Tuesday, September 10, 2013

OTA TV: It's Not Just About Cordcutting

Over-The-Air TV Can be a Great Add-on to Other Services Too

For some bizarre reason, people assume that if you use an antenna to watch TV you’re automatically a “cordcutter”. Truth be told there is actually a growing number of “cord-pinchers” or “cable squeezers” that have kept a foothold on their pay TV service yet added OTA as a secondary source to fit their TV needs.

In fact, this issue has been brought up many times in recent months as there is reason to believe this “unseen population” of Canadian consumers using OTA as a source for television is large enough to bump up the number of people using broadcast TV in urban areas in Canada from 1 in 10 to as much as 1 in 5 households.

The issue at hand is that in surveys done by the CRTC there is no clear identification of secondary sources of TV and usage rates. As soon as you are a pay TV or ITV customer at your address, the assumption by the Canadian government’s telecommunications giant is that your household is “on the grid” and has no use for the over-the-air signal being sent to you for free. As a result, this has led to a perceived small number of people that use broadcast TV services, affecting advertising demand and the way the regulator makes decisions that affect the broadcast industry and Canadian consumers as a whole.

With a bit of research and listening to some testimonials, your Average Joe has come across a whole number of savvy, cost-effective Canadians that have kept some aspect of a pay TV service and still use broadcast OTA TV. Here are some of these stories with the hopes of inspiring some of you out there to hop on the free TV bandwagon before the CRTC decides there is no bandwagon at all:

Secondary TVs
“The cost of adding another receiver for our TV in the kitchen was ridiculous. There was a flat fee to do the install and apparently a new switch or something was required as well and we would have had to drill holes in our walls to pass cable. It just wasn’t worth it for the hour of news I’d watch in the morning during breakfast and the background programming we like to have on when tidying up the dinner dishes.” This TV watcher got around the issue by simply hanging a flat indoor antenna to the wall, just above his wall mounted flatscreen TV. “It’s the perfect fit for our kitchen. We get all our major local stations, the image is crisp and the installation took up no room … no shelf for the receiver, no passing cables in the wall … I did it myself in an afternoon”.

Adding a flat antenna like the Mohu Leaf under a cabinet (above) or on the wall makes having a kitchen TV showing your local channels a space-saving breeze; regardless of the TV service you have in your living room.  Photo courtesy of www.gadgetreview.com

We’ve heard the same thing for countless other applications. “Did the cable company think I would pay over $150 for a HD receiver just to watch Jimmy Kimmel in my bedroom?” said another fellow using his indoor antenna as a secondary source of late night TV.

“I’m not watching Game of Thrones on my dinky TV when I’m on the treadmill … that’s what my home theatre basement setup is for. I just need something to distract me for an hour or so” said another TV viewer who opted for an antenna setup in their home gym. “Even from the basement, it was easy to get a coax going out to a wall-mounted compact antenna about 12 feet off the ground. Why would I pay a monthly rental fee for another receiver just for a few hours of TV a week?”

The pursists
“I couldn’t stand the simsubbing which meant missed plays and cut-off of the announcers” said one purist NFL fan that prides himself on his “dual feed setup” in his man cave on game days. “I catch CBS and NBC out of Buffalo and I’m not watching the hacked and slashed feed via my cable provider. I get the real commentary, the real commercial breaks and I don’t get interrupted when the post-game commentary comes on. Needless to say, our Super Bowl party is always at my house year after year and my friends are envious of my dual cable / antenna setup. I do need my cable feed to watch the weeknight games though so I wouldn’t be able to live without it.”  

Just in case …

Antennas seem to be the “Plan B” of choice for some satellite TV subscribers in case their signal goes down – sometimes due to bad local weather, rain fade, an issue at the uplink or snow accumulation on their dish during the winter. “Service calls take a while and are expensive, and it’s too dangerous to go up there on my own in the winter to clear off the snow and ice build-up. I use my antenna input to get by and usually after the sun gets at it for a few hours the dish is clear again” said one such user.

Don't be left out in the cold with no TV. A backup OTA TV setup can get you through those snowy patches as local OTA broadcasts are not affected in the same way as satellite signals by bad weather.

