The Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, has been an American institution for nearly 50 years, as fundamental to our identity as “Baseball” (a documentary by Ken Burns) and apple pie (baked in a crust that Martha Stewart calls “pate brisee”). Where else can you see high class dramas, award-winning children's programs, concerts and other cultural events, in-depth news coverage, and marathon antique appraisals all in the same spot? PBS offers you all this and more; it's also where you'll find locally produced programming that caters specifically to your regional interests. For many, PBS represents the best that television has to offer, and it's just about the only place where you can see reruns of British sitcoms in perpetuity

Given the rich programming that PBS provides, cord cutters are eager to swoon over “Masterpiece” and experience “Nature” without spending money on cable. PBS has always been available for free over the air with a TV antenna, and many people still watch it that way today. For those who prefer to stream, however, it may be as frustrating as waiting for something pleasant to happen to Laura Carmichael's character on “Downton Abbey,” although your patience may pay off in the end, just as Lady Edith's did.

Watching PBS Over the Air

An over-the-air antenna may still be the most reliable way of watching PBS on your TV. Those who remember the frustrations of watching PBS in the old days of analog TV may balk at the idea of fuzzy reception and long stretches of dead air and static. We feel your pain, but don't worry; like a period costume drama, those days belong to the past. Technology has improved greatly since the advent of all-digital television broadcasts, and the iconic rabbit-ear antennas that many remember from childhood are such a relic of the past that they belong on a history program

For those who wish to receive PBS and other broadcast channels over the air, there are many different options available in TV antennas. Some are outdoor antennas meant to mount on the roof, some are indoor antennas, and some may be mounted in either location. Some antennas come with an artsy design so that they appear to be just another aesthetic touch, some are meant to mount behind wall decorations so they won't be seen, and others are paintable or come with special patterns to camouflage with your décor.

How To Choose the Correct TV Antenna

Deciding which antenna to buy

depends on a number of different factors:

  • Your distance from the TV transmitter
  • The direction of the TV transmitter
  • The obstacles between your home and the transmitter

The greater the distance between your home and the transmitter, and the more obstacles in the way, the more difficult it will be for you to receive the channel and the more powerful an antenna you will need.

Another factor is the broadcast channels you want to receive. Channels in the UHF frequency band number from 14 to 51, while VHF channels number 2 through 13. Not all antennas are equipped to receive all bands, so you'll need to know which frequency range your local PBS station falls into and purchase an antenna to receive that range. PBS channels may be either VHF or UHF.

An outdoor antenna will yield you the best possible reception, but they can be more expensive than indoor antennas and also more of a hassle to install, as they need to mount on your roof for best results. Indoor antennas are usually less expensive and more convenient to install, but you'll sacrifice some reception as a result.

Remember that all over-the-air programming, including PBS, is now broadcast in digital format, meaning that you need a digital tuner to receive it. Newer televisions have the tuner built in, but if you have an older TV, you may need to purchase the digital tuner separately.

Sparse PBS Offerings on Streaming Services

Unfortunately, there are very few streaming services that offer any type of PBS programming, with Netflix and Amazon Prime being the exceptions. The problem is that PBS is less of a network and more of a television program distributor that syndicates content to a loose confederation of largely independent public stations.

For example, as you already know if you're a PBS aficionado, many of its most popular programs are actually British exports or programs made in partnership with overseas broadcasters. For this reason, PBS does not currently have the rights to stream most of its programs through third-party companies.

The chief digital officer at PBS recognizes the demand for its programs on streaming platforms and has made obtaining the rights to stream those programs a high priority. He doesn't have an exact timeframe for when PBS programs will be available on streaming services, but the hope is that it will be sooner rather than later.

Limited Streaming Options for PBS Programs

PBS does have a digital streaming app that provides video on demand on your TV, phone, or tablet. It's called PBS Anywhere, and it's compatible with several different platforms:

  • Amazon Fire TV
  • Apple TV
  • Roku
  • Android TV and Android devices
  • iOS devices

There are, however, limitations involved. First of all, it's not very convenient to have to use a separate app just to watch one channel for people who like to access all their streaming content from one digital service. There's also typically a delay, usually less than 24 hours, between the time that the programming is broadcast over the air and the time it is available for viewing online.

Another limitation to using the app to watch PBS streaming programs is that free offerings are typically only available for a limited time after they air, depending on their type. Kids shows and news programming is always available, but documentaries and dramas are only available for two weeks, while other kinds of programming may remain available up to four weeks.

However, there is a way around this limitation. By donating at least $60 a year ($5 a month) to your local PBS station, you gain access to PBS Passport, which allows you nearly unlimited access to content that is locked for viewing by non-contributors. Content available through Passport may expire eventually, but it's usually up for a matter of years rather than weeks, and programs may rotate in and out of availability. If you're still hesitant to make a donation, keep in mind that $5 a month/$60 a year is considerably less than you would pay for cable. Also, contributions to your PBS station are tax deductible, so in a way you actually profit from donating to your PBS station, plus you get the altruistic satisfaction of knowing that the money goes to support future programming. When's the last time you got so much out of a cable subscription?

While PBS isn't yet available through most streaming services, don't lose heart. PBS has heard your pleas and is working to supply the demand. In the meantime, many other channels are available for streaming. If you've decided that leaving cable behind is the right choice for you, we have information on how to get started.