OTA HDTV Reception Q&A

Updates on the DTV transition and how to receive over-the-air digital television for free.

Location: Richmond, IL, United States

Hello there! I created this blog to share the information about over-the-air HDTV reception you have been wearily searching the Web or calling technical lines for, whether you have decided for less expensive means to get your favorite TV shows, or still adjusting from the over the air broadcast DTV transition that occurred on June 12, 2009. After working for a leading antenna manufacturer for almost 5 years, during which time I've shared my expertise with those who asked on the phone and by email at work, I decided to do the same in the Blogosphere! Confused about getting your local HD channels? Just click through the archives, some of the most useful information is in the early posts from 2005-06. If you want to get in touch with me with antenna related questions, just leave a comment anywhere on this site.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


If you have ever received HDTV over the air, you may have noticed there are subchannels in addition to the main channel. For instance, if you live in the Los Angeles area and get DTV over the air, you may have noticed there is a channel 4-1, which is NBC 4 with HD programming in HD, but also a channel 4-2, which is “NBC Weather Plus”. This is a common example of “multicasting”, which gives a local station the ability to transmit multiple channels on the same digital signal. How a station chooses to multicast depends on what DTV format the primary channel is used for, ownership, and ability to provide the community a service as their operating budgets allow.

Multicasting also provides a broadcaster unique opportunities to provide multiple programs on their digital channel based on scheduling. For example, the NBC affiliate I receive from Davenport, Iowa, has a 6-1 and 6-2 channel. Since the station is not an owned-and-operated (O&O) affiliate of NBC Universal, they have chosen on 6-2 to provide local weather information, and not NBC Weather Plus at this time. However, this freedom gives the station a chance to use the secondary channel to provide network programming when local programming on their primary channel takes precedence. For instance, the station primarily provides Iowa College Football. On September 17th, channel 6 pre-empted NBC’s Notre Dame/Michigan State game for the Iowa football game. For their digital channel, channel 6 aired the Iowa game on 6-1 while simulcasting NBC’s Notre Game coverage on channel 6-2 in place of the local weather. The station even announced this plan during their local news the previous day, and described the option very well. So there I was enjoying two college games from the same broadcaster! Also when NBC aired the Athens Summer Olympics last year, the station, as well as other NBC affiliates with multicasting capability, showed NBC’s regular Olympic coverage and local programming on 6-2 while providing an HD loop of Olympic coverage from the previous day on 6-1 24/7 during the Games.

Also, the DTV channel of the ABC affiliate, channel 8, from the area (Moline, Illinois), has an 8-1 with ABC HD and local programming, as well as a live radar service on 8-2. This has been useful to me in my line of work as I sometimes collect data outside, and I can tell right away if there is rain or heavy weather on the way. This is great to know for other viewers whose schedule is dependent on the weather.

The FOX affiliate I receive is owned by a broadcaster that also owns the WB affiliate in the viewing area. The interesting scenario here is that the WB analog broadcasts here in Burlington, and used to be a repeater for FOX, so now due to FCC approval I suppose, the WB is only available over the air in a limited area around Burlington and NOT in the more populated Quad Cities about 50 miles away. Before DTV became available, the only source of the WB in the Quad Cities was through cable. So the FOX broadcaster here, channel 18, is sending their FOX affiliate, in HD, on 18-1, and their sister WB station on 18-2. The downside though is that only one HD is allowed, and with more people watching FOX primetime and sports, FOX has the HD while the WB is only in standard definition, but at least now it is available over-the-air in the Quad Cities. The station has elected their final DTV transmission and it has been cleared by the FCC, so in about a year they will build a separate full-power WB DTV transmission available for the entire viewing area, at which time the WB should be available around here in HD.

Which leads me to how a station is able to multicast. If the network affiliated with the station broadcasts HD in 1080I (CBS, NBC, PBS, WB, and UPN), the station has the ability to multicast 1 standard definition channel. If the network is 720p (ABC and FOX), the station can multicast 2 standard definition channels, or possibly an ADDITIONAL 720p multicast. This is because 720p does not require as much bitrate as 1080I, leaving extra room to provide additional multicasting. The downside, however, is that 1080I HD does provide better resolution. In addition, if a station does not offer HD programming at the present, that station is capable of multicasting up to 6 standard definition channels on the same DTV transmission.

