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All Antennas Are Not Created Equal

By: Michael Riddle
By: Michael Riddle

Over the past months we have been out in the public demonstrating digital television hook-ups using an old analog TV, a digital converter and antenna. While a few people have had questions about digital converter hook-ups, most people have questioned us about the antenna that they use.

This edition of "Just Ask Mike" is kinda, sorta about an old-fashioned way to watch television that might be making a comeback in these difficult economic times. I am talking about the metal contraption that used to sit on top of many households in eastern North Carolina, the TV Antenna!

Times have changed. Many people have left their trusty old antenna for cable and satellite connections. However, Nielsen Media Research tells us that there still more than 30,000 households using antennas in eastern North Carolina to watch WITN-TV. As we draw nearer to the revised June 12th shut-down of analog television the performance of these antennas will become critical.

I am not an engineer. I don't pretend to have all of the knowledge about electronics that some people possess, but I can hold my own in a basic conversation about television technology. I mention this to make the point that my simple tests with various antennas is not for scientific evaluation and should be taken on its own merits!

I admit it. I have an antenna mounted high above my house. When my future son-in-law saw it, he offered to remove "that ghetto antenna" for me, just like he had for his grandmother in Virginia. I won't go into a long explanation here, but since I had bought an HD television in 2006 and wanted to watch the #1 sporting event of the year in high definition that called for a long-range UHF antenna mounted high above my house and oriented towards Raleigh. My "ghetto antenna" allowed us to be one of the few houses in Greenville watching the Giants take home the trophy in high definition.

So what do I use? I have a Yagi 91XG long-range unidirectional UHF antenna. That's because most digital stations broadcast on the UHF band. Since this antenna is unidirectional it requires a rotor to turn and point it towards the digital transmitters that it is picking up. This one works pretty well, getting all of the digital signals from Raleigh and the four big networks in Norfolk when pointed north. You probably won't find one of these at your local store. I got mine from www.antennasdirect.com . It's a Canadian company, but it shipped to Greenville without a hitch.

I put that antenna up when WITN-DT was broadcasting at 50% power. We are now at full-power. To get a real sense on what reception problems that over-the-air viewers might experience, I decided that I better experiment with a couple of indoor antennas. I tried two models this week. I got a Philips MANT210 for $16.99 at K-Mart and then an RCA ant525 amplified antenna from Lowes for a little bit under $28.

A little background for you. I live in a 2-story brick house on the Southeast end of Greenville in Pitt County. I started downstairs with my Sony digital HDTV. It has it's own antenna input and tuner. First the Philips. This antenna is not amplified. I only got a weak signal on WITN-DT broadcasting over digital UHF channel 32 and the signal came and went. WNCT-DT transmitting on VHF channel 10 came in strong as did UNC-TV on digital UHF channel 23 in Farmville. WYDO (FOX) was only marginal on UHF channel 21 and WCTI was a no-show. You could forget about getting any reception out Raleigh.

Next I tried the amplified RCA antenna. This time I got similar results with the signal from WNCT-DT a little bit stronger along with a border-line signal from WYDO. I was surprised to find that the signal from WITN-DT was not any stronger until I decided to turn the amplifier in the antenna off. Suddenly the signal from WITN-DT shot up and with a little adjustment I was able to get a stable signal using the round UHF element on the antenna. You would think that the amplifier would boost the signal, rather than have the opposite effect.

My next move was to take the antennas and a Dish Network DTV converter upstairs to the back bedroom to try them out on an old analog TV. Once again I started with the low-cost Philips antenna and got another surprise. The strongest signal this time was WITN-DT on digital UHF channel 32. WNCT-DT came in well, but not as strong as WITN. I also had a good signal from UNC-TV and a marginal signal from WYDO. WCTI broadcasts from Trenton, and with their tower the furthest away it was a signal not to be had.

The amplified RCA antenna also worked great in my upstairs bedroom. This time, with the amplifier on, I got and even stronger signal from WITN-DT. WNCT was close behind while WYDO, UNC-TV and the local ION station all came in fine.

When we have done On the Road DTV demonstrations for WITN we have been using a Radio Shack U75R long-range UHF antenna. This antenna has done a great job for us and it is not very expensive, less than $40. One viewer told me that he tried one inside his house in Beaufort in Carteret County and got great reception of WITN-DT.

The lesson here is not to rush out and buy the most expensive antenna. Go to www.antennaweb.org and plug in your address. Look to see what kind of antennas they recomend for you residence. Test the reception in your house well in advance of the June 12th analog cut-off. You may find that moving the antenna around the room or re-positioning it in another location is all you need to get better results. I should also warn you that WCTI-DT will be switching to digital VHF channel 12 on June 12th, while WYDO will move their transmitter from Ayden to Trenton. So what doesn't work today, may work tomorrow, or vice-versa.

One thing will remain constant. WITN-DT currently broadcasts on digital UHF channel 32 at full-power. That will not change on June 12th. So get yourself a good UHF antenna now.... and let the rest, take care of itself, later.

 

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