DirecTV with Off Air Local Channels

How to Get HDTV Local Channels “Off Air” with DirecTV 38


DirecTV with Off Air Local ChannelsIf you’re a DirecTV customer, and you want to watch your local channels and get shows from the “big” networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, then there’s a good chance you’re coughing up extra money for their local channels.

Or maybe, you like to take your DirecTV receiver on the road in an RV or trailer, and you’d like to watch the local channels in the area you’re visiting.

Or maybe (and this one is completely hypothetical) you own a vacation home in a state that’s outside your home state’s Satellite spot beam. And maybe you’ve installed a dish on the roof of that vacation home, and brought a DirecTV receiver with you to that vacation home, so you can watch satellite TV there by paying only $6 per month for the additional receiver, rather than paying for an entirely separate account that you’ll only use a few weeks per year, meaning you haven’t been able to watch any channel under 200 at that vacation home for years, but you’ve been searching and searching for a way to get local channels so you can watch and DVR hi-def local programming.

Maybe.

So, if one of those situations describes you, I’ve found a solution. In addition to the satellite dish and DirecTV receiver you already have (assuming it’s one of the newer receivers like an HR21 that has a USB port in the back), you’re going to need two pieces of hardware:

Which antenna you choose will depend upon a number of factors, but most important is the broadcast strength of the local channels in your area. To find out what type of signals you can expect, I recommend the TVFool.com TV Signal Locator. Just type in your address, and it calculates your coverage based on the terrain and known transmitters in the area. Click here for a copy of my report, showing what I can expect in the Provo, UT area.

If your report looks like that, then you’re going to need an amplified HDTV antenna, such as the Mohu Leaf 50 Indoor HDTV Antenna, or the AmazonBasics Extreme Performance Ultra Thin Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna (which is a clone of the Mohu, only cheaper). If your report shows stronger signals, then you may be fine with a standard (non-amplified) Mohu or AmazonBasics antenna for a few dollars cheaper. I’ve also seen the Winegard amplified antennas at Costco for under $50. I purchased the Amazon amplified version for about $60, just to be safe. When it arrived, I was shocked at how small and light it was. Antenna technology has come a long way!

Connecting the AM21N

DirecTV AM21N Tuner

DirecTV AM21N Tuner

The AM21N is a DirecTV-branded device, although I get the sense they don’t want anyone to know about it, because I can’t find it advertised anywhere on their website. In fact, a Google search with results restricted to just the DirecTV.com website shows the word “AM21N” only occurs in the user forums and in the user manual hidden in the support section.

It’s an ATSC off-air tuner, meaning it picks up standard TV signals that are broadcast (for free!) through the air.

In any case, assuming you can get your hands on one (I bought mine on Amazon), connecting it is easy.

  1. Stack it directly on top of, or underneath, your DirecTV receiver.
  2. Remove the power cable from the back of your receiver.
  3. Plug the power cable from the AM21N into the power plug port on the back of your receiver.
  4. Connect the provided USB cable from the AM21N to the USB port on the back of your receiver.
  5. Connect your HDTV antenna to the antenna port on the AM21N.
  6. Plug the power cord that used to connect to your receiver into the power plug port on the back of the AM21N.

As your receiver is booting up (which can take a while), you can take a first guess at where you want to install your HDTV antenna.

Positioning your HDTV Antenna

Flat HDTV Antenna

Flat HDTV Antenna

You can use any type of HDTV Antenna you want with the AM21N, including attic- and roof-mounted options. You can find plenty of online help setting those up, but since I went with a small, indoor, flat antenna, that’s the only one I feel qualified to discuss.

My experience was the height matters. The higher I was able to place the antenna, the better my reception. One side of my antenna was white, and the other was black, but that’s merely cosmetic. It doesn’t matter which way you install it.

I used blue painters to place the antenna in a number of temporary locations and positions before finding the “sweet spot.” Placement in a window didn’t seem to have any advantage over mounting on a wall. In the end, it turned out I got the best results by laying the antenna flat on the top of a bookcase. By routing the cable behind the bookcase, you can’t even tell there’s an antenna in the room.

