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What Is Over-the-Air (OTA) TV?

Learn how to get local channels without cable with our expert guide.

What is over-the-air (OTA) TV?

Over-the-air (OTA) TV is high-definition television broadcast from local television stations in your area. The only things you need to enjoy it are a TV and a digital antenna. You can even use an OTA DVR to record live TV.

Overall, OTA TV is a cheap way to get local news, nationally televised sports, and primetime TV on ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and more.

Recommended OTA TV equipment

  • 50-mile range
  • Indoor mounting
  • 1080p HD support
  • Up to 8 TB of external storage
  • 4 tuners
  • 30-day Tablo Premium trial incl.

Recent history of OTA TV

Back in 2009, the FCC mandated that the country switch from analog to digital television. At the beginning of that year, over 10% of households1 in the US had TVs that weren’t ready to support the new digital format.

When the big day came, about a quarter of those households had decided to upgrade to cable or satellite television while the rest opted for a digital converter box.

After that, a lot of us forgot about the way we used to watch our favorite shows. But just because our rabbit-ear antennas went away doesn’t mean that local television did.

It’s still all around us, being broadcast over the air from local stations. As opposed to satellite, cable, or fiber TV, this television service is called broadcast TV or over-the-air TV.

Pros and cons of OTA TV

Pros

  • No monthly charges
  • Local news and sports
  • Simple equipment

Cons

  • Small channel lineup
  • Lack of technical support
  • Must be within range of a broadcasting station
  • Channel guides costs extra

To watch OTA TV, all you need is a television set and an OTA antenna. There won’t be a cable provider technician to set everything up for you, but many antennas can be easily mounted indoors.

You can snag a slick-looking antenna for about $20–$50, but you may have to fork out more money if you’re not near a broadcasting station. We’ll go over that further in the OTA Antennas section below.

You’ll be set to watch local news channels and the big game, but your favorite cable channels won’t be available and neither will the chance to upgrade to premium channels.

And unless you purchase an OTA DVR and a channel guide subscription, you’ll be left flipping through that tiny channel lineup like it’s the Dark Ages, no clue of when or where your favorite shows will air.

How to get local channels without cable

Like we mentioned earlier, the equipment for OTA TV is simpler than most cable TV equipment. The basics are just a TV and an OTA antenna.

You can also add an OTA DVR to your cart if you want to record shows, and some even come with the option of a channel guide subscription, which will come in handy.

OTA antennas

Your OTA antenna is essential to receiving TV broadcasts. Consider whether you’re interested in an indoor- or outdoor-mounted antenna. Don’t worry, the indoor ones look sleek—no rabbit ears here. They’re also much easier to install than outdoor ones.

More importantly, make sure you get an antenna with a far enough range to get all the broadcasted TV near you. You may need a very powerful one if you live in a rural area, and those can get a little pricey.

To figure out which antenna is best for you, use this FCC tool to see where nearby television stations are located and how strong their signals are.

Best for Strong Signals

mohu metro 30

Mohu Leaf Metro TV Antenna

  • 25-mile range (best for cities)
  • Indoor mounting
  • 1080p HD support

Best for Moderate Signals

Mohu Leaf 50

Mohu Leaf 50

  • 50-mile range (best for suburbs)
  • Indoor mounting
  • 1080p HD support

Best for Weak Signals

1byone TV Antenna 4K 1080P Foldable HD Digital Indoor

1byone 120 Miles Foldable

  • 120-mile range (best for rural areas)
  • Indoor mounting
  • 1080p and 4K Ultra HD support

Best OTA Antennas

DVR for antenna TV

While it’s not essential to enjoying OTA TV, the right OTA DVR can be a big help. Some OTA DVRs are little more than a glorified VCR (remember recording shows on VHS tapes?), but others offer channel guide subscriptions so you don’t have to just channel surf and hope for the best.

A few OTA DVRs, like TiVo Edge and TiVo BOLT, even double as streaming devices, working like a Roku or Apple TV would.