Such a case of multicasting several channels opens new opportunities. One station can multicast innovative local programming, educational programming, ethnic programming, or music programming, all available for free over the air providing services to the community. A very important benefit of DTV multicasting came about in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Belo broadcasting, which owns several stations in the south, used DTV multicasting to simulcast New Orleans news broadcasts over sister stations’ DTV multicasts in Louisiana and Texas to keep the evacuated survivors informed of the latest information on a local basis. If you did a Google Search of “Belo+Katrina+New Orleans”, you may see Web articles and posts with more details.

There is also a pay service called US Digital Television (http://www.usdtv.com/) that is, through arranged agreements with local broadcasters, utilitzing unused DTV multicasting bitrates to make available, over the air, a select few but highly watched cable channels, including ESPN, Discovery, TLC, Fox News, and Lifetime among others. A consumer who is able to receive all their local DTV channels over the air can, for about $20 per month, subscribe to these cable channels provided by USDTV using a special HDTV set-top box that is capable of “unscrambling” the locked digital multicast channels once the receiver is activated, just like for a digital cable or satellite receiver. As I write this, USDTV is available only in Salt Lake City (where the company is based), Las Vegas, and Albequrque. However, USDTV recently received a substantial amount of funded capital allowing this service to expand to additional markets in the coming months. I suspect Los Angeles is next because I have read in a trade mag that a Los Angeles based independent station, KJLA LA-57, which has no HD programming at this time and can multicast up to 5 additional SD channels, is currently transmitting USDTV channels on a test basis, with a launch, I would speculate, this coming November.

Unfortunately I think USDTV in order to remain competitive may want to consider making ESPN HD part of their service in place of ESPN, especially with ESPN airing NFL Monday Night Football next year. I have seen ESPN HD via satellite and have noticed that like local broadcasters, ESPN HD simulcasts non-HD ESPN programs as they air. It is possible especially since ESPN HD is in 720p, so allocated bandwidth should exist, at least in major markets.

Despite all these great opportunities for broadcasters to provide services and get revenue, there is some controversy that in essence is delaying setting a sunset plan for analog broadcasting, and that involves cable. The FCC is debating forcing local cable operators to make available the entire DTV channel for the local channels, including all the multicasting. The broadcasters want cable to provide this programming that would be useful to local viewers and maintain localism. The NCTA who supports cable, on the other hand, claims that cable operators just do not have enough bandwidth to accomplish this, and should just simply reload local HD channels on their digital cable tier while providing cable channels. The NCTA fears that by providing full multicasting, cable companies may be forced to drop some cable channels that their customers have been paying for to enjoy to meet their personal interests, and that would not help a probably shaky relationship between the cable company and some of their customers.

Here is my personal take on this – I think the FCC should side with the NCTA and let the customer decide what channels and services they want and how to get them. If a customer is interested in a lifestyle channel that is available on cable or satellite, and can afford to pay for it, they should order it. With the ability to receive DTV with even an indoor antenna, the customer can get an HDTV with a built-in tuner AND a component or DVI input for the cable or satellite box. Then the customer can enjoy all the cable or satellite channels they have paying for, and through the antenna, can enjoy the free multicast services available over the air. The station should then consider promoting the DTV channel on their Web site, what services are available, and the fact that an antenna would be needed to receive it – the CheckHD.com site helps consumers find out what free multicasts are available over-the-air as well. Plus, if the cable goes out or rain fades the satellite, the antenna becomes the backup, and if off-air reception becomes difficult on certain days, cable is the backup. Because in the end, cable and broadcasters are serving the community – they should focus on letting them know about the DTV transition and that analog shutdown is inevitable (if the shouting ever ends).

If you just discovered this page and want more of the HDTV off-air reception tricks you probably have been desperately Googling the Web for, please browse the dated “Archives” sorted by date, there is one column per week. Thanks for viewing!