Over the Air: Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

TV antennas are enjoying a bit of a resurgence these days. There’s a full-page ad in the NY Times from Time Warner Cable today, announcing a “basic indoor antenna” giveaway at its retail stores, along with a partnership with Best Buy to give out free antennas for customers affected by TWC’s retrans row with CBS.

I wonder sometimes if industry people simply assume antennas will work for everyone–dozens of channels, picture better than cable!–because they don’t. When the analog shutoff went down a few years ago, I heard from countless station GMs about how they repeatedly had to inform displaced viewers about scanning, or rescanning, their converter boxes.

Even then, over the air television can be a bit of a mystery.

We’ve got a big, old, dumb Panasonic TV that got booted to an upstairs bedroom when we got a flat-panel Vizio. I went to Radio Shack and picked up a converter box and HDTV antenna featuring a UHF loop and pair of VHF rabbit ears, hooked it up, and was disappointed to see we barely got the linear New York channels, amidst broken up pictures and repeated Weak Signal! messages across the screen.

More recently, I picked up a Clearstream High Gain antenna from Antennas Direct at an industry event. A flat black square, that antenna gives us a bit more TV, and fewer Weak Signal! messages. Yet some key channels are missing, and the picture is below cable quality.

After rescanning the box today, here’s what the Malones got, at home in Westchester County, around 29 miles north of the Empire State Building.

Channel 2, WCBS.

Channel 2.2, WCBS news

Channel 4, WNBC

Channel 4.2, Cozi TV

Channel 5, WNYW

Channel 5.2, Movies!, and WNYW SD on 5.3

A very weak Channel 9, WWOR, along with Bounce TV and MundoFox on the dots.

After that, somehow skipping right over WPIX and its subchannels, as well as PBS station 13, it is on to channel 25, which features a broken picture.

And on back to Channel 2.

So WABC, Channel 7, the market leader, is missing, as its its Live Well channel. As I mentioned, WPIX is missing too, as are its subchannels. The irony–my antenna does not pick up Antenna TV!

Terrain-wise, we are up on a hill.

I’m not terribly well versed in the technology side of broadcasting, certainly not as well versed as my colleague George Winslow. I’m sure a director of engineering would have the Malones up and running with a few dozen channels and crystal-clear picture in a matter of minutes.

But, covering this kind of stuff for a living, I am probably slightly more knowledgeable about over the air TV than the average viewer (after eight years at B&C, I really hope I am).

I suspect other viewers accessing over the air TV have sizable gaps in their viewing options as well. Hopefully they get the football games next month, or TWC–and CBS–will hear from them.

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.