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OTA TV is one of the most powerful cord cutting tools there is – and it's also one of the most under-utilized. Part of the confusion stems from the acronym itself. We refer to OTA a lot here on Cordcutting.com, and while we try to make sure we always remind you of what OTA stands for, it's easy to understand why some people are still asking: what is OTA TV?

Below, we'll tell you what OTA stands for and then tackle that question in our title – “what is OTA TV?” – in depth. We'll give a brief history lesson and explain how OTA came to be, how it works, and how you can use it to watch free TV without cable. Then we'll give you a quick crash course in choosing your over-the-air TV antenna and using it to its fullest potential. Along the way, we'll be providing plenty of links to our in-depth coverage of OTA TV here on Cordcutting.com. Let's do this!

What OTA Stands For

OTA stands for “over the air.” When we talk about OTA TV, we're talking about over-the-air TV, which is the free TV that you can pick up with an over-the-air TV antenna. Yes, that's right: OTA TV is free. It also includes some of the biggest channels you remember from cable, which makes free over-the-air TV one of the best tools you can have as a cord cutter.

What Is OTA TV?

OTA TV is over-the-air TV. The “over-the-air” part is abbreviated to OTA and makes its way into all sorts of terms: the antennas we can use to watch OTA TV are often called “over-the-air TV antennas” or just “OTA antennas,” DVR devices that allow you to record OTA TV are called “OTA DVRs,” and so on. In each case, OTA just reminds us that we're talking about over-the-air channels.

But what are over-the-air channels? You've probably guessed that they are channels that broadcast over the air (duh). But how and why do they do that?

The how is that local channels have their own broadcast towers. If you've ever driven by your local CBS or NBC station's headquarters, you probably saw something that looked like one of these:

What is OTA TV? It's what comes out of these broadcast towers.

Those are broadcast towers, and your distance from your local station's broadcast tower (along with any obstacles between you and it) will determine how easy or difficult it is for you to pick up that station with your over-the-air TV antenna.

Broadcast towers tend to be staples of channels with local programming. If you have a local ACTION NEWS TEAM, then you probably have a local broadcast tower, too. To understand why that is, we need to go back to the earliest days of TV.

Where Did Over-the-Air Channels Come From?

Over-the-air TV channels date back to the original TV networks. Old-school TV networks broadcast from their own broadcast towers, which were connected with cables (hence “networks”). The original “big four” networks – which included ABC, CBS, and NBC – dominated TV, and all of this was done with broadcast towers and TV antennas.

Thanks to the demands of rural customers and the rise of multichannel programming, cable eventually became our main way of watching TV content. The modern “big four” major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) are now available through big cable providers like Comcast. For a while, it seemed like everyone had forgotten about OTA – which is why we find ourselves here asking “what is OTA TV?” But here's the thing: those networks never stopped broadcasting over the air, and there are plenty of other channels that still go out over the air, too! OTA TV never went away. And, eventually, many of us began to rediscover it.

The cord cutting revolution has made OTA TV relevant again. Modern OTA TV is digital (thanks to the analog-to-digital switch-over of 2009). If you use a modern antenna and modern TV, you'll get crisp HD picture over the air. And modern technology makes it possible to convert OTA TV into streaming video, and even to record it onto hard drives and replay it at will, just as you can with a cable DVR. This isn't your grandpa's OTA TV!

Those old-school network giants – ABC, CBS, and the rest – are still highlights of free over-the-air TV. But they're not the only things that you can watch.

What Channels Can you Watch for Free Over the Air?

Now you know what OTA TV is and understand why we have it. In a moment, we'll show you how to get it. But first, you may want to ask: which channels can you watch for free over the air? Which networks are broadcast networks, and which ones are network channels, available only on cable?

Which channels you can watch for free over the air will vary a bit depending on your region, but there are a few basics you can probably expect. Some of the channels you may be able to watch for free over the air include:

  • ABC
  • CBS
  • Fox
  • NBC (these first four channels are often called TV's “big four” major networks)
  • The CW (sometimes called the fifth major network)
  • PBS
  • PBS Kids
  • Univision (Spanish-language network)
  • Telemundo (Spanish-language network)
  • MeTV

There are plenty of other over-the-air networks – too many, in fact, to list here. The largest ones (all of which made the list above) are available in many, many areas, but there are also plenty of small-time OTA channels that serve only certain regions. You never know what else you might find when you scan for channels with your new antenna! And that brings us to our next section.

How to Use Over-the-Air TV

So now you're no longer asking “what is OTA TV?” – but, if you're as excited about this as we are, you're probably starting to ask “how can I get OTA TV?” The answer to this one is simple: get an antenna!

Well, okay, maybe it's not that simple. Antennas come in all shapes and sizes, including indoor and outdoor antennas and directional and “omnidirectional” antennas. They had different ranges, are made by different manufacturers, and use different systems to denote their power and range. How can you choose the right one?

Choosing an Antenna

When it comes to choosing an antenna, your best bet is to start with a simple question: what do you want to watch? If you're dying to watch Fox but your local Fox station is 30 miles away, then you're definitely going to want to get an antenna with a range that comfortable covers 30 miles. If you don't care about Fox, and if ABC, CBS, and NBC are all within five miles of you, then you don't need nearly as serious of an antenna.

Finding out where your local stations are is a piece of cake, because there are several tools available online that serve exactly this purpose:

All of them work just fine for finding your local over-the-air TV stations. If you're not comfortable putting your whole address in, by the way, you can use your zip code. (Or just use your neighbors address. They'll never know.)

