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Rabbit Ears Cinema: Grading Chicago's Over-The-Air Movie Channels

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 2, 2015 7:30PM

Image credit: Darren Whittingham/

Have budget woes or general dissatisfaction with pay TV providers led you to join the growing legion of "cable cutters" and "dish ditchers?" If so, a streaming service like Netflix, Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime may be your go-to source for movies and TV, but chances are you have also returned to the age of the antenna for local news, sports, and other live programming.

If so, you have probably discovered some of the channels added since the transition to digital over-the-air broadcasting. No, it's not anything close to the freebie nirvana promised in those Clear TV commercials, but there are a handful of interesting options.

Movie lovers will naturally find a much bigger bounty of free options on the DVD shelves of your local library. But if you're not in the mood for a disc at hand and your streaming connection stinks, there are possibilities via the "rabbit ears." All these channels run commercial breaks during movies, most edit them for FCC-objectionable content or to fit rigid running times, and the picture quality ranges from acceptable to downright awful. So no one gets an A, but there are a couple of diamonds in the rough on our report card.

These channels were selected due to general availability within the city limits. Different amplified antennae may give you greater reception and a wider variety of choices. Feel free to add your picks in our comments section. (Digital channel numbers apply only to the Chicago area, as these stations do broadcast in other markets.)

Promo image from the getTV Facebook page.
getTV (Digital channel 66.2) / Grade: B+
This poor man's Turner Classics is the gem of the digital airwaves. Owned by Sony, this channel features the Columbia Pictures library, focusing mainly on pre-1970 features. Legitimate classics like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday get a fair amount of play, but for vintage movie buffs the real find is the lesser-shown fare: B-movie mysteries like the Boston Blackie series, obscure musicals and melodramas, and a slew of nearly forgotten westerns. Sadly, like all the choices on our report card, getTV broadcasts only at the lowest resolution for digital TV (480i), but the high quality of their archive film materials makes most of what's shown look pretty good. The vast majority of movies are also shown in their correct aspect ratio, which, as you will read, is something often lacking elsewhere on the airwaves.

Movies! (Digital channel 50.2) / Grade B-
Co-owned by Chicago's Weigel Broadcasting (operators of The U, U-Too, Me-TV and other channels) and Fox Television, Movies! offers a broad range of films, generally no earlier than mid-1930s and no later than the mid-90s. Familiar titles are this channel's stock and trade, whether it's a John Wayne western, a Chuck Norris action film, or a Shirley Temple musical. But it's not all tried-and-true stuff. February's schedule includes the rarely shown musical biopic Leadbelly, about the folk and blues legend, directed by Gordon Parks (Shaft). Hawk-eyed DVR users may also catch some off-the-radar crime and film noir items shown overnight. Movies! plays a little fast and loose with aspect ratios to fully fill modern HD screens, but source elements are generally decent, if a tad grainy.

2015_2_2_thistv.jpg THIS (Digital channel 9.3) / Grade: D
Begun as a Weigel operation and later sold to Tribune Broadcasting, THIS has some good and even great movies in its library, but everything looks like crap. Poor resolution source material and rampant pan-and-scan versions clearly made for the pre-HDTV era will make you think you're watching a VHS tape on a security monitor. There are some older TV shows on their schedule as well, and they also look like crap.

Grit (Digital channel 66.3) / Grade: D
A newcomer on the digital airwaves, Grit launched late last summer with an agenda to appeal to middle-aged and older men with westerns, war movies and action films. The great frustration of Grit is that they show some terrific movies, but too many of them are in the wrong aspect ratio and not even presented to try and masquerade it. They don't show many pan-and-scan editions, but you will notice your onscreen heroes looking chubbier and shorter than you remember. Not all their offerings are so visually slaughtered, so maybe with enough complaints the operators will pick up their game.