How to watch CBS, NBC, FOX, & PBS in HD for free
A while back, I wrote about what a mess it is getting HD programming in Montreal. It’s either very expensive (Bell and Shaw Direct) or almost non-existent (Videotron). The local options are so bad that I came very close to going grey-market by paying for DirecTV with the help of a friend with a US address. While the costs are similar to what you would pay with a Canadian cable or satellite company, the amount of quality HD channels available with DirecTV provides much more value.
At the end of the day I decided that my television viewing habits didn’t warrant the big up-front and long-term costs associated with any satellite option. While I love TV, I just don’t watch enough of it to warrant an $80-a-month subscription. I’d much rather spend a fraction that cash for unlimited internet on a mobile device (iPad, anyone?) and figure out a cheap solution for a little TV watching now and then.
My solution was something I’ve been toiling with for a while, putting an antenna on my roof to get crystal-clear digital HDTV signals from across the border. I bought something called a “4-Bay” HD antenna for $40 from a local satellite shop and paid an installer $100 to put it on my roof. Looking back, I should have haggled the price of the antenna down, but I justify the price by saying I supported a local business. If you’re comfortable on your roof, you can easily install this without paying someone. Just point your antenna south towards Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, where most of these stations broadcast from.
Here’s a list of the digital channels I get with my $40 antenna:
3.1 – WCAX, the CBS affiliate in Burlington, VT. 1080i HD picture.
3.2 – WCAXtra, WCAX’s local weather channel that sometimes offers local news and sports as well.
5.1 – WPTZ, the NBC affiliate in Plattsburgh, NY that features the always-smiling Tom Messner. 1080i HD picture.
5.2 – This TV, a 24-hour classic movie and TV show channel.
33.1 – Vermont Public Television’s PBS channel. 1080i HD picture.
33.2 - A simulcast of the main channel in SD. Word through the grapevine is that it will soon be home to other contenet.
33.3 – VPT’s Create channel, focusing on food, art, making stuff.
33.4 – VPT’s World channel, which offers great programming from around the globe and a healthy quota of the best of PBS – Frontline, Nova, Tavis Smiley, Charlie Rose, History Detectives, etc.
44.1 – WFFF, the FOX affiliate in Colchester, VT. 720p HD picture.
44.2 – The CW network, home of Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill, has a home on WFFF’s secondary channel.
57.1 – Mountain Lake PBS, from New York State, another public channel loaded with great content. 1080i HD picture.
57.2 – Worldview, where Mountain Lake broadcasts France 24 News, BBC News, and pretty much news from around the world.
57.3 – Classic Arts Showcase, this channel could be a little more exciting, right now it appears to be home to classical music over still images and text.
You’ll notice there’s no ABC affiliate on that list. WVNY Burlington does broadcast on channel 13.1, but the signal is so weak I can’t find anyone that gets the signal reliably at all in Montreal. So fans of Lost will have to continue to rely of fuzzy analog CTV broadcasts and internet downloads or streams if they want to watch for free.
Even without ABC, that’s 13 perfect digital channels for free. What’s important to note is that over-the-air HD signals are not, unlike the HD that Videotron, Bell, and Shaw Direct shovel to their customers, compressed to high heaven. Other than a Blu-ray disc & player, OTA HD signals are the best thing you’ll ever feed your TV.
What about Canadian over-the-air HD channels? There’s very little choice for most Montrealers. The CBC and Radio-Canada do broadcast HD signals, but their low-powered transmitter isn’t on Mount Royal. So Everyone west of the mountain is out of luck. Those east of the mountain and close the the transmitter can find Radio-Canada on channel 19.1 and the CBC on 20.1. Consider yourselves lucky. Our national broadcaster says they will transmit from Mount Royal sometime this year, if we’re lucky. Want to complain to the CBC about the delay? Call 1-866-306-4636 and ask for audience relations. As for CTV, they do not broadcast in HD over the air at all in Montreal, and that situation doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon.
For anyone really interested going OTA HD in their home, this five-year-old, 99-page-long forum thread contains a lot of information for Montrealers: http://www.digitalhome.ca/forum/showthread.php?t=53294
So I’ll be watching the Super Bowl with American commercials and perfect picture quality on Sunday. Are you getting HDTV over an antenna? Thinking about it? Let me know by commenting.