By Jim Kimble / Updated October 30, 2023
A quiet revolution is taking place in American living rooms as viewers are increasingly tuning into the intrinsic value of local broadcast networks. Streaming giants and cable companies may dominate TV screens with their vast libraries and networks.
But local channels like ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CW, and PBS—along with their numerous sub-channels—remain the steadfast providers of news, weather, sports, and community connections.
This resurgence of interest in local channels and its content is mirrored by a notable increase in TV antenna usage.
As of 2022, the Consumer Technology Association has noted a significant uptick in TV antenna ownership. An estimated 32% of U.S. households are now equipped with a TV antenna compared to 26% in 2019, a trend highlighted by the Los Angeles Times.
This number is expected to climb, reaching an estimated 50 million antenna-using homes by 2025 as more consumers sever the cable-tv cord, the Times reported.
Many are surprised to learn that the coaxial port at the back of their TV, often overlooked as a mere appendage for cable boxes, is in fact a portal to a treasure trove of free programming.
By connecting a TV antenna to this port, households across the nation are unlocking a world where top-rated shows, the evening news, and weekend sports are available at no extra cost, liberating them from the monthly bills of subscription services.
My Experience With Getting Local Channels Without Cable
In this article, I will share my insights from using different TV antennas over the last several years, including comprehensive testing that I have done of current TV antennas across Massachusetts, Maine and Southern California.
I will guide you through every choice currently available, including over-the-air and streaming options.
Table of Contents
- TV Antennas
- Key Advice: Antenna Range Claims vs TV Market Realities
- 3 Types of TV antennas
- Channel apps & Streaming
- Live TV Streaming Services
- Stream live local news and weather
- Watch Local Channels on Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku
- Get Local Channels: Summary
- Product Recommendations for Local Channel Access
My first TV antenna in the 1990s was a Rabbit-Ears style antenna. It came with my 27-inch Sharp TV that I purchased in the 1980s. I was fresh out of college, and didn’t have enough money for a cable subscription.
Back then, the antenna had to be connected to two screws on the back of the TV called “antenna terminals.” This was years before digital TV signals (ATSC 1.0) that we have today.
When I decided to “cut the cord” in 2016 and say goodbye to my pricey cable subscription, there weren’t a lot of great online resources aimed at helping me. How could I keep watching my favorite shows? Could I stream channels over the internet?
There were two things that struck me when I set up that first indoor TV antenna in 2016; I was astounded by the crystal-clear local broadcast channels that appeared. The picture quality had much less compression. A lot of the bigger networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS – meant no more monthly bills, and yet my favorite shows were right there.
My takeaway? As long as I had a decent TV antenna, I would have local channels free for life. But what is a decent TV antenna these days? This chart includes three reliable models that I have tested, but let’s get into the subject in more detail.
|ClearStream FLEX||$49.99||indoor / multi-directional antenna|
|Channel Master Flatenna||$29.99||indoor / multi-directional antenna|
|RCA Outdoor Yagi||$62||outdoor / directional antenna|
There are a few different free, online tools that you can use to easily use to see which local channels might be available to you over-the-air.
- DTV Reception Maps on the Federal Communications Commission’s website is handy for checking which stations are broadcasting in UHF vs VHF.
- Rabbitears.info provides a more granular look at local stations, especially if you are searching for NextGen TV signals.
- Antennas Direct Transmitter Locator gives you a potential channel lineup, signal strength, map and specific recommendations for TV antennas. You can also see whether NextGen TV broadcasts are in your area.
Connecting a TV antenna to a Smart TV is pretty simple, especially if you’re using an indoor TV antenna. Just plug one into the coax port on the back of your TV. Under settings, you will need to look for an “Air TV” or “Over-the-air” option and scan for channels.
Key Advice: Antenna Range Claims vs TV Market Realities
When shopping for TV antennas, you’ll often come across products boasting impressive “range” capabilities, sometimes claiming to pull in signals from over 100 miles away.
While these assertions may seem attractive, it’s crucial to approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism for several reasons.
