The saga of too-stubborn-to-pay-for-cable guy

By | August 30, 2009

Digital television is great.  With DTV, we get a vibrant, crystal-clear picture, transmitted in a format that can be easily captured and manipulated by computers and recorded without any loss of quality.  We also get more channels in the same RF spectrum, which means more free, over-the-air content.

That is, we get all that if we can actually receive the DTV signals.  But what if we can’t?

Before DTV, TV reception was highly variable.  The question wasn’t, “Can you receive the signal or not?” but rather, “Is the signal you’re receiving good enough to watch?”  Sometimes, the picture wasn’t so good, but it was still good enough to watch.

Alas, DTV is not so forgiving.  If a channel’s signal isn’t strong enough for your tuner to lock onto, then you’re out of luck — you simply can’t watch it.  There are a lot of people who suddenly discovered on June 12 that TV stations they were happily picking up through rabbit ears or an indoor or outdoor antenna were suddenly unwatchable.

(This is why I sometimes wonder if DTV was a conspiracy of the cable companies to get more people to pay for cable.  I say that in jest, but seriously, it does seem that way sometimes.)

We have only one television in our house, and we don’t have cable.  We don’t watch much TV, but there are a few programs we like enough that we don’t want to miss an episode (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Defying Gravity, and Merlin is the current list, I think).  We are often unable to watch these shows when they first air, so being able to record them for later watching is essential.

At various times in the past, we’ve tried different approaches for recording our shows for later viewing.  We’ve recorded them to VHS; watched shows off of the Internet on my laptop; and even installed a tuner in my computer to record the shows we wanted, burn them onto DVD, and watch the DVD on our television.  None of these was ideal, and the VCR and computer tuner stopped working with DTV, because their tuners are analog.

Rather than spend money on a converter box, I decided it was time to modernize.  I bought a PC running Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit with a digital tuner card.  Windows Vista Media Center (MC), which is included in Home Premium, has all of the features of a DVR without subscription fees for the program guide.

I bought a VGA-to-TV converter, plugged the output of the PC into the converter and the output of the converter into our old analog TV, and we were good to go.

Well, not exactly.  We could tell MC  to record all the programs we might want to watch, but it could only record them if the tuner could receive them.  While the antenna on top of our television had no trouble picking up all of the analog stations from which we regularly recorded, it had difficulty picking up a couple of them in digital.

Worse, there was no single antenna orientation that could pick up all of them.  This means that even if it was possible to pick up a station by pointing the antenna in a particular direction, it might not be pointed in that direction when MC tried to record, especially if someone was watching a different program at the same time which required the antenna to be pointed elsewhere.

What to do, what to do?  My first idea was to get a better antenna.  So I bought a Terk FDTV1A, an amplified digital TV antenna which claims to be omnidirectional.  Alas, I discovered that while it may be omnidirectional when the signals it’s trying to pick up are strong, it wasn’t much better than our old antenna at picking up weak signals.  By putting the antenna in the next room over from the TV, on top of a bookcase, pointed in a very precise direction, I was just barely able to pick up all of the desired stations on a clear day.  That just would not do.

On to plan B: get somebody to install an antenna on our roof and run a cable from there down to our basement and from there up into the living room where the TV is.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many people nowadays installing rooftop antennas, and those that do apparently charge an arm and a leg for it.  One of the two places that returned my calls didn’t bother to quote a price in the message they left for me, and the other one quoted over $400.  Fuggedaboutit.

On to plan C: move the Terk antenna from our first floor into our attic crawlspace; pull a cable from there down to the basement using the snake that the electrician left in the wall when he installed wiring up there; and continue as in plan B.  Off I went to Home Depot to buy respirators (no inhaling fiberglass insulation!), a 25-foot RG-6 coaxial cable, a few RG-6 F connectors, and an extension cord to power the antenna in the attic.

Alas, plan C, too, had a fatal flaw: the snake left in the wall by the electrician was completely immovable.  Apparently the reason why he left it in the wall was not to help us in the future should we need to pull more cables, but rather because he couldn’t get it out.

On to plan D: cut a slit in the flexible duct from the bathroom exhaust fan that runs through the attic crawlspace to the side wall of the house; run the coaxial cable through the slit, out the exterior wall vent, and down the side of the house; seal the cable into the duct in the attic; put a new male RG-6 connector onto the old, unused cable TV cable that goes through a window sill into our basement; connect the cable from the attic to it; and continue as in plan B.  With a lot of struggling, I managed to get all of that to work, but then, to my chagrin, the tuner couldn’t pick up a signal on any channel, and I had no idea why.

On to plan E: undo all the attic wiring; put the antenna in our second-floor bedroom; run the cable out our bedroom window and into the living-room window on the first floor; and connect it from there to the TV.  In the process of doing this, I noticed that the copper that should have been sticking out of both ends of the 25-foot cable, wasn’t.  It seems that in the process of doing all the wiring in the attic, I had managed to stretch the cable enough to lengthen the shielding and outside conductor, thus causing the central copper conductor to recede into the cable.  This, of course, is why plan D failed.

And so, the final plan, plan F: push in the connectors on both ends of the 25-foot cable to get the copper to show properly, and try plan D again.  At long last, success!  We can now receive all the local DTV stations on the TV in our living room.

Of course, after all that, one important question remains: maybe I should have paid the $400 to have someone else install a rooftop antenna? 🙂

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4 thoughts on “The saga of too-stubborn-to-pay-for-cable guy

  1. Pingback: Comcast Tech: “Comcast already disconnected? But I’ve got to disconnect SOMETHING!” « Something better to do

  2. jont

    When we got our rooftop antenna in the mid-90’s it was around $400, IIRC, so inflation doesn’t seem to have been much of a factor since then. At the time, I was fed up with cable, and figured that even compared to Basic Cable, It’d wind up paying for itself in a few years.

    The antenna was installed with a rotor to change the direction the antenna pointed to. All of the Boston stations except 68 transmit from the Needham area, so we had no need to change the direction for them. But the cool thing was that we could point the antenna north and get a bunch of NH stations perfectly well, and similarly for RI by pointing south.

    However, the rotor has been stuck pointing to the Boston stations for a few years now. Prior to the digital switch, we could still get NH and RI with significant snow, but still watchable. After the switch, we can’t get them at all, but all the Boston stations come in fine (and 68, which used to have ghosting, comes in great now).

    Every now and then I think of trying to get a ladder tall enough to get to the upper roof so I can look at the rotor and see if it’s easy to fix, but I haven’t gotten around to it.

  3. jik Post author

    We tried basic cable, which costs $10.30 per month plus taxes and fees.

    The problem is that it’s analog, i.e., you get none of the benefits of digital television mentioned above, and 16:9 HD pictures are chopped off at the sides. Also, the basic cable lineup doesn’t include most of the DTV broadcast sub-channels, some of which have decent content on them.

    The 4:3 vs. 16:9 thing is going to be a bigger and bigger deal over time. During the transition to DTV, the networks made an effort to keep stuff watchable in the 4:3 viewing area, but as fewer and fewer people are watching in 4:3, it’s going to be more and more important to be able to see the entire 16:9 image.

    Digital cable solves the 4:3 problem, but it would cost us about $35 per month after the 12-month promotional period, and I’m not even sure we’re eligible for the promotion since we’re already using Comcast for telephone and internet. Clearly a rooftop antenna would be a more economical choice.

  4. E.T.

    I do wonder whether it might’ve been cheaper to get basic cable… but I’m glad it works!


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