Tweak Your Antenna to Get the Most Free Channels

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If you have cut the cord and are using a TV antenna, there are lots of things that can affect receiving TV channels. The digital TV standard in 2021–ATSC 1.0 is great for higher quality sound, electronic program guides and fantastic picture. But it is very finicky. For indoor antennas, the difference between receiving 75 channels and 10 can come down to a small turn or a small nudge.

This guide will help you orient, position and tweak your antenna so you can get the most channels possible!

What Channels Can I get?

Assuming you already have an antenna plugged into your TV, the first step to maximizing your channel selections is to aim it.

In the US, visit the FCC DTV Reception Map website. There, enter your address to see what TV channels are available in your area. Here is an example of what you may see.

A screenshot of the FCC DTV website with note bubbles overlaying. A full description follows.

On the map the FCC page generates, you’ll see a grid of channels on the left, their identifying letters (their call sign), the TV network they affiliate with, their channel number and the band the channel is on. If you have not bought an antenna, make note of the channels and bands used.

Click the call letters for a channel you want to see. A line will be drawn from the tower to your approximate address

A screenshot of the FCC DTV website, where a strong TV channel is clicked. A line is drawn on the map to depict where the TV tower for the channel is located relative to the address. Full description to follow.

If you click all the channels you wish to catch, a clear picture will be drawn of where to face your TV antenna. Don’t worry if the channels you want are in two entirely different directions (West and Northeast, for example). Focus on the direction with the most stations for now.

It is important to note that the information shown is based on a simulation of what you in-theory should be able to get. In-practice, you might get more, or a little less. As a rule of thumb, if a channel is more than 50 miles away, you will probably need an attic or outdoor antenna–with rare exception, rabbit ears or a pancake won’t cut it.

So, What Networks Can I Get, Anyway?

Each channel from the FCC website can carry from 1 to 16(!) programs at the same time, or sub-channels. Enter your address into the Antenna Web website to get a different analysis of the channels and sub channels you can get. NOTE: Unlike the FCC website, Antenna Web attempts to line-up your location and reception with a kind of antenna with commercial intent. I personally think the service is very handy, but not knowing the why of buying can lead to buyer’s remorse, or multiple shopping trips/orders. Read through this article before making your buying decision.

What If I Live Near the Canada or Mexico Border?

TV channels in the US, Canada and Mexico use the same video standard and use the same channel numbers. Generally, if you live in a border corridor, the TV stations from across the border are in your media market, and you can get them with your TV. As in the US, there are still some analog TV channels in both countries. Refer to information from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (Canada) or Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones/Federal Telecommunications Institute (Mexico) for additional information.

Tips for Positioning Your Antenna

First things first: find a window that faces the towers, or place the antenna in a spot that is as free of obstruction as possible. Every single thing between your antenna and the towers can weaken the signal. In-general, raising the antenna will result in better signal, too.

Use a compass app for your phone or an actual compass to help you get the antenna pointed in the right direction if you have difficulty telling north from south. See Compass for Android, or use your iPhone’s compass app.

At the start of this article, I asked you to note the bands. If you have VHF channels to catch on your indoor antenna, make sure you have an antenna with dipoles or “rabbit ears”. Extend the dipoles as long as possible. It is a good idea to start the ears “flat” or horizontal. Then raise them if needed. Lower channel numbers require longer dipoles. If you’re using rabbit ears with a ring, adjust the ring angle down slightly.

If your antenna has an amplifier, start with the amplifier off or disconnected. Only turn it on if you need more power. Once you have your antenna aimed, turn the amplifier on. If you live more than 25 mi/40 km, you may wish to buy an amplifier if you don’t already have one.

Once you plug your antenna into a TV, use the Menu function and select Scan. After a few minutes, the scan will be complete. You should have at least a few channels.

Help! The Picture Is Bad!

Many TVs have a signal meter. The goal is to get the signal as high as practical. If you’re watching a channel and it is breaking up, slowly rotate your antenna from side to side. Watch the signal meter to see if it rises. Once you tweak the antenna’s position to get the highest signal as possible, re-scan your channels. You should get more channels, and a better picture.

For UHF channels, if your antenna’s ring can bend forward, move it up and down to see if the signal improves. For VHF channels, try raising one or both dipoles slightly to see if the signal improves. Remember that lower channels require longer dipoles.

Are you getting one or two channels, but you should be getting more? Now is the time to turn on the amplifier on your small TV antenna. If your antenna has an adjustable amp, turn it up slowly and only turn it high enough to get a clear signal. Over-amplifying can make your TV signal worse, not better.

I’m getting nothing: unfortunately, TV signals rely on line of sight. If there are too many things between you and the tower, or if you live in a big city, you might be witnessing signal reflection. You can work around this by turning your antenna to the right 45 degrees. (If the antenna is facing the front of your TV, it should be pointing at an angle to one side now.) Re-scan again. If nothing shows up, rotate it 45 degrees again, then scan. Keep doing this until your scan and get a signal. Once you have one, you can start slowly rotating the antenna back and forth until your signal strength is as strong as possible. Use the amplifier only if needed.

How Do I Get Channels That Are in a Different Directions?

If you have traditional rabbit ears or a flat antenna, your antenna will have a very narrow range where it can catch signals. When antennas are designed to face TV channels, it is called “unidirectional”. However, if you’re using an antenna intended to catch signals from any direction, it is called “omnidirectional”. This is important.

The simplest and least disruptive way to deal with stations in two or more different directions is to buy an omnidirectional antenna. It is important to note that omnidirectional antennas generally do not perform as well as unidirectional antennas.

The second option is to simply move your antenna. With a piece of tape and a marker, outline the location of your antenna in the original position. Then, turn your antenna towards the other channels and scan. (Your TV manufacturer may also be able to provide information on how to manually add channels.) Once you’ve added the other channels, mark the antenna location.

There is one last option: connect two antennas to your TV with a splitter. While the name describes what it is used for, it can also be used to combine two (or more) antennas together. Plug both antennas into the outputs on the splitter, then use an RG6 coax cable to connect the splitter to your tv.

Important: keep the cables as short as possible to avoid “multipathing” or getting the same signal twice. This also won’t work if you live close to TV towers as this will overwhelm the TV you’re connecting to.

In Conclusion

It may sound like a lot of nuance, but there are some very straightforward things you can do to improve your reception and get more TV channels. Given a little patience and some resourcefulness, you can significantly increase the number of channels you get!