How To Receive Live Television In An RV

RV and TV are a fun combination

A motor home or travel trailer can be outfitted to watch TV on the road.

The primary RV activity is seeing the world. But every adventure needs some downtime. Sometimes, it's nice to kick back and see what's on television. Virtually every modern RV has one or more TVs. But the best way to receive live TV programming can be puzzling, because there are several options, and quite a bit of money can be spent only to be disappointed at the outcome.

There are several factors to consider. Your best choice is where the factors intersect -- FOR YOU.

This article is about receiving live TV in an RV when a campground does not offer "cable" or the cable has few channels or unacceptable quality, and also about receiving TV (primarily audio) while driving. (Of course, watching DVDs is much simpler; just do it.) In this article I use the term "dish" for the type of antenna used to receive satellite signals, nicknamed because it has a parabolic reflector that resembles a dish. I say Dish Network to reference the satellite service of that name.

First: DirecTV, which used to be THE service for RVs, seems to have abandoned the market to Dish Network due to policy and technical changes. Details below.

ANTENNA TYPE -- Uncovered satellite dish, satellite dish in a dome, portable satellite dish, or crank-up TV antenna?

An uncovered satellite dish antenna is large. The newest are shaped to pick up multiple satellites simultaneously; this is useful when there are two receivers (or one receiver with two tuners) AND the need is to watch shows on different satellites at the same time (a possibly rare situation). Being large, it picks up weaker signals, therefore it can sometimes work if there's just a bit of tree, or in a very stormy situation, or in a fringe region (satellites don't cover everywhere with equal strength). But an open antenna can only be used when parked.

Though it begins with a button push, it can take some time for the antenna to unfold itself, pop up and find the satellites (most antennas aim automatically but it can several minutes of sky-scanning). Also, there must be sufficient space above the roof for the tall antenna to erect itself. Wind is a major consideration. An uncovered dish antenna, being a large vertical surface, is quite vulnerable to wind (common almost daily in some regions). If the antenna is stowed when wind increases (so it doesn't get ripped off the roof, any potential better performance in a storm might be of little actual value.

A dome satellite antenna is a fiberglass dome over a dish antenna, which is smaller (to fit inside the dome) so less capable in two ways. It can aim at just one satellite at a time, so rapidly re-aims as necessary when the receiver channel is changed. The only problem is the (possibly are) situation of two receivers/tuners needing to view two satellites simultaneously. Also, being a smaller antenna covered by a dome, it's less reliable in fringe situations where the satellite signal is weak.

Important is that the dome protects the dish from wind so the antenna can be used all the time. Some dome antennas can track the satellite signal to remain aimed even while driving at highway speed (more on this below). Because it doesn't have to go up and down, a dome is usually faster to use. The most notorious problem is moisture (dew, rain) on the dome, which can make the signal too weak to use. Winegard's RT8000 series has a round-top dome that supposedly doesn't allow much moisture to collect, but this makes the dome tall the roof. (There don't seem to be published tests to prove this claim.) The RT4000 series is lower but a tad flatter, a compromise. The oldest RT1200 is very flat and known to have the problem.

A portable antenna can be a dish on a tripod, or a small dome. The idea is to set it wherever there's an unobstructed signal, with a cable back to the RV. This can be the only antenna, or a backup in case the roof antenna is obstructed. This takes more time to set up. The antenna must be secured against wind (weights, stakes, etc). It must be aimed, especially tricky for HD which involves precise aiming at multiple satellites at different points in the sky (the portable domes aim themselves). There must be RV space to carry the gear. Also, there are reports of portable antennas being stolen, especially the expensive domes.

No antenna type will work if the line of sight from antenna to satellite is blocked. The very high frequency signals do not bend around obstacles.

CAUTION: Large uncovered antennas can be service-specific, notably the popular Winegard Trav'ler. You must decide on DirecTV or Dish Network before choosing the antenna, and changing later can be very expensive. This is because the services use different satellites in different areas of the sky, so the antennas, designed to pick up all of a service's satellites simultaneously, must also be different in design, size and shape. This isn't a factor with domes, which only aim at one satellite at a time, but quickly re-aim as necessary. (A dome antenna typically has switches to tell it which service is used.)

DOME TYPE -- Today's domes find the satellites automatically; push a button. Some can do this auto-aiming while driving -- in-motion. This is useful if someone wants to watch the bedroom TV while cruising. (It is not legal for a TV to be within the driver's vision and RVs are wired to prevent this, though the eyeball twitching of some large truck drivers makes me wonder.) A common RV in-motion use is to listen to the audio of TV channels and music channels. This can be an alternative to a SiruisXM radio + subscription, saving money.

