Do Old TV Antennas Still Work? (Yes, In Many Cases)

By Greg Martinez / September 26, 2022
Do old TV antennas still work

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You might remember back in 2009 when TV broadcasts in the United States transitioned from analog to digital.

The only thing you would have needed was a new TV equipped with an ATSC tuner (also known as a digital tuner) to receive and display the digital TV broadcasts. Or a special converter box to connect directly to your antenna – in order to feed the signal to your old television.

But you would not have needed – and still don’t need – a new antenna necessarily, unless your antenna was of the VHF variety and digital broadcasters near you switched to UHF frequencies during the transition.

You see, broadcasts of TV signals are radio frequency waves travelling through the air until your antenna picks them up and converts these to electrical current for display by your TV.

Whether the information in those waves is encoded for processing by analog tuners or digital tuners, is immaterial as concerns the antenna itself, which is designed to just receive waves of a certain size, and convey these to your television.

Why Did We Move to Digital Broadcasting?

The reason why we transitioned to digital was because of three main advantages that digital television (DTV) offered over the old analog TV:

  • Sharper and more colorful images (and today of course 4K picture)
  • Higher-quality audio
  • Simultaneous broadcast of multiple channels on one radio frequency channel (as digital subchannels, otherwise known as virtual channels)

In 2009, the FCC mandated the switchover to digital and many TV stations decided to also switch their broadcasts from VHF to higher-frequency UHF channels for their digital content.

Do You Need a Special Antenna for Digital TV?

By now you’ve seen that the answer is a definite “no.” You can use any old TV antenna, whether manufactured in the 2020s or in the 1950s, to receive today’s over-the-air television signals.

Don’t let modern nomenclature like “digital antenna” or “HDTV antenna” fool you. It’s all the same old set of metallic dipoles – the only difference between TV antennas fifty years ago and today might be their size and shape.

Because UHF frequencies tend to feature wavelengths that are narrower and smaller than that of VHF frequencies, today’s indoor and outdoor antennas tend to have smaller dimensions than their older cousins.

Unless you’re talking about some VHF behemoth that you saw on a roof somewhere out in the countryside.

Let me explain.

The smaller and tighter wavelengths of UHF frequencies make them better suited for broadcasting in urban environments, where physical obstacles like houses, roofs, and tall buildings abound.

These smaller waves penetrate into homes better than their longer VHF counterparts, and the reception is usually great if you’re within 15 miles or so of the nearest TV station.

Thus the popularity of indoor antennas today.

But whatever benefits you get from UHF at shorter ranges, you sacrifice these at longer ones as UHF is typically broadcast at lower transmission power and doesn’t travel at such long distances as VHF.

And so out in the countryside, the best TV antennas that work are usually high and low VHF ones that can pick up transmissions from farther away, but are correspondingly much bigger than your typical urban antenna.

How Do You Hook Up an Old Antenna to a New TV?

Receiving TV channels over the air still requires a digital tuner even if you have an antenna. Most digital TVs already have a digital tuner built into them, which may (but not always) be identified by a label such as “ATSC” near the antenna coax port on the back of the TV.

If you still watch programs on an old tube TV (analog television), you would have hopefully already obtained an external digital tuner like a converter box. Converter boxes are generally affordable, for example, the Mediasonic HW130STB that includes a digital recorder.

Now, one thing to observe with earlier antennas is that they used 300-ohm twin lead cable rather than modern coaxial cable to connect with televisions.

You may have seen twin lead cable before: it’s flat antenna wire consisting of two leads separated by insulation. These two leads terminate in U-shaped connectors as shown below:

300 ohm twin lead cable

If your antenna has such connectors then you should consider a twin lead to coaxial cable adapter.

Once you attach such an adapter, the rest of the installation follows normally since we’re now using a coax cable.

Do Rabbit Ear Antennas Work with Digital TV?

Omnidirectional rabbit ears are the oldest, and previously were the most common type of indoor antenna. It was designed to receive VHF signals, ideally when you lived at closer ranges to the broadcasting tower.

They’re easy to install and consist of two telescoping metal rods connected to a common base, making them a type of dipole antenna.

This design allows the direction of each rod to be adjusted independently of the other, which allows it to be easily placed in space-challenged areas.

Rabbit ears have a wide-angle reception pattern that often allows it to receive signals from multiple stations in different directions without requiring adjustment when the channel is changed.

You can still use rabbit ears antennas today, even with a smart TV. Rabbit ears antennas themselves aren’t as popular as before because of the advent of UHF broadcasting, which has engendered today’s small, square-shaped indoor antennas.

