Introduction: Free Digital Broadcast Television Reception: a How-To Guide

About: Industrial Arts, Appalachian State University. Recession has dried up my field (commercial printing & packaging), but have found new work in staging, lighting, sound systems, sets, productions and events.

Digital Broadcast Television: It's free, it's clean and sharp -and the wave of the future!  Cut the pay-cable cord and save megabucks!

So far, I'm getting 104 channels of perfect digital reception, which is not uncommon for a major metropolitan area.

Those cable TV providers can hawk their bottled water all they want, I'm just not buying the idea.  I was actually able to take my family to Europe on the money I saved.  It's all in where your priorities are, I guess.   And I extend no sympathy to those who tried to pull in digital broadcast television on a cheap rabbit-ears antenna, gave up easy, and opted for pay TV.

But if you're the type of do-it-yourself person, who feels that quality television viewing should be free, do what I did 20 years ago, and go to any radio electronics store and they will help you select an appropriate roof-top UHF-VHF antenna, antenna rotator with wired-in remote, and coax cable.

You also might want to try out an inexpensive signal amplifier, but only after you have installed and used your rig for a while.  In spite of what many have posted on the internet, the traditional roof-top UHF-VHF antenna still reigns king, and is absolutely required. But the electronics store staff may also inform you that your area is too sparsely populated and has very few digital broadcast stations in your area.

I keep a running TV Channel listing on my laptop and update and print out a new one, every now and then, when a new TV station appears. And I glued a detailed paper compass dial around the knob of the indoor antenna rotator consol housing, 360 degrees, marked at every degree. But you'll have to do your homework: Over time, fine-tune and carefully note the exact antenna directions of your favorite stations, and revise them on the master list.

To remove all doubt, I would suggest that you simply knock on the door of some person in your community who has a rotating rooftop antenna, to get the lowdown on the true possibilities. Don't be bashful, as most of us love to talk nuts-and-bolts. But, unfortunately, we're far and few. In my sizable town, there are only only three of us, as far as I know.

So check out this easy step-by-step guide, to see if free digital broadcast TV is for suitable for you, in your area.

I predicted, a couple of years ago, that free digital broadcast TV would run pay cable TV out of business. So I am amazed that almost everyone I know simply glazes over and still pays out monthly for cable TV.

Step 1: Are There Enough Digital Broadcast Stations in Your Area?

Your first step is to go to and determine how many local digital broadcast stations are in your area:

And click the link: "Check Your Address for Free TV"

Enter your local data to receive a simple, intuitive chart of the local TV stations, as well as the compass direction to each (sample chart below).

With a medium-size rooftop rotating antenna, you will able to view all of the line-of-sight television stations in the green (1st section) and yellow (2nd section) of the TV Fool channel listing chart  -without the use of an external signal amplifier.  Line-of-sight means that the transmitter tower(s) of the television station(s) are visible from your rooftop antenna, even if binoculars are required to actually see each transmitter tower. Local line-of-sight stations are noted by a "LOS" under the "Path" column, of the television listing's "Signal" column.  

After doing this, some have opted for free digital broadcast, with as few as only two or three television stations in their remote, rural area, and dropped their cable TV subscriptions.

If the broadcast television stations plotted on the circular chart are from more than one direction from your home, then you'll also need to install an outdoor antenna rotator with an indoor consol (detailed in the next step of this Instructable).

Step 2: Selecting the Proper Roof-Top Television Antenna

In spite of the advent of new "digital" broadcast TV antennas on the market, none of them are able to hold a candle to the pull-in power of the traditional, rotating VHF/UHF antennas of yore.  The new ASTC digital television broadcast standard still uses VHF/UHF frequencies.

I will be referring to RadioShack equipment in this Instructable, simply because there is a RadioShack store in almost every town.  But this is in no way an endorsement of RadioShack products.  And there are other brand names on the market that will function just as well.   

What I installed on my roof-top, 20 years ago, is a medium-sized RadioShack VHF/UHF Antenna (now sells for about $ 71.00).  I mounted it securely on my outside chimney, putting the antenna at an over-all height of about 20 feet  above the ground.  Be sure to not exceed the maximum recommended antenna mast height, measured from above the upper mounting bracket, so that the antenna will pull in as many TV stations as possible, yet survive occasional wind storms. 

I also installed a RadioShack Outdoor Antenna Rotator (now sells for about $ 64.00).

Both were connected with a RadioShack 100-Foot Rotator Control Cable (now sells for about $ 24.00).

