Is OTA TV still around?
Yes. It never went away. If anything, there are more channels today with better quality than you remember. This is because in 2009 the U.S. switched over to a digital form of broadcast. Digital means that all of the picture and sound of TV gets broken down into little 1s and 0s that computers understand, then beamed over-the-air to your TV, which then turns those 1s and 0s back into pictures and sounds. Neat, isn’t it? It makes me think of the scene with Wonkavision from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
One of the benefits of this is that the U.S. adapted a new format for broadcast uniquely suited to digital communications.
This format is called ATSC after the somewhat self-aggrandizing Advanced Television Systems Committee (do they really have to call themselves advanced?). ATSC offers much higher resolution (sharper image) than the previous format—I’ve seen claims of five to six times better resolution. The marketplace term for this is HD, or high-definition.
As recently said by Forbes writer Amadou Diallo, “Outside of a Blu-ray movie, this is the best output I’ve ever seen on my TV. And did I mention the channels are free?”
Is it legal?
Yes. Over-the-air television is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, an agency of the U.S. government. In fact, it was the FCC which made the 2009 digital transition happen.
Another benefit of that transition is more channels. The FCC had more frequencies to give stations in 2009 because they had a new section of the dial to hand out (the perks of being the government, I guess). The result is that you could receive as many as several dozen channels, depending where you live. Generally, the closer you are to a major metropolitan area, the more channels will be broadcast near you. I’ve seen reports of 60-70 free OTA channels in New York, and Los Angeles appears to be the absolute mecca with 83 channels reported in August of 2013 by Huffington Post writer Lynn Isenberg.
Is there anything good to watch?
Yes (I am Jack’s broken record). Depending on which sources you use, the most popular television programs—not channels, or stations, but individual programs—of the past few years were available for free in high-definition over the air.
TVGuide’s June 2013 data, for example, showed that 22 of the top 25 most-watched shows in the 2012-2013 season were broadcast OTA.
If you want more recent data, Nielsen ranks the top 10 most-watched shows every week, and you might be surprised to see that all 10 shows recently were available OTA.
Or if you want to go a bit further back in time, Nielsen’s data for the 2011-2012 season shows that 96 of the 100 most watched shows were available OTA.
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