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My new over-the-air digital antenna was installed after easter allowing me to cut off cable and watch TV for free. (Michael Snider)
My new over-the-air digital antenna was installed after easter allowing me to cut off cable and watch TV for free. (Michael Snider)

The Switch, Part 1

Goodbye cable bills, now I get my TV for free Add to ...

The big U.S. stations – ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS – all came in clearly on setup day, which was near perfect, weather-wise. Signal quality hovered around 75 per cent, which seemed to have no effect on the HD picture. Local stations, such as Global, CTV, Citytv and CBC, came in above 85 per cent. I noticed the superior picture quality on the majority of stations right away. Digital signals sent over the air are not compressed the way they are when delivered through cable or satellite. Signals are transmitted at a data rate of almost 19.4 megabits per second while cable and satellite transmit at a data rate of between 10 and 14.6 Mbps to each channel.

However, during a stretch of inclement weather around Toronto in late April and May, the U.S. stations – especially ABC, CBS and NBC – were unwatchable. The weather interfered with the signal, dropping its strength below 60 per cent and whenever we tuned to those channels the screen was dark. Fox kept coming in strong no matter the weather, and so did PBS. Local stations also had no trouble getting through, so there was almost no programming interruption because between CTV, Global and Citytv, nearly all of the prime-time U.S. shows are simulcast.

Aside from the main TV networks, the antenna picks up several other stations that don’t hold much appeal in my house, though they may one day. We get OMNI, Sun TV, Crossroads Television (a family oriented channel with some religious programming) and The CW. There’s also a country music station, a 24-hour sports station that seems to show mostly figure skating, rugby and handball, and Retro TV, which features the likes of Magnum PI, The A-Team and Gilligan’s Island.

While the channel list is considerably less than the 500-odd stations available through cable or satellite, we have few regrets. In April we re-activated Netflix, which for all the criticism of its programming, has a huge library of kid-centric shows and movies. Between that and my annual MLB.com subscription, we have not missed much at all (I’ll cover more on this in a companion piece that looks at the Internet side of the equation that will be posted Friday).

I’ve found the changes in our TV habits to be overwhelmingly positive.

For one thing, we watch less TV. We used to have a daily battle with the kids after school. There seemed to be no alternative in their minds to Hannah Montana and other shows on the Family Channel (which I often referred to as the Young Disney Brainwashing Channel). Now they fill their after-school leisure time with other things, such as playing on the computer or doing arts and crafts. They still watch kids shows, but they’re either on PBS – did you know the Electric Company is still on? – or Caillou on Netflix.

My wife gets to bed earlier instead of flipping through 500 channels and I read more often. I find that when we watch TV, we do it to be entertained rather than distracted, which is most evident with the kids. The process of selecting something from a Netflix menu seems to dovetail more closely with the prevailing mood – fun, serious, mentally stimulating – than just time-wasting picture and noise.

Read Part 2 of the switch on Friday. It focuses on the Internet, the headaches involved with cancelling Rogers, and the web services we’re using to supplement free TV.

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