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Tuning In to Local HDTV Broadcasts

If the thought of paying for cable or satellite TV service hurts your head, consider free over-the-air (OTA) HDTV. Nearly every household in America can tune into at least one HDTV station (99 percent of homes, according to some sources), and it's absolutely free!

Researching free local HDTV channels

Spend a little bit of time researching broadcast HDTV channels. Now you don't have to do this research online, but if you have Internet access, that's the best way to do so. If you don't have Internet access, talk to the retailers from whom you're buying your HDTV — they probably have firsthand knowledge (or at least anecdotal information) about local HDTV signal availability. They may also have a kiosk that provides access to online information.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) is the huge (and hugely influential) trade organization that includes just about every HDTV manufacturer in the world. So it has a vested interest in getting people to buy HDTVs. This interest is sometimes manifested as lobbying efforts with the FCC, or efforts to develop marketing and industry. It also pops its head up in the form direct-to-the-consumer education efforts.

In the case of HDTV, the CEA had the truly brilliant idea of providing an extremely easy-to-use HDTV "signal finder." In conjunction with a company called Decisionmark, the CEA has created this online system (called TitanTV) that lets you enter your address information, press a button, and come out the other side with a nice listing of all your HDTV-channel choices.

Just go to TitanTV and follow the on-screen instructions. You can also access TitanTV at many HDTV retailers, and come home with a printout of your available stations.

Not only does TitanTV find OTA stations for you, it also comes up with the cable and satellite stations available to you. You can do a quick comparison and see what best meets your needs.

Tuning into the free HDTV channels

HDTV breaks the old TV paradigm in many ways. One big difference is that not all HDTVs have a built-in TV tuner. Back in the olden days of NTSC and analog TV, this was quite rare — a few high-end TVs were "monitors" and required an external tuner, but they were definitely in the minority.

With HDTV and OTA HDTV broadcasts, the situation has been reversed — at least for the time being (more on that soon). Many sets sold as HDTVs today are HDTV-ready, but don't have any electronics inside them that can pick up an OTA HDTV broadcast — or any ATSC broadcast, whether high-definition or standard-definition. (ATSC is the acronym for the Advanced Technology Standards Committee, an international, non-profit organization that sets forth voluntary standards for digital television.)

The government is requiring TV manufacturers to include built-in tuners that can pick up OTA HDTV, starting with bigger (36+-inch) TVs in 2005. Soon this lack of tuners won't be a problem.

Building on a built-in tuner

If you have an HDTV with a built-in ATSC tuner, you're just about all set. All you need to do is find the appropriate antenna, make the connections, and go. It's really that simple — or at least it can be.

Just follow the instructions in your HDTV's manual for tuning in the HDTV stations. (Each HDTV on-screen setup process is different.)

Some HDTVs with built-in ATSC tuners also have special tuners that can decode QAM-encoded HDTV signals. QAM is the system used by most cable-TV networks. This means you may be able to pick up your local broadcast stations by just plugging in your cable TV connection. Note that this is different from the DCR (digital-cable-ready) systems. And no, this has nothing to do with using an OTA antenna, but it's a nice morsel of information to know in case you're ever asked this question at a neighborhood BBQ.

Adding on a tuner

If you own an HDTV, chances are good that you won't have that built-in ATSC tuner mentioned in the previous section. Your HDTV probably has an NTSC tuner, which can pick up analog broadcasts, but it probably is only HDTV-ready, so you need to pick up an HDTV tuner box that you can connect between your antenna feed and your HDTV.

The biggest problem with HDTV tuners (whether they're in your TV, or external) has traditionally been an economic one. They are (or at least were) darned expensive. Even a year or two ago, it was common to see HDTV tuners that cost $1,000 or more (this effectively explains why so many HDTVs were sold as HDTV-ready: Not everyone with an HDTV uses the OTA tuner, so why drive the cost of an already-expensive HDTV through the roof?).

The good news is that prices have come way down, which is common with consumer electronics. And the prices are going nowhere but down.

When you're choosing an HDTV tuner, here are just a few things to consider:

  • Digital outputs: If it's at all possible, you should use a digital cable connection between your tuner and your HDTV — either DVI-D or HDMI is by far the most common (1394/FireWire used to be common, but it's rare these days). Make sure that the outputs of your tuner match the inputs of your HDTV.
  • The newer HDMI system is backward-compatible with DVI-D with the use of a simple adapter. So you can mix and match DVI-D and HDMI freely.
    If your HDTV tuner's DVI-D or HDMI output uses the HDCP copy-protection scheme, make sure the DVI-D or HDMI input on your HDTV does, too. Otherwise the system may weaken (or "down-res") the signal, giving you a non-HDTV picture.
  • Analog outputs: While you'll want to use your digital outputs, if possible, it's handy to have a full set of analog outputs on the HDTV tuner, for making connections to other devices (like a digital video recorder).
  • Output resolution: Most HDTV tuners can be adjusted to match the best resolution for your HDTV. Some HDTVs require a specific signal resolution (such as 1080i); if yours does, make sure your tuner can give you output at that resolution.
  • Satellite capability: Some OTA HDTV tuners also include satellite-TV receivers. Well, the satellite companies would flip it around and say their receivers include OTA tuners. Either way, this can be handy if you're using a satellite service for premium HDTV channels (like ESPN-HD and HBO) and using an antenna to pick up local HDTV channels.

The FCC is requiring TV manufacturers to begin including built-in ATSC tuners in their TVs, as part of the overall industry transition to digital TV. By the middle of 2005, all TVs larger than 36 inches will require an on-board ATSC tuner — over time, this requirement will filter down to smaller TVs, and even to devices like VCRs, which have their own NTSC tuners these days. (NTSC refers to the National Television System Committee, the group that sets television and video standards in the United States.)

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