Entertainment Technology Explained

What Can You Watch Using a TV Antenna?

Dan Price 17-08-2017

Today, the average American home pays $103 per month for cable TV. Add on a Netflix subscription ($8), a Sling subscription ($20), and one or two other bespoke services, and you’re looking at a serious amount of cash.


Recent years have seen a rebellion against the high costs. Cord cutting is becoming increasingly popular Everyone Else Is Cutting the Cord, So Why Aren't You? I cut the cord back in 2013 and more and more people are following suit, completely ditching their cable service. But not everyone is cutting the cord, and we decided to find out why... Read More , and the rise of piracy is well-documented.

But what if there was an easy, cheap, legal, and reliable way to gain access to many of the big networks? You’d probably lap it up.

Well, it turns out there is! Step forward the trusty TV antenna. (Admit it, you’d forgotten they even existed, didn’t you?) Let’s take a closer look at how a TV antenna works and what you can watch by using one.

A Brief History of Cable

Cast your mind back to 2005. Nobody had high-speed internet, Twitter was just a glint in Jack Dorsey’s eye, and Netflix still only delivered DVDs through the mail.

How did you watch television? If you were lucky, you had a cable subscription. If you weren’t, you used an antenna.


Go back even further: in the 1970s and 80s, cable TV was a luxury. In 1980, only 20 percent of American homes had a cable connection. Almost everyone received their entertainment fix by using an over-the-air (OTA) antenna.

cable tv coax modem
Image Credit: The Sun Photo via Shutterstock

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that a majority of homes had a cable subscription. According to a 1989 New York Times article, 300,000 new households were signing up every month. Oh, and the average cost back then? A mere $24.26 per month.

Fast-forward to today, and cable is ubiquitous. Only 12.9 percent of American adults have never signed up to a cable or satellite TV service.


The Millennials’ Rebellion

If you were born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, you’re a millennial: the oldest members of the cohort are in their mid-30s, the youngest are in their early 20s.

If you’re a millennial, you face the highest education costs (and debts), the most expensive housing, and the toughest job market in history. You came of age in the uncertain post-9/11 era and were probably just entering the workforce as the 2008 financial crisis hit.

Therefore, for lots of millennials, cable TV has once again returned to the status of “luxury” item. Indeed, even subscriptions to comparatively cheap services like Netflix 10 Niche Streaming Services for Those Who Hate Netflix Mainstream streaming services carry mainstream content. What can you do if you want to watch something a little less conventional? You're better off checking out these alternative streaming services packed full of niche content. Read More are too expensive for many. Of the 12.9 percent of adults who’ve never signed up to cable, the majority are 35 or younger.

tv hours young people chart graph
Image Credit: Business Insider


The young are also watching less TV. Whether it’s a cause or a symptom of the decline in cable subscriptions is debatable, but immaterial.

Research from Visual Capitalist claims that as recently as 2011, the average 18- to 24-year-old watched 25 hours of TV a week. Today, the figure has dropped to 14 hours. If you’re under 24, Netflix is now your preferred viewing method. On average, you spend as many as four hours a day watching YouTube and only one hour watching traditional TV.

Suddenly, the prospect of spending $103 per month on something you’ll use for just 30 hours looks hugely unappealing.

The Return of the Antenna

And so, back to the antenna. There are countless reports that traditional antenna sales on are the rise. The Denver Post interviewed one antenna technician who claimed he was now twice as busy as he was three years ago.


The American Consumer Technology Association agrees with his anecdotal evidence. It says that in 2007, about three million antennas were sold nationwide. In 2016, the figure jumped to 7.6 million. And in 2017, it predicts the market will grow by a further 9.7 percent.

Which Networks Can You Watch?

Although millennials are driving the sales, there’s undeniably been a widespread rediscovery of the decades-old technology. The National Association of Broadcasters says a scarcely-believable 29 percent of Americans weren’t even aware that local and network TV was free to watch.

So, what exactly can you watch?

Much of it depends on your location. The quality of signal can vary widely from place-to-place. Remember, we’re now in an era of digital TV antennas. Unlike analog antennas, which could still deliver something resembling an on-screen image even if the signal was poor, digital antennas with bad reception will constantly be cutting out and thus make broadcasts virtually unwatchable.