The Myth of the 100-Mile Range
Technological Limitations: The curvature of the Earth limits the line-of-sight between broadcast towers and your antenna. Even under perfect conditions, the maximum range for TV signal reception is typically around 70-80 miles. In my testing, getting a signal even at 70 miles is rare. Beyond this distance, the Earth’s curvature prevents signals from reaching your antenna. (The furthest signal I have gotten from an outdoor antenna is 55 miles.)
Environmental Factors: The actual range of an antenna is also significantly affected by environmental factors such as terrain, buildings, trees, and weather. These obstacles can block or degrade signals before they reach your home, reducing the effective range of your antenna.
Marketing Tactics: Claims of a 100-mile range are often, in my opinion, marketing tactics that don’t account for real-world conditions.
TV Markets and Signal Availability
Designated Market Areas (DMAs): Television markets are defined by geographic boundaries known as Designated Market Areas. These DMAs are regions where the local population can receive the same television offerings. This means that even if an antenna could theoretically receive signals from over 100 miles away, it would not be able to access channels outside of its designated market area.
In-Market Signals: Broadcasters operate within specific DMAs, and their signals are intended to serve viewers within those boundaries. As a result, your antenna will primarily pick up signals from local broadcast towers, which are the ones transmitting the channels meant for your area.
Legal Restrictions: It’s also worth noting that there are legal restrictions in place that prevent certain content from being broadcast outside of its intended market. This is to respect the regional broadcasting rights and agreements in place.
Practical Advice for Antenna Selection
When selecting an antenna, focus on models that are designed for the reception conditions in your area. Consider the following:
- Distance to Local Broadcast Towers: Determine the distance between your home and the nearest broadcast towers. Choose an antenna with a range that covers that distance comfortably, without being excessive.
- Directional vs. Multi-Directional: Decide whether a directional antenna (which you point towards the towers) or a multi-directional antenna (which picks up signals from all directions) is best for your situation.
- Amplification Needs: Assess whether you need an amplified antenna to boost signal strength, especially if you’re at the edge of a signal range or have multiple obstructions.
By understanding these key factors and avoiding the allure of unrealistic range claims, you can select an antenna that will provide you with the best possible reception of available local channels within your TV market.
3 Types of TV antennas
Even if you live fairly close to broadcast towers, I know from years of climbing on my own roof (and the roofs of family members) that you will always get more channels, and better reception, with an outdoor TV antenna.
So even though getting an outdoor TV antenna mounted on a roof can be challenging, I think you should consider it. Hiring a professional to do it (which I recommend) is a one-time cost just like the antenna itself.
Indoor TV antennas are fine if you live in a city where broadcast towers are fairly close by.
Let’s break down the three types of TV antennas:
Directional Antennas: These antennas mostly pick up signals from one direction. They’re ideal if broadcast towers are clustered in a specific area. They often have a longer range but require precise positioning.
Multi-directional Antennas: They pull signals from multiple directions. These models are good for areas with towers spread out. They offer flexibility but might have a shorter range than directional ones.
Omni-directional Antennas: These catch signals from all around. They’re versatile and need no repositioning. However, they might not be as powerful in areas with distant towers.
I have found that either a multi-directional or directional TV antenna are the best types for most setups. But in the last couple of years, I have come to favor directional TV antennas the most. I will explain why in a moment.
Now, about UHF vs VHF: It’s vital to know which frequencies local stations use. VHF channels range from 2 to 13. UHF channels span 14 to 83. Some antennas are tailored for UHF, others for VHF, and some handle both.
Check local frequencies using free online tools. Then, pick an antenna that matches those needs. Getting this right affects how many channels you’ll receive and the clarity of those channels.
One of my best antenna setups
One year, while trying out a few outdoor TV antennas in a woodsy spot in Southern Maine, I became pretty much sold on an effective combination of hardware. In this case, it was the combination of a directional TV antenna, an antenna pole for elevation and an adjustable amplifier that made all the difference.
Here’s what happened:
I had already mounted a couple of other fairly expensive multi-directional TV antennas with UHF and VHF elements. I got a number of channels from broadcast towers that were 30 to 40 miles away.
