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How to watch CBS, NBC, FOX, & PBS in HD for free

February 4, 2010

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (I'm with Coco) in glorious free over-the-air (OTA) HD.

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.

Put this on your roof and point south for free HD.

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.

Upconverted SD at midnight on WFFF Burlington, the FOX affiliate.

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.

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48 Comments leave one →
  1. Joey permalink
    February 4, 2010 4:58 PM

    Sadly, there’s not much to watch on any of those channels (The Office and 30 Rock, Seinfeld and Office reruns, the occasional dose of PBS, NFL football if that’s your thing). The rest of us are in Videotron’s bag if we ever want to watch the Canadiens on a TV – and not streaming illegally on a laptop or from the Bell Centre control room…

    Anyhow, as the Boss sang, 57 channels and nothing on, right?

  2. Frank permalink
    February 6, 2010 4:56 PM

    Good roundup Elias. I’ve been doing the same for a while now. Getting 5 of the 6 major U.S. Networks for free is more than enough TV for me.

  3. Luca permalink
    February 21, 2010 2:15 AM

    Hi,

    which part of Montreal do you live in? I live in the McGill ghetto and can’t get ABC (just like everyone else) or FOX. I tried with the best antenna from channel master (the CM-4228HD). Well, getting NBC, CBS and PBS for free is not bad at all :-)

  4. Caleb permalink
    February 21, 2010 8:59 PM

    Hey, I’m down here in VT and want to get CBC… I may need to go with a rooftop antenna? Has anyone else in VT (near Burlington) who has been able to get this signal?

    • eliasmakos permalink*
      April 26, 2010 1:08 PM

      Hi Caleb, CBC won’t work anywhere close to Burlington until the CBC gets off its collective behind and puts its transmitter on Mount Royal.

  5. April 25, 2010 12:50 AM

    Hi, Nice work. I’m looking at doing the same. I have a great location and I have done tests with a home made antenna and I get CBS, NBC, PBS, and the Montreal channels. So I was looking to go big with the CM 4228 in the hope of getting Fox, & ABC. But you say that no one in Montreal gets ABC! Is this true?
    I don’t want to by such an expensive antenna if I’m only going to get one more channel than I do with my home made one.

    • eliasmakos permalink*
      April 26, 2010 1:11 PM

      Check out this thread, I’ve already searched for ABC so you can see what people are saying about it. It seems flaky at best. http://www.digitalhome.ca/forum/search.php?searchid=4548398

    • Jimmerdog permalink
      February 7, 2011 4:02 PM

      Hi,

      I’m in Pointe-Claire not too far from the water and I have a CM 4228HD mounted on my roof. It brings in ABC and FOX along with CBS, NBC, both PBS stations, the new CFCF digital signal, CBC, Global, CTV Ottawa and all the French channels. ABC comes in the weakest rarely going above 40% on the signal strength meter but that’s more than enough for a stable picture. You will definitely need a rotor as well. Make sure you run RG6 coax and no amplifier needed. With all the primary and secondary channels on the digital signals I bring in near 20 english channels (counting digital and ananlog) and well over 20 if I count the french channels. What’s interesting is that the CM 4228HD is rated for channels 7 and above but it does a pretty good job of bringing in CBC (ch 6). Hope this helps the decision.

  6. July 3, 2010 2:54 AM

    Sirs:

    Please consider a “better” antenna. If you have room and an ABC station is some where near or far consider a “rhombic” long wire antenna. Design hints can be found in “old” ARRL handbooks.

    Good luck!

    I received very distant broadcasts, e.g., Reno Nevada to near San Francisco California with “rhombics” and open “V” antennas.

  7. Jimmerdog permalink
    November 25, 2010 10:08 AM

    I live on the West Island in Montreal. I have a CM 4228HD antenna on my roof with a rotor and it brings in everything you would expect both digital and analog. The antenna is about 25 ft above ground. Most of the digital signals come in at 100%. The exceptions are the usual suspects, FOX (avg 60-65%) and ABC (avg 40%) but both enough for reliable stable reception. The analog reception is pretty good but I am looking forward to Canadian digital coming in. CBC is grainy watchable (not bad considering this antenna is only rated for channels 7 and above), CTV Montreal is clear with a very light ghost, CJOH (CTV Ottawa) is light grainy watchable, Global is near perfect and I also bring in most (if not all) of the French channels.

  8. schoenbe permalink
    January 18, 2011 6:06 PM

    Want ABC over-the-air in Montreal? Very doable. Take a look at the following:

    http://www.digitalhome.ca/forum/showpost.php?p=1173712&postcount=596

  9. Francis permalink
    February 6, 2011 9:00 AM

    CTV HD just came online last week (12.1) – because of this, Montreal Videotron users won’t be able to watch US commercials during tonight’s Superbowl

    HD broadcast overrides Fox’s on cable, replacing U.S. commercials with Canadian
    http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/Funny+turfed+Super+Bowl+simulcast/4222338/story.html

    Good thing you can catch FOX HD 44 over the air!

