I was inclined to believe them. I’m glad I didn’t.
The issue was one almost of claustrophobia. The power frequently goes out here. My response has been to get a generator and position it where it is convenient to start and hook up. For a long time, both when I had satellite internet and, later, DSL internet, as long as I had power in the house I had access to the outside world. The telephone “supplier,” Frontier Communications, recently “improved” DSL, and now when the power goes, so does the phone and internet and therefore the television, because I stream what I view.
This is a problem in times of emergency, with no incoming or outgoing communications. For cellular service I have to climb the hill across the street — okay if the artery that’s spurting blood is only a small one. While local broadcasters were once obligated to operate in the public interest, which included locally originated news, that’s no longer the case, so I can’t count on local radio for much useful information on any subject, certainly not in a time of emergency. Local television is the last holdout — and local news broadcasts are fast disappearing, too. Still, and perhaps this is the sentiment of fond memory, I figure that nearby television stations are likely to break programming if there’s a disaster.
But I couldn’t get local stations, the several websites devoted to predicting one’s television coverage universally insisted.
They were easy to believe. I live in an awkward area. I’m at the top of a ridge, true, but I’m surrounded by taller ridges. Broadcasts don’t pass through rock very efficiently.
Which was too bad. Broadcast television is free, as in it costs no money to watch it. There are even digital video recorders — remember TiVo? — for those who would like to watch over-the-air broadcasts on demand. But first I had to find a way to get the broadcast signal into my house. Which I was told could not be done.
Many, perhaps most, of us were already getting television via cable or satellite on June 12, 2009, when a provision of the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 went into effect.
An important aside: Politicians like to insert phrases like “Public Safety” into the titles of legislation that has nothing to do with public safety. That way, if anyone opposes it the proponents can hold news conferences and say “Look! He’s against public safety!” and the professional hairdo models who pretend to be reporters on television newscasts nod gravely. Later, when the hairdo models are pretending to be hard-hitting “investigative” reporters, they’ll question the opposition: “Why are you against public safety???” before interrupting the answer with howls of outrage. This is because television news actors are hired on the basis of appearance and “diversity,” not brains.
(Another thing worth noting is legislation that includes the phrase “and for other purposes” in its description. That means the legislation allows or finances things legislators don’t want you to know about. When I see it I’m reminded of a notorious example uncovered by my friend Gerard Koeppel in his excellent “Water for Gotham,” in which he points out that legislation which gave companies approval to supply water to New York City included the magic “and for other purposes.” The companies had no intention of building water supply systems. They wanted to open banks, which was among the “other purposes.” It worked, and some famous banks still in existence got their start this way, while Manhattan continued to go without clean water.)
Sorry — well, sort of — for the digression. The 2005 act, which best I can tell had no effect on public safety one way or the other, resulted in analog television signals being turned off and digital television signals getting turned on that June day nearly 14 years ago. You may remember how free or very cheap converter boxes were being distributed at the time. Without one, your television set could no longer receive usable television signals.
You may also remember how in the foggy not-so-distant past television signals would be received with varying degrees of clarity. A less-than-pristine signal was said to suffer from “snow,” because the picture looked a little as if it were snowing in the studio. After June 12, 2009 snow was a thing of the past. It was replaced with distant signals coming through in fits and starts, pixellated, in some cases so messed up that a screenshot could have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (and probably praised). A signal that might once have appeared as little more than a ghost would now not show up at all.
While it was true that without a converter old televisions would no longer work and therefore the phrase “digital ready” as applied to televisions was legitimate, that phrase was nonsense applied in other ways, among them television antennae. A television signal is a television signal. It has no opinion about its content. You either receive it or you don’t. Yet the Chinese swindle machine predictably roared into action and soon you could buy “digital” antennae that resembled everything from fishing poles to the Wright Flyer. They were cheaply made and unreliable. (Now, the phony buzzword is “4k ready” — it matters with a television but not an antenna.)
Anyway, I was interested in getting over-the-air, now-digital television here and despaired that it could not be made to happen. Then I found the Antenna Man, who said that the coverage websites tend to be excessively cautious. He also said that many of the best-selling antennae tend to be excessively crappy. A little experimentation was in order.
Looking at his and other apparently authoritative reviews, I concluded that the products of Channel Master and Antennas Direct are not swindles. Soon I ordered a Channel Master “FLATenna 35.” This thing is the size of a sheet of paper and pretty thin and flexible. (There are a lot of poor imitations available online.) Meant for indoor use, it cost $20.
I didn’t expect it to work, but to some extent it did. Hung in just the right place I could get the local university’s PBS station. This is like hungering for steak and being served liver, but it was a proof of concept. Fortunately, the wiring for my old satellite television and internet dishes remained in place, so I could try it outside. Even fairly low to the ground, it brought me a half-dozen more stations, including affiliates of Fox, NBC, and CBS plus some independents. The new stations pixellated to some extent, but the wonder was that I’d gotten them at all.
Convinced that a good outdoor antenna would harvest useful signals, I undertook some crackpot engineering as well as a search for the best cost-effect outdoor antenna. Antennas Direct has some models that are cool looking and as luck would have it highly regarded. They are fairly expensive, though. The apple of my televisionary eye was the “ClearStream 4MAX,” but I couldn’t justify the cost. Additionally, the number of stations I could possibly receive with the best antenna in the world (which the 4MAX might well be) was limited. That is because the Earth is not flat and television is line-of-sight. Under some unusual circumstances it is possible to receive television broadcasts from, maybe, 100 miles away, that’s it, and even those aren’t reliable. To receive more stations I’d need an antenna mast several miles high. This would be expensive and illegal and hard on airplanes (though Chinese balloons beware!). There is a class of antenna you can find online that claims it will receive signals from hundreds of miles away. These employ an old technological idea called “fraud.”
Further research led me to the “ClearStream MAX-V.” I found it at Walmart for $70, but was confident it would do what I needed to have done. It’s not very big, maybe two feet by two feet.
My crackpot engineering led to important discoveries. The first is that satellite dishes bolted to the side of the house can be disassembled into many useful parts. The useful part in this case was the very sturdy mounting bracket from my old satellite internet dish. I removed everything except the bracket and now I had a tube to which the new antenna could be clamped. I attached the coax cable and those pixellated stations had become pristine. I now had a total of 13 over-the-air stations.
This in a nearly impossible location, one that’s not supposed to receive television at all. There’s some importance to it, because it means that when conditions have shut down the power and internet and I’m on the generator, I’ll have a source of information. The local news on those channels isn’t very good, but it’s better than nothing. One of the channels is a feed of NOAA weather radio while weather radar is shown. It’s not inconceivable that this channel could be lifesaving. And beyond the cost of the antenna it’s free. In many parts of the country, a decent antenna will snare 80 stations or more.
I’m not done. My house used to be owned by the local school bus dispatcher, so it has a 30-foot mast. My plan is to move my antenna to the top of that mast. Yes, I know that proper grounding is important; my purpose is not to route lightning to my television, which I understand can be troublesome. There is also a lot of fine-tuning to be done, to make sure the antenna is pointed in just the right direction.
I’ll be doing that work as soon as I’ve filed this column. I look forward to it, though with a bit of wariness. Scampering up and down a 30-foot stick could be good exercise, or it could lead to a crippling fall. I’m hoping for the former.
Tomorrow, I’ll start to convert the dish part of the satellite internet gadget into a stylish birdbath.