Additionally, pay attention to anything extra your OTA DVR of choice requires. If you don’t have a smart TV, you may need to pair your DVR with a streaming device like Roku or Amazon Fire TV to watch your recordings.

Or, if you choose a DVR without internal storage, you’ll need to make sure you pair it with a USB hard drive. While that might seem like a hassle at first glance, the advantage of external storage is that you basically have infinite storage space as long as you have more hard drives handy.

Best for Streaming TV

Tivo Edge for Antenna

  • 6 tuners (record 6 shows at a time)
  • 2 TB memory (up to 300 hrs. in HD)
  • Req. streaming device and TiVo Service subscription

Best for External Storage

Tablo Quad OTA DVR

  • No onboard storage; supports external memory up to 8 TB
  • 4 tuners (record 4 shows at a time)
  • No HDMI; req. smart TV or streaming device
  • 30-day channel guide and Tablo Premium trial

Best Budget DVR

Tablo Dual LITE [TDNS2B-01-CN] Over-The-Air [OTA] Digital Video Recorder

Tablo Dual LITE OTA DVR

  • No onboard storage; supports external memory up to 8 TB
  • 2 tuners (record 2 shows at a time)
  • No HDMI; req. smart TV or streaming device
  • 30-day channel guide and Tablo Premium trial

Best DVRs for antenna TV

  • Tivo Edge for Antenna ($349.99): 6 tuners; 2TB onboard memory
  • Tablo Quad OTA DVR ($199.99): 4 tuners; external memory up to 8TB (sold separately); requires smart TV or streaming device
  • Tablo Dual LITE OTA DVR ($125.99): 120-mile range; 2 tuners; external memory up to 8TB (sold separately); requires smart TV or streaming device

Final take: Is OTA TV worth it?

Ultimately, whether OTA TV is the best choice for you depends on your TV-watching style. If you like having access to cable channels, it’s not going to be a good fit, and we’d recommend going with a cable provider. Use our ZIP tool below to see which providers are available in your area.

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But if you’re satisfied with a few local channels, OTA TV is probably the way to go. It can also be a good choice if you rely heavily on streaming TV already, but want a few live channel options as well. Between Netflix and OTA TV, you’ll certainly never run out of shows to watch, although you might not always have access to the new hotness.

What do you think? Ready to make the switch to OTA TV? Or are you sticking with your satellite, cable, or fiber TV provider? Let us know in the comments below!

What is over-the-air (OTA) TV? FAQ

In what direction should I point my over-the-air (OTA) antenna?

You should point your over-the-air (OTA) antenna toward local station broadcast towers. These locations are generally easy to find online.

Can you still get TV over the air?

You can still get TV over the air. The best way to pick up your local broadcast channels is to buy an over-the-air (OTA) TV antenna. You can find one for as little as $20 and they’re quite easy to install.

Why is my TV antenna not picking up channels?

If your antenna isn’t picking up channels, these are some of the most likely explanations:

  • Your coaxial cable is too long. Anything over 100 feet will result in signal degradation or loss. If you really need a long cable, don’t fret—a preamplifier should fix the problem.
  • Are you using a splitter? Splitters can also degrade your antenna’s reception. If you can go without the splitter, ditch it. If you can’t, a preamp could help.
  • Something is blocking your antenna. See if any large buildings or tall hills, trees, or mountains sit between your antenna and the broadcast towers. If so, move your antenna.
  • You’re too far from the broadcast tower. Most OTA TV antennas can only cover a 70-mile radius.
  • Your OTA antenna might be a dud. If you’ve tried every solution above and you’re still not getting channels, you might need a new antenna.

How high should an indoor over-the-air (OTA) TV antenna be mounted?

You should mount your over-the-air (OTA) TV antenna as high as possible on an interior wall.

How can I check TV signal strength in my area?

You can check TV signal strength in your area by visiting the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) website and entering your address. You’ll see a list of channels and their signal strengths.

ENDNOTE

1. Nielsen.com, “The Switch from Analog to Digital TV

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