If you’re not sure what the signal is like in your area, check out the Federal Communications Commission’s free tool.

new york tv signal

Broadly speaking, if you live in a large town or city, you’ll definitely have access to NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and The CW. All five commercial networks reach 97 percent of American homes. PBS reaches 96 percent.

Other networks which can reach more than 70 percent of American homes include PBS Kids, Create, MyNetworkTV, MeTV, Antenna TV, Escape, Grit, Laff, This TV, Bounce TV, Ion Television, and Ion Life. There are hundreds more smaller networks, many of which can comfortably reach more than 50 percent of homes.

What Content Can You Watch?

As any seasoned cordcutter will know, the two biggest obstacles 7 Pitfalls of Cord-Cutting You Should Consider First Before you cut the cord to save yourself some money, there are a few things you should be aware of. Read More you’re likely to face are the availability of news The 8 Best Free Streaming News Channels to Watch Online If you've cancelled cable TV and missing your daily dose of news, check out these free streaming news channels instead! Read More and sports broadcasts. Both of which need to be shown live to actually mean anything.

But don’t be disheartened. OTA television offers both. The five big networks offer more than 200 region-specific channels, many of which are local newscasts.

Sports-wise, the selection of content may surprise you. In the last 12 months, antenna viewers have been able to enjoy the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, the U.S. Open, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the UEFA Champions League final, the French Open, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and almost endless NASCAR races and MLB games.

Note: Some of these events are region-specific. You may suffer from blackouts when your local team is playing.

How to Get Started

If you’re thinking about buying a TV antenna, you have two choices: either a roof-mounted model or an indoor wall-mounted model.

Unsurprisingly, exterior antennas have better reception. If you live in a low signal quality area, an antenna on your roof is your best bet.

If you want a roof-based model, you need to speak to a professional. However, some guidelines can give you a rough idea of which antenna you’ll need. The Consumer Technology Association has paired up with AntennaWeb.org and produced a handy guide. Visit the site, enter your address, and you’ll see a list of which channels are available in your area.

More importantly, they’ll be color coded according to the signal strength. Yellow or green means a standard antenna should suffice. Blue, red, or purple means you’ll need a more powerful model.


Interior antennas are cheaper but less powerful. In the major cities they should be fine, but in rural areas, you might not be able to enjoy the full range of channels.

There are lots of models to choose from, but one of the most widely-recommended is the Mohu Leaf. It costs $39.95 on Amazon.

Mohu Leaf 30 TV Antenna, Indoor, 40 Mile Range, Original Paper-thin, Reversible, Paintable, 4K-Ready HDTV, 10 Foot Detachable Cable, Premium Materials for Performance, USA Made, MH-110583 Mohu Leaf 30 TV Antenna, Indoor, 40 Mile Range, Original Paper-thin, Reversible, Paintable, 4K-Ready HDTV, 10 Foot Detachable Cable, Premium Materials for Performance, USA Made, MH-110583 Buy Now On Amazon $36.02

Are You Joining the Antenna Revolution?

OK, let’s sum things up. Over-the-air channels are free to watch, require a one-time purchase of a suitable antenna, and provide access to all the largest commercial networks. They’ll give you access to news and sports, as well as the usual primetime diet of comedy, chat shows, and movies.

Just one question remains: why are you still paying $103 per month for cable Should You Cut the Cord or Keep Your Cable TV? If you're still holding on to your cable subscription, but are debating if its time to make a change, we're here to help. This guide should help you make your mind up. Read More ?

Have you joined the antenna resurgence? What has your experience been like so far? What do you miss about cable TV? As always, you can leave your thoughts in the comments below. And remember to share this article with other cordcutters on social media. If they don’t know just how much free TV an antenna offers then they’ll thank you for clueing them in.

Image Credits: Vladimir Curcic/Shutterstock

Related topics: Media Streaming, Television.

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  1. Kristin
    December 2, 2018 at 4:25 am

    There's another antenna most people don't know about: Ku-band. It's about the size of a Dish or Directv dish. You don't sign up, or call anybody, you just install it. It's mostly a lot of foreign stuff, but there are some weird oddities on it too. I particularly enjoy it for the tons of radio stations it has. You buy the equipment that's it. Very easy to install- mine's actually just on the ground in the backyard with bricks holding it in place, because I didn't want to go on the roof. Boyfriend aimed it using a free smartphone app. It takes me half hour just to surf through all the channels. There's only a handful of sellers who I could find that sell them, I think all of them are on Amazon too.
    Another thing- about regular TV antennas, buy the biggest, largest most long-distance one you can find. Install it as high up as you can, preferably on the roof or on a pole or something. I am in Phoenix and can get Tucson stations with my 75 mi. antenna. Way more channels than usual, and PBS from another market. Don't cheap out on antennas, especially if it's all you've got, you;ll get bored with just your "own area" stations and always want more.
    By the way I watch very little if any TV, I just like having options.

