Antennas 101: Cord-Cutting Fundamentals

Cord cutting is here to stay. How do you reach those who don’t want to pay for TV?

If you love older movies or retro TV shows, you’re familiar with scenes of older TV sets with static on the screen or maybe fuzzy, rolling, fading or ghost-y images—like the scary “They’re Here” scene from the movie Poltergeist or the mind-control opening to the 1960s TV series The Outer Limits.

Those images sum up the key difference between the old analog broadcast signals and today’s all-digital ones. With digital, the signal must be completely locked in for an image to appear on the TV screen. If it can’t be locked, the screen remains blank.

Besides the need for pinpoint aiming accuracy, there’s another difference—power, or lack thereof. Today’s digital signals are weaker, requiring a more direct path to the end-user’s antenna.

Because of these differences, the kind of antenna used and its placement is critical—and may require experimentation.  

Back to Basics with Cord Cutting

Many of the most popular current shows are still network based. They’re shown over the air for free in 1080p HD—no buffering or streaming required! Non-subscription-TV DVRs enable time shifting. And for news close to home and severe weather coverage, nothing beats a local station. Cord cutting is here to stay, and the options for those who don’t want to pay for TV are better than they’ve ever been.

As new generations are discovering free TV for the first time, and older generations are ditching cable or satellite to return to their antenna roots, key practicalities about antenna usage have been lost. It’s time to revisit antenna basics.

Tower Tuning

To learn the location of all the local TV towers, visit Although designed primarily for exterior antenna installations, its tower direction information is useful to orient indoor antennas too.

The site generates a customized map and table showing where all the broadcast stations are located in reference to that address. It also suggests the kind of antenna needed for each station. It cannot account for variables like terrain and object interference.

Here’s a map based on Petra’s location, without the 30-foot height option.

The line colors on the map indicate the kind of antenna required to pull in each station.

The table lists each channel, the distance from the location, direction in degrees and the appropriate channel’s outdoor antenna color code.

  • Yellow means a small, multidirectional antenna
  • Green is a medium multidirectional antenna
  • Red is a medium directional antenna
  • Blue is a medium directional antenna with a pre-amp
  • Violet is a large directional antenna
  • CTA-certified outdoor antennas are often color coded on the outside of the box
  • Some antennas may mention a Low-VHF capability. Low-VHF simply means channels 2–6.


If you sell antennas, bookmark the website! Most end-users have no idea where local TV station towers are located. Showing them is an eye-opener!

Next-Gen Digital TV

In early 2017, the FCC approved the voluntary adoption of ATSC 3.0—the next-generation transmission standards for TV stations. A broadcast-Internet hybrid, 3.0 opens a lot of possibilities. Among other things, it means 4K UHD and immersive audio can be broadcast. Current antennas will receive 4K UHD broadcast signals.

Until TV sets are manufactured to view and take advantage of Next-Gen capability, consumers will be able buy a set-top converter box (or possibly an HDMI or USB stick) that connects to the home’s Wi-Fi router. For cord cutting purposes, this should be sufficient.

Implementation in the U.S. seems to be 2019 at the very earliest. Since it’s voluntary, the rollout will be gradual. Simultaneous broadcasting of both 1.0 and 3.0 is expected for quite some time.

The Great Spectrum Repack

In the meantime, the FCC auctioned off channels 37–51 to cellular data companies and is migrating about 1,000 TV stations to different channels. Some stations are choosing to go dark rather than invest in the change. This means that over the next three years, antenna users will need to periodically rescan to find all TV stations.

The Takeaway

  1.  Even with 3.0 on the horizon, antennas are still a must.
  2. Pull up geographic info on AntennaWeb.
  3. Location experimentation may be required for inside antennas.
  4. If a roof- or attic-mount antenna is needed, prospective users should ask neighbors what kind they have and who did the installation.
  5. TVs need to rescan periodically to locate all over-the-air TV channels.
  6. Petra offers a wide array of antennas and antenna accessories. From large yagi and bowtie styles to the unobtrusive Axis Rail that hugs the TV frame, we can outfit installers and end-users with the right antenna to unlock the HD broadcast experience.

Long live free TV!


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