Once my receiver finished booting, it automatically took me to the Antenna Setup screen, where I could enter my local zip code. After that, it scans for the channels it “knows” about in the channel guide. If it finds one, it adds it to the list of your available channels in your guide.

My first scan got me ABC, CBS, and Fox, but no PBS or NBC. I moved the antenna and tried again, and got NBC, but at the expense of Fox. After 30 minutes of moving and re-scanning, I found the sweet spot… and ended up with great reception of everything in the area… including a bunch of Spanish language channels I didn’t want! I was able to shut them off in the Antenna Setup screen so they didn’t appear in the guide.

In addition to the “standard” local channels, I also got a number of sub-channels, which are digitally broadcast by the local affiliates. Those aren’t available on the satellite local feeds.

Image and Sound Quality

I fear that by publishing this post, DirecTV may send out their men in black to “get me,” but the image and sound quality of the off-air HD channels is actually better than the ones I get over the satellite back home. It’s not massively better, but it is noticeable to a home theater geek like me. Maybe it’s because the broadcast signals aren’t compressed like the satellite ones are. Regardless, quality is nothing like it used to be with the old rabbit ears in the basement TV when I was a kid. It’s true HD image and surround sound.

Channel Guide and DVR Functions Also Work

The combination of my DirecTV receiver (which is a DVR) and the AM21N means that the local programming appears in my channel guide alongside everythign else, and that I can pause and record the live TV signals from the antenna… just like I’d be able to with the local channels through the satellite feed. Changing channels takes a little bit longer, but not enough to bother me.

Final Thoughts

Even if you’re not a satellite customer, you can still use an HDTV antenna to pick up your local network affiliate stations on your TV: just connect the antenna to your TV and do a channel scan (that’s basically what the AM21N tuner is doing — acting as a TV tuner).

Combine an HDTV antenna with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and it’s no wonder the big boys like DirecTV and Comcast want you to forget that the FCC still requires local channels to broadcast their signals for free, over the airwaves.

So if you’re looking to add local HD channels to your TV, grab a $30-$50 antenna and you’re set. If you want to add them to your satellite setup, then spend another $60 on the AM21N tuner.

I’m just glad I can now DVR “my shows” while I’m visiting Utah.

Hypothetically, of course.

  • Meg

    Question for you: Can I hook the Tuner up to an outdoor Antenna? My plan was to use my existing satellite dish and mount an outdoor antenna to the dish then using the existing coaxial cables that are routed in my house to the satellite dish – unplug from the satellite and plug into the outdoor antenna. Could I then just unplug the coaxial from my receiver and plug into the AM21N tuner? Any thoughts on this?

    • Absolutely, Meg. The tuner has a standard coax input for use with any antenna. Your idea will totally work. 🙂

  • Meg

    Hi again! So I followed all the steps and when I select ‘initial setup’ nothing happens. I then unscrewed the coaxial cable from the AM21 and into the TV to make sure I had signal and I did (I got 30 channels!) So I double checked it was all plugged in and tried again. And I can’t find anywhere to enter my zip. Did you have any issues? Or does it take a long time for channels to show up? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!

  • Dawna

    Hi Steve: We live in a rural area of eastern Oregon. We have Directv everything. Just upgraded to the newest Genie package – have the hightest package of programs available, HDTV-DVR. Our problem is they don’t offer HD on our local channels which are fed out of Portland. Directv tells us it Portland local channels that won’t supply the HD to our area, but Dish does. We live out in the country and Satellite is the only way we can access any kind of TV. There is no putting up an antenna and catching channels where we live. So would this work for us?

    • Hi, Dawna. I’d recommend clicking the TVFool link in the article and entering your location. That will tell you what signals you might expect to get. This setup I describe in the article will only work if you can receive the broadcast signal wherever you are. Good luck!

  • Matt

    Steve – I appreciate your thoughts on the subject. I canceled my DirecTV subscription and am now getting OTA channels with great reception. DirecTV requested that I send the card back (which I have done) but not my DVR HR24-100. Is there a way to use my DirecTV DVR as a DVR for OTA channels without an active DirecTV service? Or is my DVR worthless?