    Below is the last of channels that I am getting OTA

    2.1——————radio Canada
    3.1/2—————-CBS/weather
    5.1/2—————-NBC/THIS
    6.1——————CBC
    12.1——————CTV (NEW!)
    17.1—————–TQ
    33.1/2/3/4———–PBS
    44.1/2—————fox/CW
    57.1/2/3————-PBS

    • Jean permalink
      February 7, 2011 9:55 AM

      Oh shoot. I should have checked this before the big game last night. Me and my friends missed all the funny commercials and got crappy CTV auto-promos instead, over and over.

      So before buying this antenna, do you guys guarantee me that this will work in Laval? Or does it only work in Montréal? By the way, I heard that next year, CBS will be broadcasting the event. Is this channel still loopholed by CTV?

      Thanks,
      Jean

      • Jean permalink
        February 7, 2011 3:45 PM

        Woops, it’s NBC next year.

  10. Joseph permalink
    February 13, 2011 9:47 PM

    Nice article, do you have any recommendation on shops/installers that serve the West Island area?

  11. Steve Grant permalink
    April 2, 2011 5:04 AM

    I set up a DTV Antenna I purchased via eBay in July 201o and have not paid Videotron a cent since and never plan too ever again. I can receive CBS, NBC, PBS, CW, ABC (flaky) and FOX (the reason I went DTV in the first place). I don’t watch much TV to begin with and FOX has 90% of the shows I watch while CBS fills in the remaining 10% so that’s more than enough TV for me. I’m lucky in the sense I am in a 3rd floor apartment facing the South. Since my success with this experiment, more friends are interested and asked I do a similar set up for them. I remind people there are numerous factors like antenna height, direction, possible obstacles in the way so it may not work for everyone.

    I can watch unadulterated American TV in ENGLISH without the french and CRTC mandated Canadian crap commercials and I’m saving at least $360 per year. DTV has to the best thing since Color TV.

    P.S. Get a DVD Recorder /w ATSC Tuner as your old VCR won’t be able to record OTA. I have a Panasonic DMR-EZ28. Good luck!

  12. September 9, 2011 8:09 PM

    In which montreal stores should i look for an antenna?

  13. Jimmerdog permalink
    September 19, 2011 6:22 PM

    For outdoor antennas (some people use them inside, on the porch, and in the attic as well as on the roof). If you choose the attic make sure you don’t have foil wrap under your shingles.

    Three best choices for stores as far as I am concerned are:

    Ville St. Laurent – Vi-Tesse Electronique (open Saturdays) closest for West Island
    East End – Raybel (closed weekends)
    In between – Montcalm (not sure about weekends but I think closed)

    Channel Master works for me. I certainly wouldn’t go cheaper.

  14. February 29, 2012 12:01 PM

    In order to keep a low cost…I purchased rabbit ears! I still manage to get channels, 2, 3.1/3.2, 5.1/5.2, 6, 12 (not great), 15, 17, 33.1/33.2/33.3/33.4, 44.1/44.2 (not great), 57.1/57.2/57.3.
    I placed the gadget on the west window sill. The only inconvenience is when the weather is bad, the reception for channels 12 and 44 are not available.
    No need to go on your roof, gentlemen….

  15. June 19, 2012 8:09 AM

    Has anybody lost reception of all U.S channels suddenly? As of June 18, 2012.

  16. sam permalink
    June 24, 2012 4:04 AM

    You are definitely wrong buddy, I do have CTV in HD OTA , and all the other channels alike, the only thing you’re right about is the strength, you need a coat hanger antenna or fractal one to get them all crystal clear ( indoor antenna )

  17. Sam permalink
    July 4, 2012 2:13 AM

    Consider the coat hanger Antenna, on Eastern Montreal I have all of the OTA channels:
    Radio canada, CBC, TVA, CTV, GLOBAL, Telequebec, V, Community channel

  18. vipada permalink
    August 14, 2012 10:26 PM

    Since last month I couldn’t catch channel 5-1, 5-2, 33-1-4 and 57-1-3. Are there problem or my antenna doesn’t correct?

    • nimal permalink
      August 19, 2012 1:16 PM

      I do the same problem with my antenna have you corrected yours?

  19. March 24, 2013 7:16 PM

    A 4 or 8 Bay antenna is totally useless on the Island of Montreal , it rejects channel from the side and back of the elements.
    Here in Montreal you need more like a Tri-Directional Antenna for reception of
    Mont Royal, Olympic Stadium, Mt Mansfield & Lyon Mt towers.
    Trust me , have been installing Off air antennas and towers for more than 25 years in Montreal..
    Mario Trottier
    http://www.watchhdfree.com
    http://www.hdgratuit.com

    • eliasmakos permalink*
      March 25, 2013 4:18 PM

      Thanks for the comment Mario. I’m certainly no “expert” in OTA installation – but I can tell you I get every single channel possible in Montreal except ABC with a lowly 4-bay antenna.