There are also more and more people also investing in handheld and battery TVs to get through blackouts and other types of emergencies / disasters. “We were without power for almost 3 days after a windstorm last summer. A portable TV antenna combo and a car adapter was our lifeline” said one such family.
New portable digital TVs use antennas to bring you crisp, HD pictures courtesy of your local broadcasters, even when the power or cable is out. Photo courtesy RCA.

Go mobile

“I laughed when I heard Bell Fibe was bragging about offering wireless TV receivers that can go anywhere; even outside” said one antenna aficionado “We’ve been doing that for years. My wife and I found it was such a shame to be stuck inside on a nice summer evening, and PVRing our shows to watch later at night was a no go as we’d fall asleep by then. We would routinely set up a small flatscreen outside and clamp an antenna to our railing for an evening of outdoor TV. I guess you can say we took the concept of having an outdoor living room to another level!” laughed one adventurous outdoor TV watcher. The highlight of his summer in fact was watching the Boston-Chicago Stanley Cup finals on CBC under the stars with some neighbourhood friends and some brewsies on his deck. When asked if the setup was difficult or cumbersome he said, “No, but we just have to find a way to keep the bugs off the darn TV screen!”
Watching TV a few feet from your house is one thing but what do you do when you’re a few miles out? TV antennas are still the TV provider of choice for the RV community, who once again because they have no address (and chances are their owners have cable at home) do not pop up anywhere on the CRTC surveys as OTA users.

Second addresses
There are many people that use antennas at secondary residences such as cottages. One ingenious person I talked to found a way to maximize the use of his pay TV satellite service by using his antenna.

“We have a 3-season cottage, and OTA reception up there is difficult. What we do is we had a satellite service installed at both our primary and secondary residences on the same account, and once we open the cottage we call our provider to swap our service form our city address to the cottage address.” This practice is a very well-kept secret amongst some providers who would rather get you to sign up twice at both addresses, and switching between either the primary or secondary address for satellite service is perfectly legal by the way.
“So this means we use our OTA setup in the city throughout the late spring, summer and early fall when we’re rarely there, but still nets us almost 30 channels. We PVR anything that we don’t have via OTA at the cottage and catch up on our viewing on the weekends when we head up. Then in the summer we’re up there for weeks at a time so we have our full service with us, and we swap back when we close up for winter. Our city OTA setup allows us to maximizes the flexibility in our satellite plan without having to pay a dime more”


“I was pouring money down the drain” said one garage shop owner who was paying a monthly cable bill for essentially one SD channel he had running on one TV in his waiting room. Through a referral from a friend, he paid a one-time setup that gave him almost 20 free digital channels via a roof-mount antenna, and a splitter to a newly purchased 2nd TV in his lunchroom as a bonus for his employees, funded with the money he saved by cancelling cable. “Once I got the facts it was a no-brainer to switch to an antenna. And to top it off, I’m now showing my clients an HD image.”

David vs Goliath
“I couldn’t stand the way (my pay TV provider) treated me.” Said one frustrated pay TV subscriber who also has an antenna in his attic.  “They would do anything to get me to sign on, and once they had me I was chopped liver. So I learnt my lesson, now I constantly shop around and drop my service once I’m not happy”. It seems to be a general consensus that pay TV subscribers everywhere are fed up with rising prices, outrageous add-on fees (why are you charging more for “digital service”?? Do you even support analog signals anyways?) and a Rubik’s cube of programming “packages” that satisfy only the interests of the people collecting the bills, not the customer. “Without an OTA setup I would never be able to pay hardball with these guys. They gave me grief about a credit they had promised me when I signed on, so after almost an hour of arguing I cancelled my service. What did I care, I still had almost 30 channels of free TV to fall back upon. Lo and behold a senior rep called back a week later and I was able to negotiate a better deal than I had before to re-sign. Since then they’re already raised the price on me twice so I’m keeping an eye on them … and because of my OTA setup running in parallel, I’m not afraid to pull the plug again if I see one more unreasonable hike. That’s the only way to send a message to the guys.”

Hopefully the above examples have (as a minimum) inspired some of you out there that it’s worth giving “cord-pinching” a shot by using a secondary TV setup by antenna– if not for convenience, for the health of your wallet and sanity of your finances.

