Antenna Users: Rescan to Keep Getting Free TV

Regular rescanning ensures that you'll get all the stations available to you

Illustration of a TV with an antenna. Illustration: iStock

These days, more of us are looking for ways to save money, including on our monthly TV bills. So it’s no surprise that TV antennas have made a comeback. Once you get an antenna, you can tune in to local broadcast channels, such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, as well as PBS and Telemundo. It’s free TV.

For the past few years, we’ve been advising consumers who use antennas to rescan for channels at least once a month. That’s because a number of broadcast networks had been moving their stations to new frequencies. The reason: Congress authorized the Federal Communications Commission to hold a spectrum auction, freeing up some over-the-air broadcast TV frequencies to make room for new high-speed wireless services. (Those who get TV from a cable company or satellite service aren’t affected.)

That station reassignment is now complete, but you still might want to do a channel rescan every once in a while.

More on TV Antennas

There are a few reasons. One is that if you originally scanned for channels on a cloudy or rainy day, you might not be receiving all the channels available to you.

Also, most stations now have digital subchannels in addition to the main program you’re tuned to. A rescan will help you capture any new subchannels with programming that often includes a mix of vintage TV shows, nature programs, local news and weather, and foreign-language fare.

Rescanning simply means having your TV’s tuner do an automated update to look for new channels. This will allow your TV to find your favorite channels at their new frequencies. Though the frequency may be new, the channel numbers you use won’t change—Channel 5 will still be Channel 5, and so on.

You can check out the FCC’s interactive DTV map for general information about station reassignments, along with guidance about the channels available in your area.

Here's How to Rescan

It’s fairly simple to rescan for channels. The process varies a bit depending on which brand of TV you own, but ultimately you’re looking for a control that says Channel Scan or Channel Tuning.

Start by using your TV remote control (or a digital converter box remote if you still have an older analog TV) to press the Menu or Setup button. You may see the Channel Scan control right away or it could be one layer down, under Antenna, Channels, or Channel List. It might be called Live TV (on LG TVs) or Broadcast (on Samsung sets). On any brand of TV, if you’re having trouble finding the right option, look under Settings or Setup.

Once you find Channel Scan or Channel Tuning, you may have a choice to tune automatically (Autotune or Autoscan) or manually. You want the automatic option, which will make the TV search through all the channels.

If you don’t see any of these options, you can usually do a channel scan by selecting the Input button on the TV remote or in the TV’s main menu, then choosing Antenna.

Depending on the number of channels you can receive, it could take a few minutes to complete the rescan. If it doesn’t work the first time, try again. We recommend doing a second channel scan anyway just to see whether you get any stations you missed on the first rescan.

If you’re already using an antenna to get free TV, none of this will take new equipment. The one exception is if a local station moves from UHF (Channels 14 to 51) to VHF (Channels 1 to 13) and your current antenna is either UHF-only or gets poor VHF reception. In those cases, you might want to consider a new antenna. (More on that below.)

Don't Have a TV Antenna Yet?

If you’re just getting started with free over-the-air TV, you’ll be in good company. Even many consumers who have switched to streaming video services, such as Sling TV, Hulu + Live TV, or YouTube TV, use an antenna for local stations not included with their package. In fact, a quarter of all U.S. households with internet service now use a TV antenna to get free TV service, according to the research firm Parks Associates, up from 15 percent in 2018.

Having the right antenna can help you get more of your local channels. Our test results cover 19 popular antennas, ranging in price from $10 to $80. Your reception will also depend heavily on your distance from broadcast towers, along with topography—such as mountains or tall buildings—that could interfere with signals. Amplified models can often help pull in more distant stations.

A final reminder if you’re shopping for an antenna: Make sure it can receive both VHF and UHF frequencies. Some antennas provide good reception for only VHF or UHF channels but not both. But to get all the stations you can receive in your area, you’ll need an antenna that can receive both.

James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.