How Do TV Antennas Work? The Ultimate Guide

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What you think of when we say the word “television” likely depends on your age. If you’re from Gen Z, your concept of TV likely includes a flat screen and a cable box. However, for Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers, that concept involves a CRT television with a set of TV antenna on top.

While cable and streaming services usurped the role held by over-the-air TV (and streaming services should cut cable consumer numbers to around 72 million in two years), you can still watch major national networks via digital TV antennas. But how do TV antennas work? Why would people still use them when streaming and cable exist? Here’s what you need to know.

How Do TV Antennas Work?

Answering the question, “How do TV antennas work?”, comes down to understanding physics and how we broadcast information in the digital age. Everything you see, hear, and watch on TV and the Internet these days has been converted into data and bounced along several towers, cables, and satellites to reach you in your home.

In simplest terms, an antenna is a receiver. It picks up digital signals sent out by transmitters, then routes them through the electronic components of your TV to translate the signal into sound and visual information.

How Do the Types of TV Antennas Affect the Signal?

The simplest antennas are a long, straight line that pierces the heavens. However, most TV antennas you can find are dipoles, or metal rods split into two pieces. (Technically speaking, the old-fashioned ‘rabbit ear’ construction is an adjustable dipole you can use inside your house.)

Most outdoor TV antennas arrange many dipoles around a supporting rod in the center. However, you can find ones shaped in circular loops or parabolic dishes. The wavelengths are exactly the same, so why are there so many different designs?

Simply put: it’s all about concentrating and boosting the signal. It’s not enough to receive the signal; you need to refine it to get the best quality picture and sound. This also allows you to receive weaker signals that may not otherwise transmit to your TV set, giving you more channel options.

Is Over-The-Air TV Actually Still a Thing?

Over-the-air, or OTA, TV has existed since the 1940s. Because of its age, many now see it as an outmoded, outdated form of entertainment that should go the way of the dinosaur. However, OTA TV is still very much a thing that exists and gets regulated by the federal government in the United States.

Whether you watch CBS, MSNBC, ABC, or Fox, you should find a local station broadcasting your signal, no matter where you live.

Why Do People Use Digital TV Antennas Over Cable or Streaming?

In a word: money. Cable packages and satellite companies raise their prices almost every single year, no matter what kind of bargain you got from them at first. Streaming programs are cheaper than cable or satellite, but also add to the mound of monthly subscription fees that you’re already paying.

With digital TV antennas, you can get all of your local networks for the low price of free. That’s right. Free.

In addition, some places may not have the infrastructure necessary to support running internet out there, but can still receive digital TV signals. For them, this makes OTA TV the preferred (and only) option.

What Are the Drawbacks to Digital TV Antennas?

We understand not everyone wants to rush into digital TV antenna installation without understanding the drawbacks as well as the benefits. So, let’s discuss the potential issues when you use digital OTA TV.

The biggest issue which affects both OTA TV and satellite consumers is weather. If your antenna rests outdoors, weather can have a direct impact on the quality of your signal. During severe wind or ice storms, outdoor TV antennas can get blown around, changing their orientation and thus the signal they can receive.

Even if your antenna rests indoors, connected to your television, extreme weather can occlude the signal. That doesn’t even account for the variety of obstacles in your home itself which can interfere with the signal’s integrity. (This is part of the reason the old rabbit ears model used to be so popular; you could adjust your TV signal on the fly to account for changes in weather and reception location.)

How to Get Started With a Digital TV Antenna

Thankfully, unlike cable boxes and satellite dishes, installing a digital TV antenna is easy for anyone to do. (Assuming, of course, that it’s an indoor model; you may still want to request help if yours works best outside.) All you need is a TV capable of receiving digital signals (which applies to all TVs produced after the year 2006), the digital TV antenna itself, and a coaxial cable.

If the coaxial cable isn’t included with the antenna itself, you can easily pick one up from your local electronics store or superstore. Then, you just need to attach the cable to the antenna and the TV, place and adjust the antenna, and voilà! You can start watching free HD (even 4K with certain models) OTA TV.

It’s simple to install, offers premium image and sound at a low price, and best of all, has no monthly fees for you to maintain.

Reviewing the Rabbit Ears

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “How do TV antennas work?”, you now have a better understanding of the science behind it, as well as the reasons why many will opt for digital TV antennas over cable, satellite, or streaming. The cost of startup and maintenance is far less than any other service, and you can receive higher-quality television without paying premium prices for it. With many of us looking to cut our cords, it’s an excellent alternative to newer entertainment venues.

If you enjoyed reading this article on how TV antennas work and why people would still use them, take a look at the Television section of our blog for more about the latest trends in TV!

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