A dome can be used with both DirecTV or Dish Network service (specified via switches), so it is versatile should the service be changed. However, both services use multiple satellites, but a dome antenna can only aim at one at a time. When changing channel the antenna re-aims automatically, so the big downside is when receiving two channels at once (to watch one and record the other, or watch different channels on different TVs); this is not possible if the channels are on different satellites. Whether this is a notable problem "depends".

SATELLITE SERVICE - Dish Network and DirecTV offer almost the same channels, but look closely because there are differences. Dish Network claims to have more HD channels. DirecTV imposes severe limits on how RVers can use it.

Dish Network seems to understand the needs of part-time RVers and offer the ability to pay-as-needed. At least, that's what the advertising claims. But there's quite a bit of confusion and controversy over how it is implemented. There seems to be two similar but not identical services (Flex and Pay-As-You-Go), contradictory details depending who is asked, and a variety of good and poor experiences by customers. Over time the dust might settle, but for now it is prudent to make several calls, ask many questions, and monitor the account closely.

DirecTV does not cater to part-time RVers. It only allows service suspension twice a year, and only for six months, then service will be restarted automatically and must run a minimum of six months. It can be expensive to pay for more months than are needed.

With either service, a new subscriber can get a substantial discount by signing up for continuous service for a year or two, a good deal if using the service for both home and RV.

If a dome antenna is preferred (for in-motion, use in wind, etc), the only HD service choice is Dish Network; all channels are carried on dome-compatible satellites.

In contrast, DirecTV is on new satellites that are not compatible with dome antennas. This can take by surprise DirecTV customers who upgrade from SD to HD ("it used to work!"), because DirecTV's old SD channels remain on the old dome-compatible satellites. Only a large uncovered antenna can receive DirecTV HD.

Users who have satellite service at home sometimes transfer a receiver (main unit, or from a spare bedroom) to the RV when taking a trip. This much cheaper than having a separate RV service account, but see the "local channel" note below.

Both services offer receivers that can work in an RV, if there's space. Look carefully at all the costs, up-front and on-going, of each receiver (these companies play whack-a-mole with pricing). Dish offers more receiver choices, including one (211) that is small and intended for RVs, but it lacks certain features.

LOCAL CHANNELS -- The major TV networks -- ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, NBC, PBS -- are carried on local TV stations, so access to them is regulated by the FCC. Local channels are typically included in home satellite service based on the home address. If a home receiver is also used in the RV, at some distance away from home (50 miles is a ballpark) the local channels will NOT work (intentionally). Some RVers claim that on a road trip a call to satellite service can get them to change the local service address (in each town, again and again), but this does not seem to be a sure bet (satellite companies fear the FCC). The official satellite solution is to purchase Distant Network Service (DNS), which MUST be provided in a separate RV account, at higher cost, plus DNS fees.

Or, while on the road, local TV stations can often be received Over-The-Air (OTA) using the RV's crank-up TV antenna. This is free, often provides the best HD picture, provides some or all major networks, and also provides local news and weather, and interesting non-satellite entertainment. Many local stations actually broadcast multiple channels (called subchannels, such as 12-1, 12-2, 12-3, etc), so OTA can bring in all types of interesting programming that is not carried by the satellite services at all. Typical is to find classic TV show/movie networks such as This TV, Antenna TV, Retro TV, and several international networks that are only viewable on OTA subchannels (this varies by town). OTA can work in surprisingly obscure places, because city TV stations often use repeaters to carry their signals into "the sticks".

My current preferences (after good and bad tries, but still an "experiment"): Dome satellite antenna, usable even when windy (very common in my part of the world and I'd like to avoid expensive antenna and RV damage). Dish Network is the only way to get HD with a dome antenna. In-motion dome (Winegard RT8000) lets me listen to TV audio, news, music while driving (satellite receiver audio is connected to dash radio system) so I dropped ever-more-expensive SiriusXM. The crank-up antenna usually provides OTA local channels (networks, local news, and "classic show" subchannels). Using Dish at home and transferring the receiver to the RV for trips is much cheaper than separate RV-only service.

What I stopped using: Uncovered dish antenna (Motosat SL-5), because it was often unusable due to wind. Wind has been common at night, so we'd have to stow the uncovered antenna -- no evening TV. Also, we'd stow it whenever we left the coach during the day, just in case, then have to wait 20 minutes for it to redeploy and find the satellites. I dropped DirecTV because it won't allow stop/start of service that matches my RVing schedule (unfortunate policy and attitude change), and because a dome antenna can't receive DirecTV HD (watching SD is a waste of modern TVs).