After installing the outdoor antenna rotator, a paper printout, of a 360 degree compass dial, was pasted on the dial housing, for accurate aiming of the outside antenna (example:  After pasting the 360 compass dial on the console, the console was then set to the precise direction of a distant, but prominent, terrain feature, causing the roof-top antenna to rotate.  The roof-top antenna was then loosened on its mount, and then carefully rotated, by hand, to perfectly align to that terrain feature, and then tightened down.  The antenna-rotator combination is now perfectly aligned.

With this setup, we are able to pull in digital broadcast stations from up to 60 miles away  -and that's without a broadcast signal amplification device.

We've tried a broadcast signal amplification device, but it pulled in too many local channels, including weak, amateur college campus stations, drowning us in far too many options.  But those avid channel-surfers out there would probably have fun with this type of setup.

A few years ago, there was an attempt, with the unique, automatic directional "smart antenna", to use technology to greatly simply the task of electronically aiming the antenna at a given television station, and some of the ATSC digital-ready televisions and digital-to-analog converters were even sold with "smart antenna" jacks on the backs of the units, but the concept never completely took off. Only a few versions of these "smart antennas" were actually manufactured, and all of them failed to equal the performance of the traditional rooftop VHF/UHF rotating TV antennas.

Likewise, the automatic antenna rotators, designed to seek out the strongest signal of a given digital television channel, are plagued with technical issues.

That's why I strongly urge installing just a basic, traditional antenna-rotator setup, and one that will last for years.

The total cost (~$159.00) of the above roof-top antenna setup can be straight-line depreciated over a period of 20 years (the age of my system), to fully appreciate the economy of going in this direction. 

Step 3: Fine-Tuning Local TV Station Reception

The printout, while quick and easy, is best when fine-tuned, as many local variables and terrain features will affect the directional TV reception of each channel.

To do this, we started out with a hand-typed text version of the printout.

We then performed a 8-point scan of the compass (on the antenna rotator housing): North=0º, North-East=45º, East=90º, South-East=135º, South=180º, South-West=225º, West=270º, North-West=315º.

And while the 8-point scan was in progress, we carefully noted the number of digital television channels that were detected in each 45º sector. After the 8-point scan, the number of television stations that were detected in each 45º sector were then totaled up and any television stations, that were not on the printout, were added to the hand-typed text version.

Starting with our most-viewed digital television stations, we made precise compass corrections, and, weeks later, gradually fine-tuned the directions to the other stations, over time. The end result is the sample text file listing (see below) of our local channels, with the best possible antenna direction noted. Notice that the compass bearings on some of the channels are different from those on the sample printout.

A pleasant surprise: We discovered new television stations that offered interesting programming that we had not initially considered.

So to watch a particular TV station, the TV station list is referenced and the exact direction is set on the antenna rotator console, and then the desired channel is set on the TV.

Note:  Transmitter locations of local TV stations sometimes change, and without prior notice.

If your favorite television station seems to have completely disappeared, it's more than likely because the TV station transmitter has been moved to another location in your region.  Unfortunately, the websites for the local TV stations do not feel compelled to post such information, nor do they offer viewer email alerts of such important announcements.

When this happens, first check to see if the TV station still exists.  TV stations are sometimes shut down, or merge with other TV stations, but this is rare.  But if the TV station is still listed, then simply set your television (or digital-to-analog converter box) to the desired TV channel, and then do a 360-degree sweep on your rotating antenna console, until the direction to the new TV transmitter location is found and fine-tuned.  And be sure to make note of it on your TV station list printout.   

Step 4: Setting Up and Bookmarking a Convenient Daily TV Listing Guide

Although we are able to receive 104 channels of perfect TV reception, we only watch about 28 of them on a regular basis.

And the local newspaper seems to be posting less and less free digital broadcast TV stations, while posting more and more pay cable TV channels. There seems to be a blatant racket out there, I tell you, with the local newspapers attempting to create an overall decline in free digital broadcast television.

But a handy and convenient local digital TV broadcast listing is available at:

Or go to:

And click "More" in the upper-right.

Select "TV"

Select "Listings" on the left

Or go to:

Select "Listings" on the left

And enter your zip code to produce a complete listing in your area, and bookmark it.

Update: As Zap2It seems to have a strange compulsion to modify their TV listings to the point of being dysfunctional, try:

Titan TV is a refreshingly functional TV guide that is easy to set up and print out.