Do you have any cord-pinching or cable-squeezing stories? Are you enjoying a free TV setup? Contact Average Joe today to share your story with us!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

September 1st: Over-the-Air Television's Day in the Sun

A Day to Appreciate Free TV

When people find out that I use (and strongly recommend) an antenna as a primary source of television, the reactions are quite interesting:

“You can still watch TV with an antenna?”

“Isn’t the picture fuzzy? Aren’t you always getting up and adjusting your rabbit ears?”

“Isn’t that illegal? I thought the RCMP shut that down and the boxes don’t work anymore?”

“Aren’t there only like, 2 channels???”

Enter Canadian National OTA DTV Broadcasting Day‏, or affectionately known in the online world as Canada’s “OTA Day” (#OTADay in the Twittersphere).  OTA Day is the anniversary of Canada’s digital TV transition, which for most people passed by without much fanfare two years ago today, at midnight on August 31st 2009.

The goal of this day to show appreciation for the various over-the-air broadcasters and the people that bring us local TV for free, and most importantly to raise awareness that OTA TV is still alive and well. In keeping with the spirit of this day, allow me to answer and elaborate on some of the major questions people have about watching TV via an antenna:
Yes, those rabbit ears still work
So what changed two years ago? Well, basically TV broadcasters got with the times and converted their equipment from analog to digital (think of the jump in quality when your old analog cellphones went digital, or when VHS tapes moved to DVD/BluRay). It was a huge investment and essentially rendered analog-only TV technology (which remained pretty much unchanged since the 60’s) obsolete. The good news is converter boxes can breathe new life into those analog-only TVs still in your home and if your TV is less than 6 years old, you’re already ready to receive the new digital signals.

This TV will need a converter but if you have a flatscreen, you’re already ready for DTV.
As for antennas, chances are you’re still good. As part of the transition, the TV broadcast spectrum was compressed meaning certain channels had to be relocated. The VHF-Lo bad of the spectrum was removed (channels 2 thru 6) and the UHF spectrum was capped at 51. So as long as your previous antenna was capable of receiving VHF-Hi and UHF channels, you’re good to go! If you’re in the market for a new antenna, the good news is this compressed range allowed manufacturers to improve and redesign their antennas with concentrated performance in this tighter range. The result is a new generation of smaller, more powerful antennas…. But I’ll get into that later.
No more fuzzy picture
Remember the days of trying in vain to move those rabbit ears and improve an image plagued by snow, static and ghosting images? Well those are a thing of the past. Just like when digital CDs eliminated the snap crackle and pop of vinyl records, the new digital tuners have filters and autocorrection that can remove these unwanted artifacts. The result is a crystal clear digital image coming in at resolutions as high as 720p or 1080i, and 5.1 sound. Some will argue that the picture quality is even better than satellite or cable due to the fact that over-the-air television is not compressed.
The only drawback? Digital reception is hit or miss – you will have a clear image until signal strength drops below 30%, where the tuner will not be able to display anything.