Rabbit ears antenna

Final Thoughts

TV broadcasters and stations haven’t changed the way they broadcast television signals over the air, and so old TV antennas will still receive today’s free channels like NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and more.

TV antenna design has changed, however. The digital broadcasting switch to UHF has influenced the popularity of certain designs, as smaller and more compact sizes are now more popular than the larger, sometimes sprawling VHF designs of the past.

Andy Laroque - December 5, 2019

Can I also get FM Radio Signals when I use this kind of old antenna?

    Greg Martinez - December 6, 2019

    Hi Andy, many old-style VHF antennas will get FM radio signals. UHF antennas however likely will not.

Jim - December 17, 2019

I bought one of this 5 years ago and used it for my old boxy TV and it worked like a charm. I guess this is really meant to be used for older TV sets and will work without any problem. I wonder if I can use this to smart TVs too.

    Greg Martinez - December 18, 2019

    Sure Jim, you can use any old antenna with a smart TV that has a 75-ohm coaxial input (normally labeled something like “ANT IN” or similar). You might need to attach a 300-ohm to 75-ohm adapter if the antenna uses a twin lead cable as described in the article.

Catherine Bee - January 6, 2020

I’m planning to buy this kind of antenna because I prefer using indoor than installing one outside. Does this also need to be grounded before using? Sorry, I’m really not familiar with antennas that’s why I want a smaller one.

    Greg Martinez - January 7, 2020

    Hi Catherine, if the AC-powered appliances connected to the antenna (like your TV) use a 3-prong power plug, then no need ground it.

Scott U. - March 9, 2020

Anywhere I can post a picture? I have two very large (over 8 feet long) antennas that are from the 70’s. Wondering if I should keep them or are newer models superior?

    Greg Martinez - March 9, 2020

    Wow those truly sound like VHF antennas. So “in theory” they should work just fine – if you want VHF. They may not get UHF so good (the frequency on which most modern digital TV is broadcast on), since I suspect they’re rather designed for VHF (those old analog TV shows). Is there any way you could test them, say with a portable TV or a laptop with a tuner card?

Jerry - April 22, 2020

I’m glad some one is honest regarding “old school ” tv antennas that work on their digital tuners or t v’s .
My wife fell for their BS ,100’s of free t v channels ,with their digital t v antennas. all said and done,
She was very disappointed.
I hooked up old school t v antenna , digital channels came in crystal clear.
She was very happy
So much for digital t v antennas.

    Greg Martinez - April 22, 2020

    Hi Jerry, glad to hear it. The only thing is that TV before 2009 was broadcast mostly on VHF – so most antennas from the past tend to be of the large, VHF variety. Whereas these days most TV gets sent out on UHF, so today’s antennas tend to be smaller for capturing those frequencies. Not saying that UHF antennas also weren’t sold back then though…

      Jerry - April 29, 2020

      Hi. I should have been more clearer re- t v channels. All were VHF channels 2 analog ( 7 and 13) and one digital (8.1) the digital did not last long on V H F it went UHF, eventually.The UHF feed was discovered by accident in a community 40 miles north.The town I live in,
      All TV was fed by repeater.
      The point I was trying to make was regarding
      Your honesty regarding whether or not so called ” analog” TV antennas working on digital TV’s and not to be cought up in nicely worded , MARKET HYPE. 73 ,de Jerry

Jennifer - September 27, 2020

Hi Greg, I am so glad I found this site. Quick question I was using an old Computer monitor (VGA input) With a product called “lcd tv in a box” but it doesn’t seem to want to work with the digital tuner to convert the signal from the antenna. Can you recommend a tuner box that can be connected so I can use my monitor to watch OTA tv? Even an adaptor might work.

    Greg Martinez - September 27, 2020

    Hi Jennifer, I don’t have a particular product to recommend but what you could do is search for an ATSC digital converter box (like from Mediasonic) with HDMI output, then get an HDMI to VGA cable to hook up to the monitor. Of course if you find an ATSC digital converter box already with VGA output then you’re in luck but I don’t know if these exist. Hope that works!

Jim Navotney - March 9, 2021

The same tv antennas used 70 years ago will work perfectly fine today.
And 300 ohm twinlead has MUCH lower loss than RG6.
The ONLY reason for the switch to coax is TVs started coming with 75 ohm F connections.
Virtually every tv antenna sold today is still a 300 ohm antenna.
The only difference is they added a lossy balun that converts it to 75 ohms for coax.
So today’s antennas actually have LESS gain than those made 70 years ago.

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