Over-the-air broadcasting is going through a significant evolution that’ll lead to 4K and HDR content, additional programming and more. And it will still be free.
If you’re paying for cable, satellite or even a live-TV service like YouTube TV, learning that you can get free network TV content over the air in every city in the US may sound appealing. That includes sports, news, dramas and comedies — anything that’s on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS and more. All you need is an antenna and maybe a separate, inexpensive tuner.
This new broadcasting standard is called NextGen TV, aka ATSC 3.0. It has been rolling out across the US for several years. There are already NextGen TV stations in nearly every major city and many smaller cities. Sony, LG, Samsung and Hisense now offer multiple models of built-in NextGen TV tuners. There are also a growing number of stand-alone tuners to add NextGen to just about any TV.
As the name suggests, NextGen TV is the next generation of over-the-air broadcasts, replacing or supplementing the free HD broadcasts we’ve had for over two decades. NextGen not only improves on HDTV but also adds the potential for new features, like free over-the-air 4K and HDR, though those aren’t yet widely available.
Even so, the image quality with NextGen is likely better than what you’re used to from streaming, cable or satellite. If you already have an antenna and watch HD broadcasts, your reception with NextGen might be better, too. So here’s everything you need to know and even deeper dives if you want to learn more.
In the before times, there was NTSC. This was the broadcasting standard in the US for over half a century. It was officially replaced in 2009 by ATSC, aka HDTV. Now ATSC itself is being replaced in many markets by NextGen TV, which was formerly called ATSC 3.0 (there was no 2.0).
NextGen TV offers a variety of new technologies, including the ability to broadcast 4K, HDR and more. Because of how it works, you’ll likely get better reception if you’re far from the TV tower.
The short version is: NextGen is free over-the-air television with potentially more channels and better image quality than older over-the-air broadcasts.
Most major cities carry NextGen TV stations, as do a lot of smaller ones, with more rolling out every month. The transition to NextGen is voluntary, but so far many stations in most markets are embracing the change. A lot of that has to do with groundwork that was laid during the digital transition to HDTV. Since everything is digital already, upgrading to NextGen doesn’t have the same high cost that switching from analog NTSC to digital ATSC (1.0) did. There are also new ways stations can make money, which certainly softens the blow.
You can find out what stations are already active in your area at watchnextgentv.com/markets.
All you need is a NextGen tuner and an antenna. If you’re shopping for a new TV, many current models have built-in NextGen TV tuners. This includes many models from LG, Sony, Hisense and Samsung. There are a handful of external tuners as well, though not as many as you might think — at least, for now.
The antenna part is fairly easy: There are a lot of inexpensive options. If you have an antenna from the HDTV days, it will likely work just fine.
What are NextGen TV channels?
This is the ultimate question, isn’t it? What good is free content if it’s not content you want to watch? NextGen is a broadcast standard that typically covers the “broadcasters” of yore (namely ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS). These aren’t the only channels you’ll find, but these will be the core offerings in most areas.
The specifics, however, are more complex. Not every station in your area will have converted to NextGen, though conveniently if you have the antenna and tuner, you should be able to get all the “ATSC 1.0” (aka old-school HDTV) broadcasts. So you should be able to get all the major broadcasters for free over the air one way or another.
In many areas, however, you’ll be able to get much more than those. Most stations run multiple sub-channels, which in turn run different programming under the same “channel” banner. Plus, there are smaller broadcasters with varied content. Will you be able to watch The Last of Us over the air? Almost certainly not, but Chicago Fire, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy and most major sports are all free over the air.
Does this mean I need to watch ads again?
Nothing is ever truly free, right? In this case, you pay with your time by watching ads. Back in the olden days, aka before streaming, there were things called DVRs that recorded programming to a hard drive for later watching. You could fast-forward through the commercials. It was A Thing. And it still is if you pay for cable or satellite TV.
There are a couple of NextGen DVRs already, and some of the other tuners have the ability to record on local or networked hard drives. So if you don’t want to watch 20 minutes of every hour guessing what a prescription drug does based on its possible side effects, look for one of those.
For now, check if it’s available in your area, or at least, when it’s coming: watchnextgentv.com/markets. For more info including how it all works, check out Free antenna TV is getting an upgrade and it might be in your town already.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.
He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and on his YouTube channel.