    • Sorry, that box won’t function as a DVR without active DirecTV service. 🙁

      • Matt

        That was a really fast response. Not the answer I was hoping for but thank you for the response. Any suggestions for a device that records OTA channels without a subscription?

        • I believe TiVo still makes some DVRs that will handle OTA input. There’s a soft spot in my heart for the original TiVo units (I was an early adopter), and I’m glad to see they’re still around! 🙂

  • Joey

    I want to suspend my DirecTV account for six months (until Doctor Who comes back on) or possibly even cancel the service. Can I still use this to get my local channels with a suspended account or even without DirecTV service at all? Also, I don’t have an HDTV so can I use this for a standard TV and a regular antenna?

    • Hi, Joey. You can use this to get local HD channels without any other service. I’m not sure, however, if it will pick up SD channels, as I haven’t tried it. My guess would be no.

  • Linda

    I own two houses in the same neighborhood in NC and and pay for 4 recievers in one NC house and pay for all the movie channels ($185.00 a month), I use one of of the 4 revievers in my other NC house and and get all the channels and another one in Maryland so I get all the channels There To. I also have a DTV account in Md that I only get local channels ($66.00a month) , it works fine and I am paying for all the boxes and service at two of the three houses, Is this leagle? Also if I purchase a newer DVR box and put it in my other NC. House without service will it record not being in the same NC house as the main receiver that is a Genie?

    Linda

  • Francene Fisher

    We are in the “vacation home” situation you described. I get the local channels at home as part of my package. In the vacation home we have an older “round” dish and do not get these same local channels. I heard if I get a newer dish, I can get the same programming (local channels) that I get at home. Is this true?

    • Hi, Francene. If the local channels for your vacation home’s area are the same as your primary home’s area, then yes — a dish that supports HD channels should get them via the same spot beam. But if you live in Seattle and your vacation home is in California, then no, you’ll be too far outside the spot beam to catch them and will need to follow this same setup.

    • Yes – that’s true. A newer dish will give you all the same channels you have at home!

  • Roberto

    Thank You Steve for this headsup! My question(s)would be, after final connections and setup with this device to my main Genie receiver located in livingroom, will my three(3)Mini-Genies placed in bedrooms and basement(where I mainly watch sports programming)also be able to broadcast and display the OTA channels in Guide? Will the DVR features also work with the minis and this device?
    Or..can I connect this device directly to the Mini Genie in basement, bypassing the main one in livingroom..for all available OTA channels in my area?
    Again, thank you for this article.

    • Jeff

      Bump, I have the same question. Thanks!

  • Oris

    Do i need on of these tuners for each DirectTV set top box?

  • Hi, Steve. I’ve never tested that out, but I can’t see why that wouldn’t work. I don’t believe there’s anything on the receiver itself that tells HD to be enabled or disabled.

  • Hi, Cameron. Congrats on the free upgrades! Sorry, but I don’t have the Genie units (yet?), so I don’t know if/how the antenna works with those. 🙁

    • Cameron

      Thank you very much for taking the time to respond. Sorry about not replying sooner–I didn’t see your reply until just a few moments ago.

  • Hi, Kevin. Yes, I get NBC in Provo with this. BYU isn’t broadcast over-the-air, so no, that won’t show up with this. It only captures OTA signals and then delivers them to the DirecTV receiver in a way it’s “expecting.”

    • Kevin Johnson

      Thanks. It is my understanding BYUtv is broadcast over the air on Channel 11.2 in Orem/provo (I pick it up off my antenna)
      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/BYUtv
      I had just read some reviews that not all over the air channels came through.

      • Interesting! Well, it it’s broadcast in hi-def over the air, then yes — this should work!

  • You can use the TV input if your TV has a coax antenna connection. Then just switch to the antenna input and you’re good to go! No DVR, of course, but the channels will be free! 🙂

  • Hmm… I don’t see why this WOULDN’T work! Give it a shot and please let us know!

  • Yes, the antenna should just connect to the coax connector on the TV. Check the TV settings menu to choose between “CABLE” vs. “AIR” and try the channel auto-setup. Also, depending on a number of factors due to signal strength and/or how much your house might block signals, you sometimes have to experiment to find a good location for the antenna (move it around a bit while scanning).