As mentioned, I reduced my list to about 28 TV stations, which are bookmarked on my internet browser, and conveniently printed out each day on a 8.5x11 sheet of paper, landscape format, as a whirl-and-tumble color inkjet format, for a quick and easy reference. Inkjet printed on both sides, the landscape format sheet is easily tumbled, to read the other side, without losing track of the desired hour being referenced.

Step 5: Digital-to-Analog Converter

If you have an outdated analog television, or video projector, you'll have to purchase a Digital-to-Analog Broadcast Converter (costs about $ 60.00).

But choose your digital-to-analog broadcast converter wisely: The internal circuit boards of many brand names out there run HOT (absence of internal heat-sinks on critical electronic components), and all it takes is a hot day, or direct sunlight, and the unit will burn out. Check out the customer reviews, on, to get the lowdown on a particular Digital-to-Analog Broadcast Converter, before purchasing. We've used the DigitalStream model (pictured here) for years now, as the internal circuit board runs much cooler.

A Digital-to-Analog Broadcast Converter is simple to install and use, and with the analog television set on channel 3 or 4, the digital TV channels are then easily surfed via the digital-to-analog remote.

The early failure of many of these digital-to-analog broadcast converters, plus the poor performance of tabletop "digital antennas", combined with the falsified decline of free digital broadcast stations posted in the local newspapers, and also the unannounced relocation of existing TV station transmitters, all combine to present a real threat to the future of free digital broadcast television.

But if you're already stuck with one of those digital-to-analog converters that runs too hot (and it hasn't burned out yet):

I also own a Craig CVD506 Digital-to-Analog TV Signal Converter, and it's just one of those devices on the market that I mentioned that runs too hot. To correct the problem, I removed the cover and fashioned a 3/4" x 2-1/4" piece of aluminum flashing, and with two right angle bends, formed it into a "U", 3/4" x 3/4" at its base, carefully surfaced with a chalked file to ensure a good heat transfer, and superglued (only 1 or 2 drops) directly on top of the Broadcom BCM3543KPB5G CPU. And to get the CPU to run even cooler, I bored a 3/8" hole in the black plastic cabinet, directly underneath the CPU, to draw in cooling air directly to the circuit board.

And while others have dismissed the Craig Digital to Analog-to-Digital Broadcast Converter CVD506 as a piece of junk, I'd like to point out that it has an internal 120VAC-to-12VDC converter:

Open Frame Power Supply Model #ADS0125-S120100
Input: 100-240VAC, 50-60Hz, 0.5A
Output: 12VDC, 1.0A

And this feature alone gives the unit, when easily hacked, versatility. That is, it can be easily rewired and powered by a 12VDC power source.

Check out this link this guy posted, detailing the simple procedure:

and search: "Digital-TV-Converter-Hack"

And while he features modifying a RCA Digital to Analog Broadcast Converter, the unit uses the same internal 120VAC-to-12VDC converter, as well as the Broadcom BCM3543 CPU.

This simple modification will breathe new life into those old portable analog color TVs and video projectors.

I went one step further and completely removed the clumbsy OEM 120VAC cord-plug, and replaced it with a flush mounted 120VAC panel jack, as well as a 12VDC panel jack. I now have a lean-and-mean unit that will function anywhere.

Step 6: Free Digital Broadcast Television: for Portable and Remote Off-the-Grid Locations

You've probably already noticed those cute, used, portable ATSC digital-ready television sets appearing in the local flea markets and yard sales, and are probably also aware of their notorious inability to pull in television stations.

But these miniature television sets are, in fact, quite functional:  They just need a decent portable, external television antenna, to realize their full potential.

I've had good results with, for example, a  General Electric Futura TV Antenna Model TV24769 "portable" antenna.  Just under 9 inches tall, the small, lightweight, and weatherproof antenna offers surprising 20dB reception, especially when its small 9VDC-12VDC signal amplifier is hooked up in-line with the coaxial cable.  I refer to this antenna as a portable antenna, even though General Electric actually markets the device as a permanent, fixed, outdoor antenna.  The small, external antennas packaged with the portable ASTC digital-ready television sets just seem to have an impossible time just pulling in even local television stations.

The General Electric Futura TV Antenna Model TV24769 antenna is somewhat directional, and does work at its best when mounted on top of a pole, or on top of a RV, or summer cabin.  Mounted in this manner, this ugly duckling of an antenna pulls in about one-half to two-thirds of the stations that are pulled in by the full-size, rotating, roof-top UHF/VHF antenna described earlier in this Instructable.

Quite impressive, for such a small device.