Making Over-the-Air TV Cool Again

JOHNSTON, IOWA—One of the mysteries that has perplexed me for a number of years is how traditional broadcasting became so uncool at the same time that wireless connectivity for watching content became cool. Our industry has been wireless since it began more than 100 years ago! What’s up with that? I could also make the case that the earliest wireless communications were done with Morse Code, a sequence of dots and dashes that equate to 1’s and 0’s and are therefore digital, albeit painfully slow digital.

But be that as it may, thanks to the cord-cutting and cord-shaving and cord-nevering that is going on, we may actually be seeing the beginnings of a bit of a renaissance of over the air broadcasting. Assuming this is actually happening, this may be just the groundswell our industry needs to begin embracing ATSC 3.0 and the capabilities it adds to the services that local broadcasters can offer. Like in surfing, if we start paddling as the swell is approaching we can ride the crest of the wave to completion.


However, to help insure that this renaissance actually happens, I want to take us back into the dark days of the past and the birth of the Satellite Home Viewer Act, TV broadcast white spaces and the processing of waivers to allow for the importation of distant signals. For the most part these issues have gone away as satellite antennae became smaller and local-into-local became the norm. I would, however, remind you that one of the most common reasons given for why a viewer within the coverage of local television deserved a waiver: My homeowners association or condo association or local association doesn’t permit the installation of an outdoor television antenna.

[FCC Overrules Condo TV Antenna Rules]

In those dark times, the consumer was looking for a reason not to put up an antenna to receive a service that was theoretically available via their subscription to satellite. For most, they were looking for something to replace their cable service, which was too expensive or not available because they were too far from a high density population area to run the cable system past their house. Remember at this time, we were still using dial-up phone lines to access the internet and 24.4 kpbs was a relatively common connection.

Now we are seeing this rediscovery of over-the-air reception and thanks to the digital conversion, where there once were fewer than 10 program streams available over the air in all but the largest markets, there are now 30 or 40 depending on what stations are doing with their ATSC 1.0 services available at no cost. Couple that with the OTT and on-demand services available via broadband and suddenly both packaged cable service and satellite service seem unreasonably expensive and restrictive. This new generation of consumers will begin looking for ways to put up antennas. Guess what? Those homeowner, condo and local associations mentioned above probably still have those same restrictions against television antennae. Does the renaissance end here?


I spent a good portion of the 1990’s reviewing waiver requests and became intimately familiar with 47 CFR 1.4000, the Over-the-Air Reception Device Rule or “OTARD.” The rule has been in place since 1996 and while it has been through several amendments, it is still in place. The rule prohibits most of the restrictions that local associations place on members in regards to the installation of not only traditional television antennas but also direct-to-home satellite and MMDS antennas. It encompasses rental property as well as homeowner-owned properties.

The key with rental properties is that the renter must have an “exclusive use area” such as a patio or balcony where the antenna can be installed. While the rule isn’t perfect for every instance, I spent my last five years in commercial broadcasting working for the CBS affiliates in New Mexico where we had a network of a few full power stations and a plethora of translators throughout the state and the vast majority of time I was able to secure an agreement from the association that the viewer had the right to install the antenna. I would point out that this included military bases that had strict rules regarding antennas of any sort on base.

Now again, this work was done during the “dark days” where people were looking to get waivers to not watch the local stations, so they were not always happy when the waiver denial included a letter from their association stating that they could put up an antenna as further evidence of why their waiver was denied. However if the audience wants to put up an antenna to receive the free local stations so that they can cut, shave or forego the cord, they will be happy to have additional information that they can take to their association. And let’s also recognize that there are now options for over-the-air television antennas that are a lot less unappealing then the old multiband Yagi’s of the 1950’s and 60’s. Couple the new design with the increased robustness of the ATSC 3.0 service and suddenly broadcasting is cool again.

The FCC also maintains a webpage on the Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule with an FAQ that provides some talking points. I would encourage anyone working in television broadcasting to consider using this information to put together an educational presentation to do to local community groups to promote the renaissance of over-the-air television and whet the appetites of the local audience for what is freely available to them now and the incredible potential of what is to come as ATSC 3.0 comes into its own.

Bill Hayes is the director of engineering for Iowa Public Television.

Bill Hayes, director of engineering and technology for Iowa PBS, has been at the forefront of broadcast TV technology for 40 years, 23 of them at Iowa PBS. He’s served as president of IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society, is a Partnership Board Member of the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) and has contributed extensively to SMPTE and ATSC.  He is a recipient of Future's 2021 Tech Leadership Award.