I don’t watch much TV. I don’t say this to brag; I do plenty of other brainless, waste-of-time things (oh hello, video games,) just not TV. As a result, I am really opposed to paying for cable, Netflix, Hulu, or anything else I’m never going to use.
But getting the news would be nice. That’s pretty much all I want. Local news. The presidential debates. The ability to watch major historical events as they happen. If I lived in the city, this wouldn’t be a big deal. Grab an antenna, watch. Done. But I don’t live in the city. I live 45 miles from the closest small-city broadcast, and 90 miles from the St. Louis metro area broadcasts. Picking up those signals doesn’t come easily.
So I went on mission to get at least one major free live TV channel into my living room. Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t that hard.
Ideas and Planning
At the beginning of this adventure, my TV received one signal with four deviations (aka, 16-1, 16-2, 16-3, and 16-4.) All of them were evangelistic christian stations, so I was really set to watch a Sunday church service if I felt so inclined. Regardless, this was important, because it gave me a benchmark to improve upon. I knew my TV and location was capable of receiving at least one signal — if that signal disappeared during my work, something went very wrong.
I knew it was possible to receive more free live TV channels at my location; the FCC provides a free DTV (digital TV) reception map that indicated there were three moderate strength signals possible, and eight weak strength signals available. Be sure to check the availability of signals in your area before starting. If there’s nothing available, don’t waste your time. The reception map allows you to type in your exact address to get as accurate a prediction as possible.
My first idea (Plan A, and the option I’m going to talk about in this post) was to purchase a long-range TV antenna and mount it on the roof facing the 45 mile away broadcast. Plan B was building a taller mount to raise the antenna 5-ish feet above the roof. Plan C was giving up and purchasing a CBS all-access pass for $5.99 a month, which would have given me one news station, but was expensive long-term.
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Materials and Tools
- Long-Range Exterior TV Antenna– See FAQs below.
- Coaxial Cable– For transporting the signal from the antenna to your TV. Make sure you purchase enough coaxial cable to run the distance between those two locations.
- Rope– For safety on roof
- Exterior Caulk
- Spade Bit
- Wrenches, Sockets, Ratchets
- Optional: Signal Booster- I added this a couple weeks later when one of my new channels wasn’t reliable. I haven’t had any problems since. The signal booster I purchased is no longer available, but here’s the old Walmart listing so you know what kind of device you’re looking for.
How to Get Free Live TV
Step 1: Run Coaxial Cable from TV to Antenna Location
I ran my coaxial cable through my basement, out the basement window, then up to the antenna on roof of the second floor. To do this, I started by drilling a small hole in the floor in the corner of my living room with the spade bit. This was the scariest part of the whole installation, in case you were wondering.
From there, I ran it through the basement. The easiest way to get it outside was through the trim of a basement window.
Once the antenna was in place, I came back and caulked this hole with exterior caulk.
Optional Step 1.5: Test Antenna
Since we weren’t sure if the antenna would be able to pick up any new stations, before mounting the antenna, we tested it out. My dad held the antenna near its final location on the roof, while I searched for channels on the TV. We picked up two new signals (in addition to the one I already had,) so we decided to go through with the installation.
Step 2: Pinpoint Antenna Location
While you probably have a good idea where you want to install the antenna, in order to be secure it needs to be attached to a ceiling/roof joist. Head into your attic, and find a ceiling joist that is approximately where you want to mount the antenna. Drill a tiny hole next to ceiling joist (yes, all the way through the roof,) and insert a straightened wire hanger through the hole. This hanger will act as a little flag to tell you exactly where to mount the antenna.
Step 3: Mount the Antenna
Follow the instructions that came with your antenna. Be sure to add caulk to any holes you drilled in the roof to make sure they’re waterproof. Additionally, since you’ve opened up the caulk, this might be a good time to go back and caulk any holes you made to get the coaxial cable outside. Make sure you’ve pulled any extra coaxial cable into the house first!
You’ll note the rope hanging down in the picture above. It was securely attached to a tree on the other side of the house, and there for safety purposes. My roof was pretty steep where we were mounting the antenna, and if my dad started to slip, he could grab onto the rope to stabilize himself.
Doesn’t my dad look like he’s having the time of his life? I come up with such fun bonding activities.
Optional Step 4: Add Signal Booster
One of the two new signals I received isn’t super reliable, so I picked up a signal booster to help it during poor conditions. The signal booster is installed at the TV, making it easy to add to the setup after testing out the antenna for a couple weeks. You will also need an extra coaxial cable to run from the signal booster to the TV if you decide to add one.
How to Get Free Live TV: FAQs
What antenna did you buy? How did you make this decision?
I purchased this antenna from Amazon. I specifically looked for a long, 70+ mile range antenna that was higher priced. I was skeptical of the $20 indoor antennas that claimed to have high ranges; they sounded a little too good to be true. The antenna I purchased picks up all three “moderate” strength signals that were listed on the FCC’s website, and one of the “weak” signals.
All the signals are broadcast from about 45 miles away, but since one of them is a little unreliable I’m guessing the 70+ mile range that’s advertised is probably under best conditions only. While I can’t guarantee this antenna will work for you since there are so many variables, I’m pretty pleased with it so far.
Note: When I was researching, I found that some of the antenna manufacturers were bribing their customers with Amazon gift cards in exchange for five star reviews. Basically, be careful, and make sure you read the one star reviews as well as the positive ones.
What do I do if I have more than one TV?
I only have one TV in my home, so this wasn’t an issue for me. However you can purchase something called a “signal splitter” which will allow you to run coaxial cables to more than one TV in your home. If running cables all over your house sounds annoying, when I was researching I found a product called AirTV. AirTV receives data from the installed antenna (through a coaxial cable), then sends that signal to all the TVs in your house over your home wi-fi system. It’s around $80, but means you only have to run coaxial cable to one place.
How much coaxial cable will I need?
I don’t know. I’m sorry. Your best bet is to grab a tape measure and measure the distance it has to travel to go from the TV to the antenna. You don’t want to over-purchase, because there is some signal loss in the coaxial cable. The longer the coaxial cable, the more signal loss will occur, so try to approximate the correct length as best you can.
How did you decide where to place your antenna?
I knew the free live TV signals I was most likely to pick up were coming out of the small metro area 45 miles to the northwest. Therefore, I placed my antenna on the northwest side of the roof, as high up as I could place it, aimed directly toward that area. At the very minimum, your antenna needs to be on the same side of the house as the signals. Any extra aiming you can do will only help pick up signals.
Adding the antenna cost me around $130, which while not cheap, is a better alternative than paying $6 a month indefinitely for a service I’d barely use. Plus, I get a couple extra channels going this route, which is nice.
If you found this useful, go ahead and save it to Pinterest so you can find it again later. And if you’re also looking for places to hide your newly working TV, go check out my DIY TV Lift Cabinet, which is pretty much my favorite piece of furniture in my living room!