Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

Over-the-air and small-dish antennae

There are some people out there who don’t appreciate FTA for what it is. They don’t want a wild cornucopia of sports feeds, news from other countries, and oddball channels. They just want their regular TV networks, and they want to pay as little as possible to get them.

Maybe you’re one of these people who want what you might call “normal TV.” For that purpose, FTA just isn’t the best choice. So what should you do? You may be surprised at the free and low-cost alternatives that are available.

The best way to get your local broadcast channels is with a standard, pointy or bow-tied over-the-air (OTA) antenna. Connect that to your digital-ready TV set or cheap converter box, and you’ve got loads of free entertainment with very little effort. But that works only if you can pull in strong enough OTA signals where you live.

What if you can’t get local OTA channels, or if you want a few pay-TV channels? Then we start looking at alternatives that are cheap but not free.

Dish Network offers an unadvertised starter set of 20 channels (the list is here) for $9.99/month. You’d have to buy and install your own equipment, but old standard definition Dish receivers are pretty cheap, and Dish dishes are at least as cheap as FTA dishes. If Dish offers them, you can add your local channels for an extra $5/month. You can add a set of Public Interest channels for free. You can add the true Superstations (KWGN, KTLA, WWOR, WPIX, WSBK) for $1.50/month each. If you call and sign up for autopay, Dish will give you the Cinemax channels for a year for a penny. You could cobble together a cheap, decent set of channels this way.

Dish also has the Family Pack, using a different mixture of channels, for $24.99/month, and so begins the slippery slope. If you’ve simply got to have ESPN, Dish’s Classic Bronze 100 at $39.99/month is probably the cheapest way to get it. These advertised packages also have the advantage of including equipment and installation if you commit to a year or two.

Another way to avoid equipment purchases is to sign up for cable. Most local cable systems offer an unadvertised “lifeline” package at a price lower than their most basic package. It typically includes all of your local channels plus local government and public access channels and sometimes a few extras. (For example, where I live, Comcast includes TBS and Bravo.) The exact lineup will vary, of course, but it’s something you can ask your cable company about.

If you’ve got broadband internet access, you can look around for streaming media options. Most of those “normal TV” channels aren’t available live, but you can find some old clips or even full-length programs to watch online. And some of what is available live might surprise you if you Google around or stop by TVU Networks.

Or you can turn to DVDs for your TV entertainment. Some public libraries offer DVDs for checkout. Redbox rents new-release DVDs for $1/night. Netflix, hated source of pop-under ads, lets you swap DVDs by mail for $8.99/month or more. Swap a DVD lets you indirectly trade your DVDs for the cost of postage.

So there are most of your choices for free or cheap “normal TV.” But if you want over 200 channels of free TV, and you’re not picky about what they’re about or what language they’re in, then FTA is definitely your best choice.

Colorado State Fair ferris wheelEvery time I visit the State Fair, I see folks selling Dish Network, and I see folks selling DirecTV. It seems to me that this would be a great opportunity for someone to sell FTA.

Just imagine the crowds of fairgoers walking past a sign that said “$0 TV subscription fees – Forever!” Imagine a table with monitors showing recordings that cycled through many of the channels that are available on Ku-band. (Unless there were room for a dish with a line of sight for live demonstrations.) Imagine handout lists of available channels.

Then imagine boxed kits that would be available at a decent price, including a nice profit. They would include everything that a handy homeowner would need, plus the contact information of some local installers, just in case. Or maybe the seller is also an installer, soon to become a very busy installer.

Maybe it’s too late for you to get a state fair booth this year, but another place and time this would work is at upscale shopping malls during the holiday season. Sell the same package the same way from one of those middle-of-the-aisle kiosks. So many upscale shoppers are desperate for something fun that their recipients haven’t already bought for themselves. Some would love the gift of free TV that they can’t get anywhere else.

In either case, I think that any dealer who rented the space would soon have more business than he could handle. And maybe that’s why I never see an FTA booth at the State Fair.

The traditional spiral used for starting blogs.

The traditional spiral used for starting blogs.

Now that we’re done getting up to date about the sad loss of so many OTA broadcasters from Ku-band, I suppose that I ought to introduce myself. I’m Michael Kilgore, owner and operator of FTAList.com. Glad to have you join us.

