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

You know how your stomach drops when you open the bill from your TV provider every month? What if there was a way to enjoy TV without monthly payments, cutting that feeling out of your life completely? This is more than a thought experiment—it’s a real option with Over-the-Air (OTA) TV.

Introducing 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 an antenna. You can even use an OTA DVR to record live TV.

Recommended Equipment

The 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 households 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 antennae 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.

The Pros and Cons of OTA 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 antennae 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 Antennae 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.

Your OTA TV Starter Kit

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 Antennae

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.

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 Antenna for Strong Signals

1byone 25 Miles Super Thin HDTV Antenna

  • Indoor mounting
  • 1080p HD support
  • Reversible black/silver coloring
  • Very small

Best Antenna for Moderate Signals

1byone 50 Miles Amplified HDTV Antenna

  • Indoor mounting
  • 1080p HD support
  • Reversible black/white coloring

Best Antenna for Weak Signals


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 Roamio 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 OTA DVR for Streaming TV Lovers

Tivo Roamio

  • Records 4 shows at a time
  • Provides access to streaming content
  • Includes TiVo service

Best OTA DVR for External Storage

Tablo 4-Tuner DVR

  • Records 4 shows at a time
  • Requires smart TV or streaming devices; no HDMI
  • Comes with 30-day free trial of channel guide subscription

Best OTA DVR on a Budget

Mediasonic Homeworx

  • Records 1 show at a time
  • No channel guide subscription available

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, it’s 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 latest and greatest craze.

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!

About the Author

Rachel’s catchphrase is “I’ma Google that.” This go-getter writer has a talent for finding incredible and bizarre facts on the web, and she is happy to pass her knowledge on to you.

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