Check out the difference between analog (NTSC) vs digital (ATSC) broadcast technology via side-by-side real-time splitscreen in this video link. (Courtesy YouTube.com)
Over-The-Air TV is not illegal TV
OTA TV is governed by Industry Canada and the CRTC here in Canada and the FCC south of the border, similar to our local radio stations. And just like with radio, it is completely free and legal to receive this signal as long as you purchase the required equipment and that the broadcaster has a licence approved by the CRTC. Most broadcasters transmit over-the-air either because of legacy local TV stations and to have certain rights on local cable channels which pay lucrative amounts to re-transmit their signal to subscribers. In the beginning, cable TV was merely a community antenna (known as a cable head end) that received over-the-air TV signals and transmitted them via a coax cable system to subscribers at a minimal fee. Over time, cable only channels were added and we have the monster telcos that we have now, but the base channels are mostly still free locals!
Unfortunately, the term “free TV” has got a bad reputation because of illegal practices done in the late 90’s involving illegally modified satellite receiver boxes ("stolen TV" would be a better term in this case). People would modify set-top receivers intended for reception of legally free and unencrypted satellite TV channels to decode encrypted pay channels from service providers like Dish Network and DirectTV (legal unencrypted channels exist carried on international telecom satellites like international news channels and religious programming). Anti-piracy technology was put in place and authorities cracked down on the main sources of the modified hardware, essentially ending this practice.
Channel selection
If you live in an urban area and especially an urban area near the US border, you are in a free TV goldmine. The main complaint about over-the-air TV was that there weren’t enough channels. Sure, you won’t get the Pay TV only specialty channels (TSN, Discovery, CNN) but since the US and Canadian digital transition, channel selection has actually increased.
In the Toronto and Montreal areas, there are actually more free over-the-air channels, mostly due to the fact US stations adopted multicasting, a new technology that allows multiple programming to be broadcast on one channels. For example, a FOX affiliate added CW programming as its secondary. PBs stations can go 2 or 3 subchannels deep, adding networks like CREATE and WorldView.
You don’t necessarily need a hulking antenna
A lot of people think of TV antennas as heavy, large, clunky eyesores perched upon rusty towers. The fact of the matter is that while those antennas will still work with DTV signals, the digital transition sent a lot of antenna manufacturers back to the drawing board and consumers are reaping the benefits with new products. Super-compact antennas exist that are the size of a paperback book or even stick on a window can be used to replace rabbit ears and bring in local channels. Slightly larger antennas that are no bigger than a satellite dish can replace enormous deep fringe hardware in most markets. These new compact DTV antennas are even inconspicuous enough to be installed on apartment/condo balconies or other areas with no roof access. For example, in Montreal an antenna the size of a BBQ grill has enough gain packed into its design that it can bring in all line-of-sight channels.
Yet not all antennas are created equal – to find the best one for your particular location consult with a local antenna retailer, the manufacturer or visit the wealth of knowledge available on reputable online forums.
New antennas like the razor-thin Mohu Leaf indoor antenna (top), Winegard FlatWave AIR (center) and Antennas Direct Clearstream series (bottom) are new compact antennas that pack a lot of punch in a small package.
Over-The-Air broadcasting is not dead
In Canada, history was made in early 2013 as for the first time ever Pay TV companies lost subscribers for two financial quarters in a row. Skyrocketing bills, unreasonable fees, constraints in programming packages and bad service have more and more Canadians cutting the cord and looking for other options. So where have these viewers gone? For many in urban areas, over-the-air television has filled in to provide a good solid free channel base and some users couple this with streaming services to add speciality programming at a much more cost effective rate (Netflix, Apple TV)

It's a fact: cordcutting has come to Canada as consumers fume over rising prices (amongst other things).
In fact, using the example of Montreal, the city saw a rebirth of OTA with the national network CityTV recently setting up shop by buying out smaller outfit Metro 14; and a for the first time in over 20 years a new broadcast channel has installed a new transmitter and is set to launch in the coming month (Canal ICI). Other broadcasters in the city like V-Tele upgraded their transmitters to feed a wider OTA audience as their first installation was inadequate and was met with complaints from a larger-than-anticipated OTA-only TV following in the city.
On a larger scale, antenna manufacturers have reported a surge in sales in North America and new antennas continue to show up on the market and succeed. Tivo launched its newest Roamio products with built-in DTV tuners and a plethora of devices are flooding the market to get people to watch antenna TV on laptops, iPads and even turn home computers into fully customizable DVRs.

Sales in antennas have boomed (top) since broadcast TV went digital and new products keep coming out, like the HD HomeRun (above) which adds an OTA TV feed to your home WiFi network. (Photo courtesy NewEgg.ca)
OTA Day is also a sign of the growing resurgence of the popularity of broadcast TV. A growing community is showing its support and appreciation for the people who create and provide us with free TV and locally produced programming. Even retailers are jumping on board to use this weekend to provide boxing-day type sales on OTA gear.

Online OTA mega-retailers like Angel Electronics (above) and Save And Replay are some of the retailers offering OTA Day sales and promotions this weekend.

If you are a want-to-be cordcutter or just a savvy consumer looking to keep the money in your pocket and out of those of the Pay TV executives, do not discount the opportunities presented by over-the-air broadcast TV. And if you already are enjoying the services of your local OTA broadcasters, don’t be shy to take some time today to send them a note, email, call or tweet to thank them for their OTA feed.
Happy OTA Day everyone from your one and only Average Joe!