  2. Rian
    November 18, 2018 at 2:49 am

    Can I watch shows outside my region with a TV/HDTV Antenna?

  3. Tom Lloyd
    May 12, 2018 at 1:47 am

    I get about 16 channels course I get all the ions I get two major channels NBC and ABC but I don't get CVS for some reason I do get Fox and there is a channel called antenna Channel and I get to CW and everything is in high-def the main thing I miss the most is I can't get all the football games for basketball games during the year but it's free so I can't complain yes I would like to get more channels but I guess that's all I can get I don't think another antenna would help least that's what I've been told it's just where the tires are and this is my limit

  4. Steven
    August 19, 2017 at 10:31 pm

    I have an old Verizon unlimited plan I bought off eBay. I have a cradlepoint router with the unlimited sim in it. I have a outside antenna and a cell booster. I get over thirty channels and have Netflix and Amazon prime. All I have is my phone bill and 9 dollars month for Netflix. There is always something to watch. There is always Kodi and popcorn time. There is alot off free tv options if you look for them.

  5. psycho
    August 19, 2017 at 1:44 am

    I made my own antenna and I get 30 channels

    • Kristin
      December 2, 2018 at 4:25 am

      You could probably get a lot more if you put that antenna on the roof

    August 18, 2017 at 2:27 pm

    Don't forget about DVRs. I have a Channel Master and record everything so I can skip through commercials when I watch. I get over 30 channels but I removed many as they had content I was not interested in. Another point is picture quality. An antenna will give you much better image quality than most cable companies. Comcast and company compress the ~!@#$ out of their signals so image quality is not great.

  7. iMacMike
    August 18, 2017 at 10:38 am

    I cut the cable over 2 years ago. Dish was getting ridiculous in my 5 tv house. With a premium package and all the ‘programming’ fees, the bill was $180 a month. I bought an RCA extended range yogi style antenna and mounted it in the attic, pointed between the two main tower sources. I get 10 local channels, all the major networks, and it’s fine. Better video quality than cable or satellite. Then I added a Fire Stick loaded with Kodi for anything non-broadcast. I’m in N Texas 70 miles north of Dallas/Ft Worth, too far to reliably get those channels.

  8. Doc
    August 18, 2017 at 12:32 am

    In my area, just 3 stations, with Moderate, Weak, and No Signal. Outstanding!

    • Jan
      August 18, 2017 at 12:59 pm

      I have just little tv antenna in house I pick up 17 channels.n more some times I get,3each of these chanel they pop up like ths 2.1,2.2,2.3,5.1,5.2,5.3,17.2,27.2,17.3,30.1,30.2,30.3 ,then 5 more religions channels

  9. infmom
    August 17, 2017 at 6:06 pm

    Two of our TVs are connected to Leaf antennas and they give outstanding reception. As of right now there are 134 channels available in the Los Angeles area. No need to pay for extra cable boxes.

    We haven't cut the cord, though, because we DVR almost everything to watch later, and almost all the programs I watch regularly are on cable networks.

    • Vera
      August 18, 2017 at 12:03 am

      I have recently moved into the building have very bad reception. I do not want cable. I rely on Clear TV antenna, I I was able to get local channels and some wonderful other channels but in this new building I'm living I am not able to get 2,4 ,7. I had Clear TV for seven years in another building had 2, 4,7, and a lot of other channels. The new area, I live in is now across the street from a park ,2 different bus stops and a lot of trucks driving through the area.

      • infmom
        August 18, 2017 at 1:59 am

        Moving the antenna often helps. I had problems with the Leaf in the beginning, I could get channel 5 but not channel 2, or vice versa. It took a lot of moving to get just the right position on the wall. It all works fine now.

  10. Me
    August 17, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    No such luck if you live in the UK then?

    • Mike Walsh
      August 17, 2017 at 9:52 pm

      Never heard of FreeView?

    • JDog
      August 19, 2017 at 2:56 pm

      LOL... You've been out of luck since 1776. ???