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Making Sense of Free HDTV Channels

Updated on September 26, 2012

When you attach an antenna to your TV and complete a channel scan, you should see all of the major networks in HD. This means you will be able to watch local news, daytime shows, prime time series, late night, and even professional sports in HD for free. You will notice that the networks will be on channels like 5-1, 9-1, 13-1, etc. In between the networks will be channels like 5-2, 9-2, and 13-2. These are called “subchannels,” and they offer even more exciting free programming.

Each local station in your town will most likely have at least one “subchannel.” In the early days of HDTV, that is, from around 2005 to 2009, many of these subchannels were simply 24-hour weather stations. But that often required extra time and money on the part of the TV stations. Now, several new “networks” have been established for these local channels to air on their subchannels. Here are some of the networks you may see on the subchannels:

  1. “ThisTV,” which mostly shows movies from the MGM library of the 1930s to the early 1990s

  2. “MeTV,” which shows re-runs of shows from the '50s through the '80

  3. And “RTV” (Retro TV Network), which used to be the same as MeTV but seems to have lost the rights to many classic shows and has indeed been dropped from many local markets.

    You may also see up to three different PBS stations, each with their own programming slate. I urge you to give PBS a second chance if you think it is only boring nature shows. Some of the most entertaining and informative programming is on your local PBS station, and it's commercial-free. You will most likely also receive the CW and MyNetworkTV, which offer even more HD shows and movies for free.

Not Seeing Everything You Thought You'd See?

If everything goes well, you will be able to see all of your local stations in HD. The subchannels will most likely be in SD (Standard Definition), but still very watchable. Here are some reasons why you may not see everything I mentioned above:

  1. Your house is too far from the transmitters, or there are obstacles in the way of the transmission. This could happen if you live in between two major TV markets, or in the moutains or a deep valley. Usually TV stations situate their transmitters on hills or tall buildings. In some markets, they may actually be many miles outside of the city, so those in the outlying areas would actually have a better chance of getting a clear signal. But in flat areas, transmitters will likely be on the top of tall buildings, so you'd have a better chance closer to the city. And just because the station is nearby doesn't mean that's where their transmitter is. Many stations have transmitters miles and miles away from where their studios and offices are.

  2. One of your local stations could be located in a different city. This is the case in many markets that are made up of several different cities or incorporated areas. For instance, people in Greenville, SC, will have a difficult time receiving the ABC affiliate as it is located in Asheville, NC, which is a good 55 miles north.

  3. Your TV antenna may need to be placed in a different location. If the scanning tool can't see a signal, it will assume there is nothing there and skip over the station. If you know there is a station that your TV did not pick up during the scan, you may need to move the antenna and perform the scan again.

  4. Your local stations may not be affiliated with the ThisTV or MeTV networks. In this case, you would not see these specific services, but your local stations will most likely have something on their subchannel, even if it is just a constant live weather radar with a robotic voice from the National Weather Service.


Hooking up an antenna is a great way to get free HD content on your HDTV without satellite or cable. But as you can see, there are several factors that might interfere with your ability to get those free signals. However, if you live in a relatively populated area, your local stations have hopefully made sure the majority of their viewers can receive their signal over the air. Therefore you will be able to see network programming and even extra channels, all for free, simply by connecting an antenna and performing a channel scan on your TV. Happy tuning!

Further Reading

If you found this article helpful, I have written much more HDTV advice in my blog and book, both available at:


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