I used an amplifier, but I still had some trouble with occasional pixelation with a few stations. And, I couldn’t get the local FOX station that had a broadcast tower just over 40 miles to my northwest.
Eventually, I switched to a smaller directional antenna with UHF and VHF elements that didn’t look as impressive. Its advantage is that it was mounted to a five foot antenna pole, giving it a significant boost in elevation.
Finally, the elusive FOX station started to come in. But I still had problems with maintaining a clear signal. After a couple channel scans, I could tell that the amplifier helped, but wasn’t getting the absolute best result.
I switched over to an adjustable preamplifier that allows you to adjust the gain with a dial. I dialed it down to about the halfway mark. I did another channel scan, and it was like somebody flipped a switch. The FOX station came in crystal clear.
There was another important lesson for me here: Even though directional antennas require you to be more precise with your positioning, I still received all the other channels I had earlier. Those channels came from towers northeast of the house.
Sometimes it takes testing, and trying out different hardware. You can read my guide: How to Improve OTA Antenna Reception for more tips.
Channel apps & Streaming
|Sling TV (Blue)||$40||ABC, NBC, and FOX|
|DIRECTV STREAM||$79.99||ABC, CBS, PBS, NBC, and FOX|
|Fubo||$74.99||ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX|
|Hulu Live TV||$76.99||ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC|
|YouTube TV||$72.99||ABC, CBS, PBS, NBC and FOX|
|PBS app||Free||local PBS|
|Hulu (on demand)||$7.99||ABC, FOX and NBC|
Many people wonder if you can use an app to get local over-the-air channels. In some cases, you can subscribe to a channel’s app to get local NBC and CBS stations. The PBS app offers a live stream for free.
- Paramount+ with Showtime is now the streaming home to local CBS stations across the U.S. A subscription is $11.99 per month, and often offers a free trial that lasts a week.
- Peacock, under its Premium Plus plan, streams local NBC stations across every market in the U.S. A subscription is $11.99 per month. (Peacock no longer offers a free plan.)
- PBS offers a free live stream to most markets across the U.S. This does not require a subscription, a donation or PBS Passport.
- Hulu with ads is the home for the latest ABC shows, but does not provide a local live stream. You could try the ABC app, but generally speaking, you need a pay-TV provider to activate the app. Hulu has a 30-day free trial.
A number of local ABC, CBS, FOX, CW, PBS, and NBC stations have their own apps available on Smart TVs and streaming devices. Search by call sign or city (e.g. NBC10 Boston is the local Boston station) to find these apps.
Locast, which once streamed over-the-air channels for free, is gone due to a well-publicized lawsuit. You could try to sign up for Puffer, a Stanford University research study, which streams local channels in the San Francisco area.
The study streams local NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, PBS and the CW as part of an ongoing study that uses machine learning to improve video-streaming algorithms. The channels are only available on your PC, but it is free to watch.
Now, let’s dive into a completely different option – live TV streaming services.
If using a TV antenna is out of the question, there are a number of ways you can replace a cable TV or pricey satellite TV service with a live TV streaming service. You do need a reliable internet connection or data plan to stream channels using these services.
Live TV Streaming Services
I continue to test all of the latest streaming services across multiple platforms including Smart TVs, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, game consoles, iPhones (with current iOS), and Android smartphones.
Fubo (formerly fuboTV) streams local ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX in all of its channel bundles. The cheapest option is $74.99 per month for the entry-level Pro bundle.
These are the same local networks that you would get by using an antenna or cable provider. You can look over the local channel lineup in your area when you visit the fubo website. The Pro bundle has 170 channels total.
Fubo has a free trial, and works on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and Apple TV streaming devices. You can watch it on an iPhone (with current iOS) or an Android smartphone.
A subscription starts at $74.99 per month. Where I live in Boston, I get the four major broadcast networks, a local MyNetwork channel and a New Hampshire ABC station.
There is no contract. Customers can subscribe on a month-to-month basis.
