Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Three ways to get HDTV programming - Antenna

No monthly fees; snow-free signal; most newer large-screen TVs have a built-in HD tuner; most prime-time network shows are presented in HD; more than 1,550 stations broadcast digital signals.
Some HDTV sets require expensive set-top boxes to decode over-the-air HD signals; outdoor antenna required in most cases; HD signals won't reach viewers in outlying areas; no specialty channels such as HBO or ESPN.
With the FCC requiring TVs to have built-in ATSC tuners, broadcast high-definition TV is the wave of the future.

Zenith's GEMTV1 outdoor antenna
For most owners of new HDTVs, getting over-the-air high-def programming is as simple as putting up an antenna. That's because most TVs that can display HDTV are now sold with built-in ATSC tuners, which are required to receive high-definition as well as lower-resolution digital broadcasts over the air.

The number of televisions capable of receiving over-the-air digital TV broadcasts will continue to increase every year as the FCC mandates more built-in DTV tuners. The Commission's ruling currently requires that all TVs sized 36 inches or larger include built-in tuners. Starting March 1, 2006, all midsize sets--between 25 and 35 inches--must include DTV tuners. The mandate trickles down to smaller TVs and other gear with TV tuners, such as VCRs and DVD recorders, until finally, on March 1, 2007, every TV tuner sold will supposedly be able to receive digital broadcasts. Note that televisions without tuners, technically called monitors, are exempt from having to include built-in DTV tuners. Here's a chart that covers the mandate as it stands today.

TV sizes that must include ATSC tuner*
March 1, 2006
All TVs 25 inches or larger
March 1, 2007
All TVs of any size; all non-TVs with tuners
Note: This does not apply to monitors, such as some plasmas and LCDs, that lack built-in standard (NTSC) tuners.

There's also a separate law that regulates old analog TV broadcasts. As that law currently stands, broadcasters must turn off their analog over-the-air transmissions for good on February 17, 2009, allowing the federal government to reallocate that portion of the broadcast spectrum for other uses, such as wireless data and telephone services. After that date, the only over-the-air TV will be digital--the date does not apply to cable or satellite services. Some owners of old analog TVs will be eligible for a government supplement to help pay for converter boxes that will allow them to watch digital TV broadcasts on their old TVs.


Although we recommend a specialized antenna for grabbing over-the-air HDTV signals, you might get lucky with the old antenna on your roof--or even indoor rabbit ears, for that matter. If you still have an old-school UHF/VHF antenna, give it a try before coughing up the extra cash for a dedicated HD antenna.

Antennaweb.org can help you choose the right HDTV antenna.
If you decide to start fresh with a new HD antenna, visit AntennaWeb.org for help choosing the best model for your location. The site also has a useful guide for aligning your antenna; just type in your zip code, and the site will give you compass headings for the nearest HDTV transmission towers. After a little trial and error, you should get your HDTV. It's a good idea to work with someone who can read the signal-strength meter on your HDTV receiver or TV so that you can get the best signal.

Once you get an HD signal, the picture should be crystal clear. Unlike analog TV signals, digital HD transmissions won't suffer from static interference or ghosting, the faint, duplicate picture that you see when analog signals bounce off tall buildings. They can, however, break up and drop in and out if your local HD signals are weak.

For a more detailed explanation of how to install an outdoor HD antenna--including a full video tutorial--check out CNET's "Watch free HDTV with an outdoor antenna" feature.


HDTV stations by state.
The number of local TV stations broadcasting in HDTV has grown dramatically in recent years. As of January 2006, more than 1,550 stations carried a digital signal, up from about 400 in June 2002 and a mere 66 in June 1999. According to the National Association of Broadcasters, about 99 percent of U.S. households are within range of at least one DTV station. Unless you live in a rural area and have trouble receiving analog TV signals, it's a safe bet that over-the-air HD is available in your neighborhood.

Conan O'Brien went high-def in April 2005
Conan O'Brien went high-def in April 2005
There's also plenty of HD programming on the air. All of the major networks--ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC--offer most of their filmed comedies and dramas in high-definition. UPN and the WB also broadcast many of their prime-time shows in HD. Most news, daytime, and reality programming is still standard-definition (such as the evening news shows, Survivor, and The Bachelor), but even that has begun to change. The Young and the Restless has been shot in HD for several years now, while Good Morning, America made the HD switch in late 2005, and American Idol has been produced in HD beginning with its 2005 season. Even late-night programming is getting in on the act, with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and Saturday Night Live all making the jump to high-def.

If you're a sports fan, you're in for a treat. From the NFL, MLB, and NBA to the 2006 FIFA World Cup and the Turin Winter Olympics, there are literally thousands of sporting events broadcast in HD each year. CBS, NBC, and Fox show almost all of their football in HD, while Fox serves up most MLB play-off games in high-def. ABC plans on carrying the final rounds of FIFA World Cup soccer in HD, while NBC will roll out simulcast HD coverage of the Olympics--at least, from venues equipped with HD cameras. CBS broadcasts the final rounds of the U.S. Open tennis championship and the Masters in HD, while NASCAR fans can get their HD fix on NBC.

1080i vs. 720p

True HDTV programming is typically broadcast in one of two resolutions: 1080i or 720p. Most networks have opted for the 1080i format, boasting that it provides the highest possible resolution, while ABC, Fox, ESPN/ESPN2, and the National Geographic Channel went for the smoother pictures of 720p. What's the real difference between the two? While 1080i technically offers the most lines of resolution, it's delivered in the old-style interlaced format, meaning that your TV set draws each frame in two passes: once for the even horizontal lines and a second time for the odd lines. The 720p (progressive) format has fewer lines of information than 1080i but draws each frame in a single pass, delivering pictures that look slightly smoother than an interlaced image, especially when there's a lot of movement on the screen. Most videophiles agree that 720p is the superior format, despite 1080i's resolution advantage. For average viewers, however, it's hard to tell the difference.


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