Practical Savings: Getting Free TV

Surprisingly, a number of people just keep paying cable and satellite companies giants wads of cash indiscriminately for their entire lives. I’ll admit it, I had DirecTV for two years with my wife. We love the Buffalo Sabres and wanted to watch the games. Unfortunately for us there aren’t very many options when it comes to watching an NHL in-market team, so if we wanted to see them it was cable or satellite. While we still would love to see the Sabres, we found the bill in our second year to be a giant sucking hole in our wallet.

The Money Pit

Let’s do a quick little analysis here:
With our local cable company we can pay for their package which gets us the sports channel we want for an introductory rate of $49.99/mo for “Digital TV”. But don’t forget the taxes, surcharges, one time fees, and box fees. Yeah that charge is for bringing you cable TV, but the actual box to watch it doesn’t get included. That starts at $8.99/month and can go up to $57.46/month. Right, so If I want to watch hockey I can pay Time Warner $59/month plus fees and taxes minimum for that privilege, and that’s at their introductory first year prices. That is $708+ a year!

Looking back at DirecTV’s old bills, we ended up paying $84.11/month all said in our second year (likely around $54/month the first year). And they lock you into a two-year contract so we can’t even drop and renew to get the intro rate back. So averaging that out, it means we were paying $69/month over those two years. That amounts to $828/year and $1656 in total!

You don’t need to do it anymore, people! For gods sake, they are sending you free programming over the air! And now that we have digital signals, they send you multiple channels from each broadcaster. I get three PBS channels, three NBC, two CBS, two ABC and a Fox channel – and I don’t even live in a major market.

You know what else I love besides hockey? Football. The NY Giants. And that, my friends, is free. Nearly every game is aired free on my local Fox station. For the ones that aren’t my extended family makes a night out of it by going to a sports bar and watching it together. I can assure you that the bar tab for all the games in a season don’t amount to one month of cable.

Find, Make or Buy and Antenna

As a first step in weaning ourselves from one of the largest expenses in everyone’s cashflow, go grab yourself an antenna. You remember those things, right? Used to have gigantic metal poles that everyone called rabbit ears? Well you can grab an antenna and get yourself some free TV shows. Most people get bamboozled by some interesting packaging they introduced after the switch to digital TV. They started marking antennas as “HD” as if somehow antennas suddenly changed too. They didn’t. If you still do have some rabbit ears, or a bowtie that’ll work. Oh yeah, and so will a DIY antenna from some wire coat hangers. Or maybe some foil. Or this bowtie style too. The point is that if you have an antenna, or want to make one on the cheap you can.

If you don’t have one, or plan to make one, you’ll likely want to take a peek at a handy website that’ll let you know where you (might need to) point that sucker. It’s called TV Fool. You plug in your address and they can list off all the stations that you might be able to get and what direction to point the antenna in to help pick them up if they’re far away. It will also give you an idea what type of antenna to get.

Types of Antennae

In general there are a few types of antennas: indoor or outdoor, amplified or not, direction or omni-directional. For most people you’ll just use an indoor antenna – omni-directional, flat, or “passive”. An example is this cheap RCA one

Some poeple don’t like the look of those, so you can grab a “flat” one that you can usually mount on a wall or hide somewhere: Flat Indoor Antennae

If you live far away you may need an outdoor one that is larger and more powerful. If you live in a city where signals bounce off buildings a lot, you might need a directional one (you hook it up and then rotate it to point in the direction of the station to help cut off the bounced signals) – in the old days you’d have gotten “ghost” signals where you’d have double images. With digital that doesn’t happen but instead just degrades the signal in a way that it won’t show up. That basic RCA one I linked above should also work too since it more or less is the traditional “rabbit ears” design so you can point the “ears” to grab the signal.


Oftentimes TVs will have some menu buried deep that allows you to try and fine tune your antenna. On an LG we have downstairs, I go to Menu > Channel > Manual Tuning and it’ll display signal strength and quality bars so I can see if I’m getting closer or not while I fiddle with rotating the antenna or its ears.

Typically you’ll want to start off by going to TV Fool, looking at the report for your address and writing down the value for “Azimuth” for the group of channels you’re looking to pick up. This is the value for which way you need to rotate a directional antenna. Then if you have an iPhone you can open up your compass app to help you point to that angle. I imagine Android has some compass app equivalent as well. This lets you get started by pointing in the right direction and you can start fine tuning from there.

If you’re still having issues you may need to bump up the strength of your antenna by getting an amplified one, or moving from an indoor one to an outdoor model. I happen to have to point my antenna straight at a brick wall, chimney and part of my garage in my family room so I needed to change my antenna. While upstairs, it’s a pretty clear line of sight so I could use a pretty simple omnidirectional antenna.


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  1. Pingback: Save Money on Your Cable Bill: Use a stranger for a DirecTV referral | Big Day ComingBig Day Coming

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