What is Free to Air?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Free to air programming may be broadcast from communications satellites without encryption.
Free to air programming may be broadcast from communications satellites without encryption.

Free to air is an expression used to describe both television and radio broadcasts that are not encrypted. This enables anyone with a satellite dish to pick up these programs without subscribing to a cable company. When first radio and then television began, virtually all programs on major networks were free to air and could be listened to or viewed by anyone in close enough range to broadcast antennas.

Most popular radio programs are broadcast in a free to air format.
Most popular radio programs are broadcast in a free to air format.

Today most networks, particularly in the US, are unavailable unless one has cable or satellite dish service, which is able to break encrypted codes. Even free to air programming may be difficult to obtain if it is broadcast via a satellite and one does not own a satellite dish. Very few programs or stations use older methods of broadcasting, thus the famous TV rabbit ear antennas have lost their function.

With the use of cable of satellite dishes, the famous rabbit ear antennas have become obsolete.
With the use of cable of satellite dishes, the famous rabbit ear antennas have become obsolete.

With radio, there are still many free to air broadcasts available without subscribing to a satellite radio service. In fact, most popular radio programs are still broadcast in a free to air format, though many argue listening to the radio is not exactly free. With the exception of public radio, one must endure constant interruptions from commercial breaks, making satellite radio a more pleasant option for some. Many would rather pay a fee that allows them access to uninterrupted programming, than to have to listen to commercials.

Satellite cable services are rarely free to air.
Satellite cable services are rarely free to air.

Most free to air television stations also take breaks for commercials, with the exception of stations like PBS. Even now, however, viewers may need to watch a commercial or notification of sponsorship prior to a program. As well, many loyal PBS fans resent the need to raise funds through pledge drives. Often PBS will show its most interesting or popular programs during such a drive, but will take long breaks to ask people to support the network.

Though free to air programming may be free to watch, it is not free for the broadcasting company. All broadcasting radio and television stations must pay licensing fees to legally broadcast. Some pirate radio and television stations exist, but the location of such broadcasting is usually discovered and shut down.

In countries other than the US, much of the television programming may be free to air, a thought that irks most Americans who pay steadily increasing cable fees. In Europe for example, the majority of programming is free to air, and satellite programming for radio is also of this type.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon98499

I have just come across this website and i will find it very useful.

anon42012

If you have an unused oval dish network dish on your roof can you get any fta station wth a fta receiver?

anon38175

Hi, Thanks for the article. I like the idea but have no clue how to get started. Can you educate me?

anon24998

There are satellite FTA TV stations in the US.

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    • Free to air programming may be broadcast from communications satellites without encryption.
      By: yuriy
      Free to air programming may be broadcast from communications satellites without encryption.
    • Most popular radio programs are broadcast in a free to air format.
      By: On-Air
      Most popular radio programs are broadcast in a free to air format.
    • With the use of cable of satellite dishes, the famous rabbit ear antennas have become obsolete.
      By: Roman Milert
      With the use of cable of satellite dishes, the famous rabbit ear antennas have become obsolete.
    • Satellite cable services are rarely free to air.
      By: vachiraphan
      Satellite cable services are rarely free to air.