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
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
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!