- My take: Has locals from entire TV market (locations vary)
- Price: $74.99 per month
- DVR: 1,000 hours
- Simultaneous Streams: 10
- Latest offer: Free trial
Hulu Live TV
Hulu Live TV has ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX as part of a bundle with more than 75 TV channels. This live TV service also has cable-TV staples such as A&E, ESPN and TNT.
A subscription costs $76.99 per month, and includes ESPN+ and Disney+.
Subscribers get unlimited hours of Cloud DVR, and unlimited access to the on-demand Hulu library that people pay $7.99 per month for. That includes Hulu Originals.
I think even though Hulu Live is getting more expensive, it’s still a solid option because you can get local channels, cable TV networks and the added subscriptions of ESPN+ and Disney+. That package offers a lot of programming for a family with diverse tastes.
Hulu lets you see what local channels are available in your area. There is no contract. Customers can subscribe on a month-to-month basis.
- My take: All four major broadcast networks
- Price: $76.99 per month
- Includes ad-supported Disney+ and ESPN+
- DVR: unlimited hours
- Simultaneous Streams: 2
Sling TV has limited NBC and FOX coverage in the Blue channel bundle.
Sling TV has two main channel bundles to choose from. The Sling Orange plan has about 34 channels. But only the Sling Blue plan carries local NBC, ABC, and FOX in a small number of markets.
Sling TV began offering local ABC stations back in January 2023. The service still does not have any local CBS stations. Out of all the live TV streaming services, Sling TV serves the fewest number of markets compared to bigger players like YouTube TV.
A subscription costs $40 per month for one of the main channel bundles. There is no contract. Customers can subscribe on a month-to-month basis.
- My take: Limited markets for locals, cheapest price
- Price: $40 per month
- Free trial: No
- DVR: 50 hours
- Simultaneous Streams: 1 to 3
YouTube TV has PBS, ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX as part of a 128 channel bundle. ESPN, A&E, CNN and TNT are among its popular cable channels. Subscribers get unlimited Cloud DVR and can steam on three streams at once.
I like YouTube TV, and I was an early subscriber when they launched in the summer of 2017 in Boston. At the time, the service carried NESN, the regional sports network that carries the Boston Red Sox. Since then, the price has increased and NESN is no longer on YouTube TV.
But I still recommend YouTube TV for its easy-to-use interface, and its strong lineup for local broadcast channels.
A subscription costs $72.99 per month. There is no contract. Customers can subscribe on a month-to-month basis.
- My take: Easy to use menu and interface
- Price: $72.99 per month
- DVR: unlimited hours
- Simultaneous Streams: 3
DIRECTV STREAM has local ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX as part of its Entertainment channel bundle. ESPN, HGTV, Nickelodeon and TNT are among the popular channels in the Entertainment package.
Subscribers get unlimited Cloud DVR, and 40,000 on-demand shows and movies. You can look over the Entertainment bundle and other channel lineups for DIRECTV STREAM.
A subscription costs $79.99 per month. The entry-level Entertainment package costs as much as competitors such as YouTube TV and Hulu Live TV.
There is no contract. Customers can subscribe on a month-to-month basis. You can start watching local channels on a Smart TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, PC, an iPhone (with current iOS) or an Android smartphone.
DIRECTV STREAM offers a 5-day free trial.
- My take: Unlimited screens let people watch different shows
- Price: $79.99
- Unlimited DVR
- Unlimited Screens
- 5-day free trial
Stream live local news and weather
A wide variety of local news channels are available through apps on Smart TVs and streaming devices such as Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast with Google TV, and Apple TV.
Let’s dive into some examples of what I use.
YouTube isn’t just an online video sharing and social media platform. It hosts channels for local networks – big and small – across the U.S.
For example, NBC Los Angeles has segments on breaking news, and “digital exclusives” that you may not see on TV at all. You can also find national outlets such as PBS NewsHour and NBC News.
NewsON has more than 275 local TV stations across the U.S. So you can watch local newscasts from the four major broadcast networks from Los Angeles to smaller markets in Maine or New York. You can find your local newscasts just like you still had cable, but without footing the bill.
Tubi carries nearly 100 local news feeds from around the U.S. These feeds have both live or recently recorded newscasts.