Once you've punched in the information, the tool will provide a map and a list showing your local stations. You'll be able to see at a glance which ones you might be able to pick up with an antenna of a certain range.

What is OTA TV? It's your path to watching channels like these - for free!
Using the FCC tool to find nearby OTA stations

Keep in mind that there are other things besides distance that matter to antenna reception. You'll get worse (or no) reception if there are hills in the way, and you'll get better reception the higher up you are (factors like these are why they make broadcast towers so tall). This isn't an exact science, but try to make your best bet as to what antenna range you'll need. Be conservative, because antennas will be labeled with their range under ideal conditions.

Indoor and Outdoor Antennas

Over-the-air TV antenna
A typical indoor over-the-air TV antenna. This one has an amplifier (note the power source and little box on the cable).

If you're looking for a range of less than 60 or 70 miles (give or take), you can likely get by with an indoor antenna. The smallest indoor antennas cost just a few bucks and look like the old “rabbit ears” you may remember from old-fashioned TVs. The most powerful ones are large, often broad and flat, and may also have an amplifier on their cable – an amplifier, as the name suggests, boosts the signal after the antenna picks it up, which can be a huge help on weak, faraway signals. (You can buy amplifiers on their own, so its always possible to improve the reception of an amplifier-less antenna after the fact).

Outdoor antennas can be a bit more complicated, but they still work in the same basic way. Outdoor antennas are sometimes directional, meaning they should be oriented in a specific way in order to pick up broadcast signals (this isn't usually a problem, as rural viewers will likely find their OTA TV all comes from one direction – the direction of the nearest large town!). Outdoor antennas may be mounted on the walls or roof, with the cable running down to the TV.

Scanning for Channels

Whether you're using an indoor antenna or an outdoor one, your next step is to scan for channels. Go into your TV's settings and look for an option labeled “scan for channels” or something similar. This will work a little differently on different TVs – we're in the TV's settings, here, not the antenna's.

Make sure you don't forget this step! If your TV doesn't know which frequency the channels are on, it won't be able to show you free over-the-air TV networks, and you'll think that it's not working. It's essential to scan for channels.

How to Get the Most Out of Over-the-Air TV

An over-the-air TV antenna is all that you need to watch free over-the-air TV. Plug it in, scan for channels, and you're all set! But if you want to get even more out of your over-the-air TV experience, things don't have to end there.

There are a ton of ways to make your over-the-air TV experience even better. We'll cover a few here.

Stream OTA TV

Since over-the-air antennas connect directly to your TV, you need one for each TV in your home. Unless, that is, you choose to turn your OTA TV into streaming content. There are a couple of ways to do that.

One is to use an OTA DVR (more on those in a moment). The other is to use a PC TV tuner and a server like Plex. No matter how you slice it, a few things remain the same: you'll need a TV tuner (like the PC TV tuner or the one built into your OTA DVR) and you'll need a network-connected device.

Here's how it works with Plex Pass: your antenna connects to the PC TV tuner, which is in turn connected to your computer. Using Plex's live TV feature and the Plex app, you can now use a different device to watch (and record) live OTA TV, even though the device in question is not physically connected to the antenna itself.

Use OTA DVRs

Get more out of your over-the-air TV antenna with an OTA DVR
An OTA DVR like Tablo can make your over-the-air TV antenna more useful.

OTA DVRs are exactly what they sound like: DVRs built for the OTA world. These devices have TV tuners and Wi-Fi connections, and they invite you to connect an antenna and then use other devices – running the relevant OTA DVR app – to schedule and view recordings (and even, in many cases, stream live TV).

All in all, the setup works quite similarly to the Plex Pass one described above. But these out-of-the-box, all-in-one solutions make things particularly simple and straightforward.

Further Reading

We've covered a lot of ground, but there is still more to learn! Click the many links above or search for “OTA” in our Cordcutting.com search bar to see more of our OTA TV coverage, and follow us on social media to keep up with the latest tips, news, and how-tos related to cord cutting and free over-the-air TV!

0 thoughts on “OTA TV: A Guide to Free Over-the-Air Television

  1. brucejones says:

    last week 9/11/19 when the local station’s changed signal’s i got all my channel’s back but wdbj 7 and 7-2 what happened and how can i get them back i have a outside antenna.

    1. Stephen Lovely says:

      Hi Bruce, thanks for reading! You could try re-scanning for channels or repositioning your antenna. Hope that helps!

  2. Thomas says:

    Your article mentions an OTA DVR like Tablo. What are the other ones? That is the whole reason I came to this article.

    1. Stephen Lovely says:

      Hi Thomas, thanks for reading! There are a few others: There’s the TiVo Bolt OTA DVR, Amazon recently came out with a Fire TV-powered take on the OTA DVR called the Fire TV ReCast, and I believe ChannelMaster has an OTA DVR offering, too. Tablo is probably the biggest player in this space right now, though.

  3. al says:

    what happened to the over the air tv guide for whats on
    i did the scan all the stations were added when i go to the tv guide to see whats on
    nothing shows up. this is on a newer sony tv.

  4. Paul says:

    I have used ota for a few years now its great you can use an omnidirectional antenna with a amplified splitter for multi tvs and i have used help the antenna guy hes on YouTube has great tips for getting channels good antennas etc i receive about 75 channels in my area but everyone is different

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