      • March 25, 2013 5:14 PM

        Your welcome Elias , its ok if you have elevation and if you are close to the MT Royal broadcast tower but its not good for two story roof top installation in locations like chateauguay ,Delson , Longeuil , Vaudreuil., Hudson & others where MTRBT is in rear.signal.

    • Jim Harris permalink
      March 25, 2013 4:30 PM

      I have an 8 bay Channel Master antenna on my roof and I get everything including ABC and while I have a rotor installed I only very rarely have to use it to bring in ABC. The sweet spot in Montreal where you get virtually all channels is essentially everything south and west of Mount Royal from about Lachine to St. Anne de Bellvue. Close proximity to downtown and Mount Royal is where you get the most reception problems. And now a company that made “mud flap” antennas for the US Military has introduced a really small indoor antenna that might be almost as good as the outdoor antennas. On a final note using an old $15 set of RCA rabbit ears I was able to pull in several channels including PBS for my ex who lives in NDG near Sherbrooke and Decarie.

      • March 26, 2013 12:38 PM

        Hi Jim
        What i meant to say when i used the word useless was that i do not stock them anymore , the main reason is that many times and at different locations i would align the antenna in direct line of site with the WVNY transmitter and i will lose CFCF 12 and CJNT 62 on the side elements.
        Like i said before it all depends on location , elevation & obstacles that will attenuate your signal.

      • Jim Harris permalink
        March 26, 2013 12:49 PM

        Hi Mario,
        I’ve seen a good number of the 8 bay CM antennas popping up around the west island, especially below the 40. Glad to hear there are still a few installers like yourself out there. Too bad not enough people have heard about their options with OTA. The only channel I can’t get with my set-up is CJNT 62 but I can live with that. I’m guessing it’s an output thing because my ex in NDG pulls in 62 on the cheap rabbit ears. Now I’m in search of an OTA PVR. Any suggestions?

    • Robert Anstee permalink
      November 6, 2013 7:29 AM

      There are no more channels transmitting from Lyon Mountain. Channel 5 is transmitting from Mount Mansfield Vermont. I am using a Channelmaster CM 2020 pointed directly at Mount Mansfield and pick up the local stations with no problems. I am over by the Olympic Stadium. The only channels I don’t get are 22 and 44 and that’s because of their low signal.
      Channel 57 is difficult to get here because from my location their signal is being blocked by Mount Royal.

  20. March 26, 2013 5:03 PM

    So far its the TiVo TCD746320.
    I want to mention that all OTA PVR’s that i have tested so far have important signal insertion losses at the input of their tuners.
    You can verify yourself by doing a channel scanon your flatscreen and then on the external PVR.
    You can also record using External USB Tuners or built in cards but they heat up like a toaster and many computer processers have a hard time dealing with all that data.

    • Jim Harris permalink
      March 27, 2013 12:04 PM

      Hi Mario,

      Thanks for the information. Looks like I will remain PVRless at least for a while more. I just can’t reconcile paying a TiVo subscription fee with free OTA TV. Hopefully my old DVD recorder will hang in there until better options become available. Thanks again.

      • March 27, 2013 12:39 PM

        Absolutely Jim , so far i’m not impressed but
        as usual prices will drop and technology will improve with time.

    • February 18, 2014 12:18 PM

      The iview converter and recorder is really the best now and at a very low price,

  21. Robert Anstee permalink
    May 20, 2013 12:06 PM

    I’m in Montrea east not far from the Olympic Stadium. All Mount Mansfield stations are classified as “Green Zone” at my house by http://www.tvfool.com. However, I get neither 22 or 44 despite all my efforts . I do get 3,5,and 33 with no problems. My antenna is a Channelmaster CM-2020 at 36 feet high on a tower and there’s nothing between my house and Mt. Mansfield. I must conclude that 22 and 44 are using inferior equipment!

  22. February 6, 2014 2:28 PM

    Nice post! I found this while trying to find out what’s up with ABC reception in VT. I actually live right in Burlington, just got a digital antennae, and still can’t get ABC either. I get all the other channels you mention. ABC is must be some mythical station!

    • February 18, 2014 12:07 PM

      You my have an obstacle between the transmitter and your antenna that strongly attenuates that ABC ch 13 frequency.
      The best way to find out is with a Spectrum Analyzer, sometimes you can just move move 5 feet away with your antenna and can get a powerful lock on the data stream pathway.

      Mario :)

      • February 18, 2014 12:12 PM

        Forgot to mention that if your flat screen can do single channel scan on frequency 13 , you move your antenna and verify the signal strength meter
        on your TV to get a better antenna location.

  23. March 1, 2014 6:31 PM

    3 days ago, we lost WCAX antenna reception in west montreal area. Anyone knows why?
    Thanks

    • March 18, 2014 12:08 PM

      Most probable cause is thick ice formation in front WCAX transmitter on Mt Mansfield in Burlington.

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