  • Chris

    Same thing here NBC is 13-1 and cw is 13-2 and I can’t get cw!!! Anybody out there have a solution for this???

    • Pablo

      Yes, but it’s complicated. You need to find another local channel from a site like rabbitears.info. Use the zip code from where that station is located as a secondary zip in the AM21. When you put this zip in, the device will scan for a signal from that station locally and it will show up in the guide. However, it will show up with guide info from the other station. So the trick is to find a station with the same number and affiliation…and that station will need to be in the DirecTV db (which at this point is static). I was able to somewhat luck out with mine. I found another market that carried the station I was missing, but the affiliation was different…however, that market did carry the affiliate on an adjacent channel which my market also had. So I can use the guide from the other channel to see what’s on…but it makes recording very tricky.

  • Robin

    Hello, I came upon this thread and I hope it hasn’t been to long to ask a question?? We have DirecTV and live in Pensacola, FL. However, I miss certain channels that they don’t carry but are available with an off air antenna, like METV for example. I don’t want to cancel my DirecTV nor do I care to have the AM21N and have it work through the satellite. I would just like to be able to switch the TV over to antenna to watch the local channels but still have my full DirecTV. This is all so new to me, but I would so much appreciate any help. Can I hook up an antenna to the coax spot on the back of the tv and switch the TV over to antenna? Ugh…I am lost! Thanks

    • Hi, Robin. Yes, you can absolutely do that. You won’t get the guide or DVR features from the DirecTV receiver, but you’ll be able to watch local TV channels in HD over the antenna on the “Antenna” or “Cable” input.

  • science_fan

    Why the need to swap out the power cords between the two devices?

    • If you look at the rear of the AM21, you’ll see that the power cord is hard wired, not removable. You have to daisy-chain them.

      • science_fan

        Thanks! Seems a tivo would be cheaper for purely OTA TV though less integrated unless I go for one of their high end models and replace my Directv with a cable provider so I can use a cablecard.

  • suse

    I am trying to do this. So, I need the “additional” AM21N box ALONG with my Directv DVR receiver/box? The picture above LOOKS LIKE the smaller boxes that are in the additional rooms. Can I plug the antenna straight into the DVR — and then put over to the TV as usual? Or, do I have to find this additional box to use — PLUS the Directv DVR box? Thank you!

    • Yes, you need the additional AM21N box for this to work with the receiver.

      If you don’t care about DVR features or using the Guide feature, you can also plug an HD antenna directly into your TV’s antenna port, then switch inputs when you want to watch local free off-air HD vs. satellite.

  • Garrett

    I’m very interested in making this work but I honestly need it laid out for me like a kindergartner. My tech savy is very limited and I have a tendency to set up devices only to see them not work when I try to use them. I believe I have a similar situation to some other individuals here and am desperate for help. I am about to move to a rural area of Texas that is about 55 miles Northeast of Dallas. While trying to decide how I will receive television service I noticed that DIRECTV doesn’t provide several of the local digital substations out of Dallas such as Metv, CoziTV, AntennaTV, Movies, and so on. This troubled me as I greatly enjoy many of these stations and the shows they provide. However I am also blessed to have many close family members visit me and stay regularly. Grandchildren, great nieces & nephews, and so on are much younger and I want to provide them with the satellite service they are used to and make their visit as enjoyable as possible. If I am understanding everything correctly I can subscribe to DIRECTV for satellite service, and also hook up a traditional antenna to receive all of the local channels including the digital sub channels I’m wanting? Also if I do this I can purchase another device that will include these local channels into my DIRECTV guide, and allow them to be recorded on my DVR? If I’ve got all of this right I’m very happy about it! Steve could you tell me how hard this will be to set up/connect, and also where I can purchase this other device I need to rout the local channels into my DIRECTV box? I searched for an AM21 on Amazon but it said they were no longer available. I really hope I haven’t missed the boat on purchasing one of these. Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time and patience helping an older technologically challenged gentleman out.

    Thank you.
    Garrett Todd.