TV stations in the United States are not permitted to broadcast in the old analog format these days. For several years, cable companies were required to “down-convert” HD channels and turn them into analog signals that would work on older TVs. It was a very expensive proposition for cable providers since it meant that they had to have 2 channels per channel. The digital transition was the government’s idea and certainly not the idea of TV stations and cable companies since it forced them to spend tens of millions of dollars on upgrades. I was working back at a TV station at the time it happened and boy, was it a pain! That took up a lot of space and equipment.
Ever since the digital TV transition happened back in 2009, it’s a little more complicated to get a television signal. A reader shares her issues with us. “We have Cox Cable and they longer provide non- HD service. I have older TV’s upstairs that I can no longer get access to and I hate that. I don’t know whether it was the government’s (bad) idea or cables but I wish they hadn’t. I got a box from our cable company that is supposed to provide the signal to the other TV, but I get a message saying “signal too weak”, so we got an antenna; still no joy.”
Your old TVs won’t be able to pick up an over-the-air signal unless you have both a digital converter box and, most likely, an antenna. But be advised that even twenty years ago you could pick up a TV signal with just a tabletop antenna, that may not be the case now. Digital signals are much more finicky. You can’t get a fuzzy digital signal. You just get nothing.
One tool I’ve discovered for finding out what sort of antenna (if any) will work for you is the Interactive TV Coverage Browser at tvfool.com.
You type in your address.
Here is the list of channels that should be available via antenna from my house.
The channels are color-coded. Green indicates that I should be able to pick them up with a set-top antenna, yellow means I would need an attic- mounted antenna, while red indicates the need for a roof or pole-mounted antenna.
Where I live is pretty flat country. If I were to put in an address in my hilly hometown in the foothills of the Appalachians, there would be a different result.
It’s nearly impossible to pick up a signal over-the-air now in my hometown. Back in the days of analog signals, you could pick up at least three of these channels with a pole-mounted antenna.
You can also click on the station to see a coverage map.
TVfool.com takes into account the transmitter power, the landscape, and the station frequency. It does not take into account obstructions like buildings or trees. And from my experience, the signal can vary according to the time of year, (leaves on the trees can be an issue) and other factors. The other thing to take into account is the direction the signals are coming from. If the transmitters for stations are in different locations, you will probably have to adjust the position of the antenna to pick up the signal. If you live in an area where one transmitter is to the south and another to the north, if you decide to buy a pole or roof mounted antenna, you’ll a motor that allow you to turn the antenna.
Even in an area with good signal coverage, there’s no absolute guarantee that you’ll be able to get a strong signal, but there’s a good likelihood.
Your old TVs also should work if you rent an additional cable converter box from your cable company. Another option is just to purchase new TVs. You can get HDTVs these days for just over $100. As of this writing, Walmart offered a 32″ LED HDTV for $119.