How to Get HDTV Local Channels “Off Air” with DirecTV 39

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.


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 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 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.