[Editor’s note: For an updated version of this article click here.]
Mobile TV watching has come a long way since my parents traveled in their RV in the early 1970’s where a “compact,” 12-inch square, black and white Sony, with a single telescoping wand antenna was their only option. And even at that, the channel selection was usually limited to four or five channels in a big city and maybe one in a rural town.
Now, inside our Navion motorhome in a rainy Tampa with two flat screens, HD TV antenna, cable input, satellite dish, and AppleTV, the only reason we’d be bored is because we’re dead. But, all this entertainment choice comes with a trade-off: complexity. At this point, if you’re part of that exclusive class of book readers only, you can stop here while the rest of us ascend the hierarchy of television reception options.
If you’ve been plugged into cable at home over the past decade you probably missed the part of the digital revolution where the FCC required over-the-air broadcasters to switch to digital signals. This required new frequencies and tuners and, for the past decade, all TVs have this circuitry built in. It all means that rabbit ears now refer only to Bugs Bunny, not the twin v-rods extending from the rear of the TV. To receive over-the-air TV signals you now need an HDTV antenna. In our case its a batwing shaped KINGJack TV antenna that can be rotated around by a manual ceiling control with five little blue LEDs that light up when you home in on the best signal.
Broadcasters continue to air their main channels as usual, but there are sub-channels they also broadcast alternative programs on. The result is that there are far more channels to chose from over the air, but don’t expect to see cable/satellite only channels like CNN or Discovery off your antenna.
If your rig is wired for cable input, you can get basic programming tiers in standard definition. This usually is 20-40 channels. Hi-definition channels usually require a digital tuner (ex. cable box). In one case, when we were hooked up to a cable in Moab, Utah I was shocked to see some high-def signals appear, but that’s rare. Park cable systems range from poor to crystal clear signals and often the lower band channels are poorer in quality (there’s a technical reason for that, but it’s not worth going down that rabbit hole).
Depending on whether or not you are feeding your TV with an over-the-air or cable signal, all modern TVs will require you to go into the menu settings and have the TV scan for the available channels – a process that usually takes 10 to 20 minutes. Inside psychological tip: if you stare at the screen while it’s scanning, it will seem like it’s taking twice as long, so busy yourself with something else while your TV does it’s thing.
And here’s the number one tuning tip than many RVers overlook: make sure your outside antenna booster circuit is turned off. Many late model RVs (Winnebago included) use antenna amplifiers for off-the-air digital antennas. When that little switch is on (and there’s usually an indicator light) it can cause distortion in the cable signal. Turn he switch off — your picture quality should be much better.
In the US there are only two satellite providers: DirectTV and Dish Network. Bell Canada is the Canadian provider. While both US services offer a gigantic range of signals, DirectTV does offer exclusive services like NFL Sunday Ticket that allows you to watch any NFL game. Satellite service is the ultimate TV lover’s choice with both Dish and Direct offering 100+ channel packages starting around $60 per month.
Adding satellite to your RV requires several decisions to be made up front. The first is which service and the second is which type of dish. Let’s start with service.
While Direct and Dish are very comparable in their offerings and prices, they use completely different satellites. In DirectTV’s case if you want high definition channels, then you’ll have to go with an open style satellite dish. If Direct’s standard definition is okay, then you can use a dome covered antenna. Unlike DirectTV, Dish allows you to use a dome covered dish for both standard and hi-def signals. If you already have Direct or Dish service at home, you might consider taking one of your receivers on the road. If you are buying a service from scratch, then Dish has the edge for several reasons.
One feature Dish provides at no extra cost is allowing you to change your service address so you can get local channels. If we’re going to be staying in a particular state or region for a week or two I’ll call Dish and give them a local address (such as a campground) for our service address. That activates the local channels so you get all national networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS and CW. (There used to be an additionally priced service for national networks from the east and west coasts, but that’s no longer offered.)
Dish works with a dome antenna for both hi-def and standard-def signals. So products like the Winegard Mission RT, G2 and Tailgater work well. Dish also has a “pay as you go” plan that allows you to basically pay for satellite service on a month to month basis when you’re traveling. But here’s the irritation with that. While Dish advertises and markets this service to RVers, the actual process is painful and confusing. When I first started the service I asked several Dish agents about the consequences of not paying my bill. I was assured that it was not a problem and service would simply be turned off, until I wanted to re-activate by paying for the month ahead.
Well, when I stopped paying, the notices via mail and e-mail started coming with dire warnings should I not keep my account current. I called several times and was assured that, “no, everything’s fine and you should discard the insistent e-mail and mail payment reminders.” I held my breath to see if Dish would ultimately report this as a credit problem — fortunately, they didn’t. Usually we turned service off for a month or two, but in our most recent stretch at home we didn’t use Dish services for over 90 days. That caused my account to be deactivated and I had to pay a small reactivation fee. That particular agent said I should call and “suspend” my service and I would only be assessed a $5 dollar a month maintenance fee.
Man, all of this is far more complicated, confusing, and as customer unfriendly as it gets — especially since it’s so contradictory from the promise of Dish’s pay as you go marketing. Yet despite this continuing aggravation I still feel that Dish is the best choice because of the ability to get both high and standard definition channels and the rather torturous ability to save money by suspending service.
Dishes are either fixed to the roof or detachable with a cable that runs from a dish unit placed on the ground. King and Winegard are the two big suppliers and both make good products. We’ve had Winegard dome models on both our Navions and have been very happy with their dependability and good customer service.
If you do a lot of camping under the trees, you’ll want a detachable antenna dish that you can place with an unobstructed sky view. I prefer the roof mount and, if TV watching is important to us that evening, we’ll often ask for a satellite friendly site when we check into a campground. My signal’s been thwarted by very sparse branches. There are also inexpensive apps for both the iPhone and Android that show you where the satellites are so you can park for an unobstructed view.
The traditional open style, concave satellite dishes need to be stowed in a lockdown position for travel. Domes protect antennas from highway wind and the elements. If you remove the lightweight dome cover you’ll see a similar, though smaller, concave antenna underneath. Many dome units offer in-motion satellite tracking for continuous video viewing when traveling. And if you have a coach with multiple TVs, you want to make sure that the antenna you buy has the ability to send two different signals to two or more TVs.
Satellite in Canada and Alaska
If you’re a Canadian, you’ll have a choice of providers between Bell or Shaw. As of 2012, Bell no longer has signal service below the border. Shaw does provide service in the US so you can keep up on your favorite curling competitions. For Alaskan travelers, the general consensus is that satellite signal quality degrades the further north you get. The satellites used for TV are in a geosynchronous (rotating at the same speed of the earth) location 23,000 miles above Brazil. This means that the more north you get, the lower in the sky you have to point your dish (almost to the horizon) which increases the problems for a blocked signal. Satellite signals are very weak and that’s why dish antennas are curved to concentrate the signal (like cupping your hand over your ear). In the case of extreme north locations you generally see larger four foot dishes to gather in the weak signal.
A new option on the horizon
I’ve discussed the three different ways (over the air, cable and satellite) that most people will use to watch TV, but there’s a fourth one that is starting to get some traction: streaming. Streaming is getting a TV signal through the Internet. There’s a growing list of streaming media players vying for consumer’s love. And there’s a lot to discuss about the ins and outs of this emerging technology which will appear in another article in the near future. Streaming may have a very bright future for RVers, but for now the three “old school” ways of getting your favorite shows will be with us for a long time to come.