Local news apps: You can find these apps by doing a broad search for a station, or by searching for a station using its call sign (e.g. NBC10 Boston.) Most of these apps have local newscasts, weather reports and sports coverage.
Haystack News is a really elegant way to get news feeds from local ABC and CBS channels along with international news feeds. It’s a quick way to look at the local weather in your area, and find out what’s happening across the world.
To get the most out of Haystack, you should sign-in either with a Facebook or Google profile. Make sure you pick your local town or city you live in, and what local stations you want to see in your live stream.
Haystack has more than 300 local, national and international news streams, and it’s all free.
Watch Local Channels on Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku
If you are using a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, there are a few different ways you can watch free local channels using a TV antenna.
With a Roku TV, you can simply plug your TV antenna into the coaxial port in the back of the television and scan for channels. Roku TVs have a built-in channel guide that services free over-the-air channels and free streaming channels offered by Roku.
Otherwise, you can use a HDHomeRun DVR or a Tablo to stream free over-the-air channels through their respective apps on Roku and Fire TV.
I recommend the 4th Tablo OTA DVR for most cord-cutters and tech-novices.
Get Local Channels: Summary
- Use a TV antenna – It’s the easiest way to get local ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS, Telemundo and The CW for free.
- Without a TV antenna, you can rely on Peacock Premium Plus for streaming a local NBC station. Paramount Plus with Showtime allows you to stream a local CBS station. The PBS app gives you a local, live stream in most markets.
- Stream local channels through DIRECTV STREAM, Fubo, Hulu Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV.
- Use free apps such as NewsOn, Local Now and Tubi for local news and weather.
- Watch TV shows from ABC or FOX on Hulu.
Product Recommendations for Local Channel Access
Navigating the variety of options for local channels without relying on cable TV can be daunting. To simplify your decision-making, I’ve personally tested several products that stand out for their performance, value, and user-friendliness.
Here are my top picks for both indoor and outdoor solutions, as well as a streaming service alternative for those who prefer an all-digital route.
Indoor TV Antennas: Clarity and Convenience
ClearStream FLEX – The Versatile Performer
At $49.99, the ClearStream FLEX is an investment in robust reception and versatility. Its multi-directional elements and sleek design make it a discreet yet powerful addition to your indoor setup. I’ve rated its performance to be top-notch, particularly in areas where signal strength is moderate to strong.
Channel Master Flatenna – Budget-Friendly Excellence
For those looking for a more budget-conscious option without sacrificing quality, the Channel Master Flatenna, priced at $29.99 on Amazon, is a standout. Its flat design is unobtrusive, and it pulls in channels reliably. In my testing, it has proven to be a dependable choice for viewers in closer proximity to broadcast towers.
Outdoor TV Antenna: The Long-Range Solution
RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi – Small but Mighty
If you’re in a position to install an outdoor antenna, the RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi is my recommendation for its blend of size, performance, and affordability. Don’t let its compact form factor fool you; this antenna is a workhorse when it comes to pulling in distant channels. Priced competitively at just over $60, it’s a one-time purchase that offers long-term value. You can find the RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi at Amazon.
Streaming Service Alternative: Comprehensive for Locals
Hulu Live TV – All-Inclusive Entertainment
For those who might find an antenna setup challenging or prefer the convenience of streaming, Hulu Live TV is a comprehensive solution.
At $76.99 per month, it offers a full lineup of local broadcast channels, regional sports networks, and bonuses like ESPN+ and Disney+ subscriptions. While the monthly cost is recurring, the breadth of content and ease of use make it a well-rounded choice for households that want local channels with streaming services.
Cost Considerations: One-Time vs. Ongoing
When considering these options, it’s essential to weigh the one-time cost of purchasing an antenna against the ongoing subscription fees of a streaming service.
An antenna like the ClearStream FLEX or Channel Master Flatenna can provide free local channels after the initial purchase, while a service like Hulu Live TV requires a monthly investment. Your choice will depend on your viewing habits, budget, and the value you place on a broader content selection versus free, over-the-air viewing.
NOTE: This article was originally published on May 7, 2021, and has been updated to reflect new pricing and plans.