What Is Over-the-Air (OTA) TV?
Learn how to get local channels without cable with our expert guide.
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
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.
How to watch over-the-air TV
- No monthly charges
- Local news and sports
- Simple equipment
- 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.
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
- 25-mile range (best for cities)
- Indoor mounting
- 1080p HD support
Best for Moderate Signals
- 60-mile range (best for suburbs)
- Indoor mounting
- 1080p HD support
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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.
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
Our experts spent over 100 hours researching over-the-air (OTA) TV antennas by testing different OTA antennas and OTA DVR models in various locations across the country. We determined the best ways to watch antenna TV by comparing each product’s prices, power capabilities, and extra features.
To learn more about our methods, check out our How We Rank page.
1. Nielsen.com, “The Switch from Analog to Digital TV”