Please feel free to add your comments to any post here. I’ve been trying to get the settings tweaked to allow normal comments while rejecting spam attempts, which seem as ubiquitous as mold spores. You might have to wait for approval, or it might accept your comment right away, but I hope that you give it a shot when you have something to say.

One friendly soul wrote to point out that the posts from the previous FTAList blog weren’t available any more. Thank you, it’s flattering to hear that someone actively wants to read something that I wrote months or years ago. If you’re really interested in that old stuff, you can find it here.

In the coming weeks, I plan to add the cautionary tale of How I Got Started in FTA, (or how to make every possible mistake once), as well as stuff about TV and satellites in general. Unlike my favorite blog, News From Me, I won’t write about raccoons in the back yard or national politics. I don’t have raccoons, and I prefer to bury my head when it comes to politics. We’ll just have to see what’s interesting.

A calm vista of a lake and a snow-capped mountain

A calm vista of a lake and a snow-capped mountain

Hi there. I’ve been meaning to restart this blog as soon as there was some good news to talk about. Unfortunately, it’s been a long wait, and all the news has been pretty bad. So let’s all take some deep breaths, concentrate on quiet, happy thoughts, and take an assessment of what’s happened lately and what’s likely to come up in the near future.

First, there’s Galaxy 18 at 123° W, previously home to Galaxy 10R. It used to have a couple dozen over-the-air (OTA) broadcast stations, owned or operated by Equity Media and its predecessors. Equity had a cool idea: Do the production work for all of these stations from one central location, then beam the signals to the stations for OTA broadcast. It had a second good idea: Use this testbed of independent stations to find the beginnings of a good, inexpensive TV network. Thus was born the Retro Television Network. These stations made Ku-band FTA a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy a variety of English-language, secular programming.

Last year, some sort of financial problem developed. (Maybe it had something to do with buying lots of little TV stations?) Equity sold RTN for some cash. It sold another station or two for cash. And still, by the end of 2008, Equity Media found itself in bankruptcy court. The filings suggested that they owed money to RTN’s programming providers, to the satellite operators, and more. After a couple of months, Equity was forced to sell essentially all of its stations to pay its creditors.

The new owners for each of these stations had to wait a few months for the paperwork to make its way through the FCC offices. Once each new owner took control, it had no need for Equity’s production and distribution service, so it took that channel off the satellite feed. G18 looked like a dying shopping mall, with stores closing one by one. Finally, the Equity transponders went dark.

Several people have written to ask when those stations will return to G18. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that anything like that will come back. Ever.

Just as we were getting used to that, KUIL decided to leave AMC 4. KUIL had been on satellite for years. The story is told that it was spun off from its Lake Charles LA parent Fox station just so Beaumont TX viewers could watch Dallas Cowboys games. Fox moved its affiliation to another Beaumont station last year, and KUIL continued as an independent. I presume that KUIL was using the satellite feed to beam its signal from its station to nearby cable systems. Once Dish Network picked up KUIL in its local market, that feed wouldn’t be necessary. It’s gone now, and as with the former Equity OTA channels, there’s no reason to think it’ll ever be back.

(Update: Someone forwarded me an email that said that KUIL was using the satellite to send its signal from Lake Charles to Beaumont. According to the email, they switched because they found a cheaper way to send it.)

There, that’s the end of the bad news. Now let’s try to look on the bright side.

There are still a lot of sporting events available on FTA, but they’re just harder to find. My favorite place to look is Ricks Satellite Wildfeed and Backhaul Forum. Some of those feeds require an HD receiver, but we’ll all need one soon anyway.

There’s a lot of educational programming on FTA, from PBS to community colleges to the University of Washington. There are a lot of alternative news shows. White Springs is still going strong with its old movies. RTN is now RTV, and if you’ve got a large enough dish, you can watch its national feeds. You can even find a few pay-TV networks that have stayed in the clear longer than I expected.

You might even want to check some of the foreign-language channels. Some look nice, some look bizarre, and some look like bad community-access TV. The sports are interesting, the dubbed or subtitled English shows are comprehensible, and all of it might expand your mind.

Something better will probably come along. Till then, what we’ve got is still good.