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What causes the static white noise in TV?

Have you ever wondered what causes that familiar static hissing sound when you turn on your TV? The fuzzy black and white speckles that dance across the screen when there’s no signal? That’s known as “TV static” or “white noise”, and it actually has some interesting scientific reasons behind it.

The Origins of TV Static

To understand what causes TV static, we first need to look at how analog television signals work. Traditional analog TV broadcasts rely on radio wave signals being transmitted from TV stations. These signals encode visual and audio information that our TV sets decode to display programming.

Specifically, the picture portion of the signal encodes visual information by rapidly varying the amplitude of the radio wave. This encodes the brightness of each point on the screen, known as a pixel. The rate at which the signal varies, known as the frequency, corresponds to different locations on the screen from left to right.

Meanwhile, the sound portion of the signal is encoded by modulating the frequency of the radio wave. These modulated signals create electromagnetic fields that our TV’s antenna can pick up. The TV then decodes these signals back into images and sounds.

Cosmic Microwave Background

One contributor to the static noise we see on analog TVs is the cosmic microwave background radiation. This is leftover radiation from the Big Bang, the massive explosion that created our universe 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang initially released incredible amounts of energy and radiation, which has been cooling ever since. Today, that background radiation pervades the entire universe at microwave frequencies.

This cosmic microwave background manifests as a sort of hiss or static hum at a frequency of 1-10 GHz. Our TV antennas readily pick up this radiation, introducing some random noise into analog TV signals. In fact, about 1% of the static snow seen on unused TV channels is caused by the cosmic background alone.

Thermal Noise

Another major factor is thermal noise, which arises from the random motion of electrons within conductive materials. This motion always occurs at ambient temperatures above absolute zero. In TV systems, it primarily comes from the resistance of the antenna and other components.

As electrons vibrate randomly, they produce tiny electromagnetic fields. This translates into electrical voltages and currents that get imposed on the signals passing through the TV’s circuits. The higher the temperature, the more violent the electron motion, and the stronger the resulting thermal noise.

Thermal noise has a white noise spectrum, meaning it contains all frequencies evenly. This manifests as hiss across all channels on analog TV. At room temperature, thermal noise contributes around 99% of the static seen on unused TV channels.

Terrestrial Sources

Interference can also arise from many terrestrial sources:

  • Electrical devices – Any device that uses electric power, such as motors, switches, or power lines, emits electromagnetic interference (EMI) due to arcing, sparking, and other effects. This EMI can be picked up by TV antennas.
  • Lightning – The enormous electrical discharges from lightning storms produce wideband electromagnetic radiation that can overwhelm TV signals.
  • Solar activity – Solar flares and other activity on the sun emit bursts of electromagnetic energy across a wide spectrum, including frequencies used for TV transmissions.
  • Radio transmissions – Other radio transmissions from FM radio, cell phones, radar, and communications systems can mix their signals into TV bands.

Together, these terrestrial interference sources contribute around 1% of the total noise seen on TV static.

Noise From Within the TV

Finally, a portion of the noise comes from within the TV set itself. Some examples include:

  • Amplifier noise – The electronic circuits that amplify the TV signal also amplify any random noise generated within the amplifiers themselves.
  • Tuner noise – The tuner that selects the desired channel also produces electrical noise.
  • Thermal noise – As with the antenna, the resistance within the TV’s circuits produces thermal noise due to electron motion.

The components within the TV likely contribute less than 1% overall to the static noise. However, they do play a role.

Breakdown of Noise Sources

To summarize, here is a breakdown of the typical contributions from each noise source for analog TV static:

Noise Source Contribution
Cosmic microwave background 1%
Thermal noise from antenna 99%
Terrestrial interference 1%
TV components

As we can see, thermal noise from the TV antenna itself accounts for the vast majority of the static hiss seen on unused channels. Only a tiny fraction comes from sources outside the TV, like cosmic radiation.

The Transition to Digital TV

The switch from analog to digital television that occurred worldwide between 2000-2015 has essentially eliminated TV static. Digital TV encodes signals digitally rather than relying on varying amplitudes and frequencies. This makes the signals more robust against degradation and noise.

Digital encoding also allows error correction codes to be added to the signal. These detect and fix any errors from noise. High quality digital transmissions are therefore able to maintain near-perfect image and audio quality.

The only exception is during weak signal conditions, when pixelation and audio dropouts may occur. This is because the signal becomes too degraded for error correction to fully compensate. However, this is vastly preferable to the random static that appears with weak analog signals.

Why Static Persisted on Early Digital TVs

During the transition period from analog to digital, many people connected digital converter boxes or TVs to existing analog antennas. This analog antenna picked up noise before passing the signal to the digital TV. The result could still be static, even when watching digital channels!

True digital noise-free performance required upgrading the entire TV setup. First the antenna had to be replaced with a digital ready version. Cable and satellite TV also needed upgrading their entire distribution infrastructure.

Once the entire chain went digital, the static was eliminated. Many people were unaware their setup was still analog, leading to confusion about why they still saw noise on digital TVs.

Nostalgia for the Static Hiss

While TV static is largely considered a nuisance, some viewers have a sense of nostalgia for it. The characteristic hiss, popping, and snowy picture takes many older generations back to childhood evenings watching TV. The static was simply part of the experience of watching programming.

Younger generations raised on digital TV likely have a different perspective. To them, static represents poor picture quality compared to the crystal clear HDTV they’re used to. Still, even the youngest viewers have probably encountered TV or radio static at some point. This remnant of analog technology remains ingrained within our culture and collective memory.


TV static arises from a combination of cosmic microwave background radiation, thermal noise, terrestrial interference, and noise within the TV itself. Of these, thermal noise from the TV’s own antenna accounts for around 99% of the noise. The transition to digital television has now largely eliminated TV static by encoding signals digitally and adding error correction. However, for older generations, the characteristic hiss and snow of analog TV static can evoke nostalgia for the past. So while we may not miss the distraction of static, it certainly remains part of our cultural experience of media and technology.