new digital stations have to be either VHF-Hi (7-13) or UHF (14-69).

What this resulted in was a shuffling of the broadcast spectrum. However, because the relocated stations didn’t want to spring for new letterhead, if desired they were allowed to broadcast on one frequency but the TV would “re-map” them to the old channel number, now called the “virtual channel” number. For example, good old Channel 3 from northern Vermont shows as channel 3.1 on the TV … but is actually broadcasting on UHF channel 22.

This relocation and remapping may not really matter on the TV remote, but the shuffle can mean that certain channels may be broadcasting on new frequencies that may be easier (or harder) to receive in your area. A station you could not get in the analog days may suddenly come in at the new frequency, but also vice versa.

Sub-channels – and no, I don’t mean a channel dedicated to Philly steak sandwiches

One advantage with digital signals is that the data transmissions are more efficient than analog. As a result, for the same bandwidth DTV stations can broadcast more channels: a primary and multiple “sub-channels”. Sub-channels are represented by the number that comes after the decimal place or hyphen in the DTV channel number. For example 4.2 or 4-2 is the second sub-channel on channel 4 (which may not actually be channel 4 as per above… confusing, eh?) This means two things: first, you’re getting more channels than the analog days if the stations around you are using their sub-channels. (By the way: these sub-channels, since they are not real channels, will not show up for cable or satellite subscribers, another OTA advantage.) Second, your remote now has a cool hyphen so that you can dial in 4 – 2 for channel 4.2

No, it’s not to do math – it’s to cruise sub-channels.

The number of sub-channels per station is dependent on the image quality. Usually only the primary channel is broadcast in 1080 or 720 while the sub-channels will be in standard 480 definition, or audio only. The less the resolution of the channels, the more channels can be crammed into the digital signal. Most stations will stop at about 1 to 3 subchannels as a result, but there are exceptions.

One example of sub-channel use is WANN-TV in Atlanta, which currently has a whopping 15 sub-channels and still room to spare under its primary channel (which ironically is just a program guide for all its sub-channels). Screenshot and more info courtesy of

Guide and program info – just like the big boys have

DTV signals are full of so much data that not only is there enough info crammed in there to correct all the blips and errors as mentioned above, but there is also enough to provide program info. Most TVs will interpret this as on-screen info and as a built-in channel guide or list.

No more flipping through the pages of TV Weekly - the DTV on-screen info and guide is right at your fingertips. How much is this costing me again? Oh yeah, nothing.

So that’s your digital transition background info. I’ll be going into the various DTV tuners, receivers, antennas and what to do if your TV is an old clunker in the coming weeks. If you can’t wait, feel free to browse the following DTV sites for more info:

The American version that guided viewers through the US transition in 2009 contains tons of excellent info presented in a simple format:

And here is the poorer, Canadian version of that website from Heritage Canada in case anyone is interested… *sigh*

Next episode: Can an OTA Setup be right for you?