Cable and Satellite TV: A Comparative Guide

Before satellite and cable TV, what did we have? How did we get information, and what did we do with our time? There were newspapers, of course, and many people subscribed to them. Similarly, many households had a radio they used to tune into the news every evening. It wasn’t the fastest option, but it worked and allowed people to stay somewhat informed. In terms of entertainment, there were books, more social occasions and outings, spending time with friends and loved ones, and other options. 

Broadcast television also became an option, providing a limited selection of programming for people in range, though much of it was just starting. For a time, it was more of a novelty than anything else, and many families saw it as a waste of time outside of checking on the news. It was amazing for event programming and doing things such as bringing the moon landing into people’s homes, but compared to today and even decades before today, something felt missing.

Then came satellite and cable TV, and things changed rapidly. We’ll go into greater detail later in the piece, but people could get a better quality picture, many more channels, and more options to watch what they want than ever before. And while there is a cost associated with cable and satellite TV, millions of households considered it more than worth it.

For the rest of the piece, we’ll be talking about both satellite and cable TV in terms of their origins, how they compare, and some options you might have. Everyone will have different needs and preferences, so consider your options and which service you think is better for certain groups.

Without any further wait, here’s what you need to know:

What is Cable TV?

Cable TV is a system that uses a fixed coaxial cable or fiber optic cable to transmit radio frequency signals to television sets, providing programming and plenty of different channels in the process. It is accessed on a single receiver (cable box to most people) and has become easy to use. After installation, most people just need to ensure they have the correct remote and plan.

Cable TV has a longer history than you might think, ranging back to 1948. It was a tool less used to provide new programming but to bring existing programming to people in rural areas where a normal television signal would have difficulties reaching. It was also heavily decentralized, with 800 cable companies servicing 850,000 cable subscribers in the United States. 

Yet this was unsustainable, and some consolidation and focus on programming brought cable TV into a golden age, so to speak, for some time.

And while cable TV might be experiencing a bit of a downturn currently in terms of subscriber numbers (many people are deciding to “cut the cord”), it remains a strong industry that is expected to stay with us for some time, with improving technology and generally more offerings as you look at the variety of providers operating today.

What is Satellite TV?

Satellite television is a broadcast delivery method that utilizes satellites in space to deliver signals. First, companies will send signals into space (specifically to the satellite) and then deliver them to people with the correct satellite dish. It’s widely available, can reach places that both terrestrial broadcasts and cable TV cannot, and in the right circumstances, can deliver international channels in the best possible resolution.

Satellite television first appeared with the first broadcast in 1962, only five years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. However, regular broadcasting took time and was generally available from 1976-1978. There have been a fair number of improvements since then, both in the technology of broadcasting and the receivers used, allowing for smaller receivers than the giant dishes you see in your family’s photo album and more programming from across the world to reach the living rooms of subscribers.

Two major companies in the United States provide satellite television services: Dish Network and DirecTV, with both having a major market share of the TV market in general. Given that there are tens of millions of subscribers, it is easy to say that satellite TV is a popular option and will remain so for some time.

Cable vs. Satellite TV: Who Wins?

If you’re reading this, you’re wondering whether cable or satellite TV is better for you. To that end, we need to look at each of the facets of service and judge them accordingly. Take notes on the following, consider our recommendations, and evaluate accordingly.


Can you see the sky from your home? Chances are satellite TV is an option for you. Even the most rural and hardest-to-reach places in the United States can get satellite TV service. That’s a major advantage for it and means that for many people, satellite TV might be the only option. 

Cable TV is more limited in its availability. Over the years, cable access has become nearly universal in cities and suburbs, but more remote places might not have the infrastructure for it yet, or it might be more limited. The good news is that it is easy to check if cable TV service is available. You can even use this website for it!

Our Pick: Satellite TV

Satellite TV is available in more areas and can provide a range of channels no matter where you are, so long as you have a good spot for the dish. Cable is often available, but certainly more limited.

However, when choosing between the two, the service will be available, or it won’t be. We recommend checking ahead of time what options are available to you and working from there.

Price and Bundles

Television service is a significant expense for many households, meaning that people want to know they’re getting good value for their money and are saving as much as possible on quality service. This has naturally led to people being concerned about price (as with all things) and people picking up bundled services if it serves their household. However, not all bundles are made equally, and some providers and service types are generally better at it than others.

Cable usually has the best bundles, offering cable internet service on top of cable TV plans. And sometimes an additional service such as a landline phone service. On top of this, cable plans will be slightly cheaper than satellite plans, though there can be exceptions to this rule.

Another major consideration is the commitment to the plan you’re getting. With a cable plan, you can get it month-to-month and pay month-to-month. You will often need to commit to a year-long contract with satellite television. If you’re uncertain about satellite and are worried about paying for it for a year, you might want to rethink it.

Our Pick: Cable TV

Cable TV has a long history of service bundles, especially when cable internet became an available and popular option. So, it is no surprise that for most people, cable TV has the better bundles and edges out satellite when it comes to pricing and value. 

Equipment and Installation

Cable TV is relatively easy to install. All it requires is a cable box, a remote, and a connection to service via a coaxial cable. In recent years, self-installation has been possible with cable TV, allowing people to get themselves set up with service no more than a few days after signup. And a technician can generally come out and set up the cable box and ensure everything is working correctly. If the cable line isn’t already set up in your home, however, it might be a more rigorous, though not terrible, from your perspective, process. For getting service and a visit organized, see our customer service section on cable and satellite TV (unfortunately, not the greatest).

Satellite television is a bit more of a complex affair. A satellite dish needs to be installed on your property, that dish needs to be facing the right direction and tuned correctly, and the dish cannot have too much interference around it. Other obstacles and issues can pop up during installation, and things can pop up after installation. And this is all assuming that you have permission to install a satellite dish on the property if you rent your living space. Technology and stability have certainly improved for satellite television over the years, but it doesn’t hold a candle to cable.

In either case, things can vary depending on the provider you are looking at, so be sure to look carefully at the details before signing up for service.

Our Pick: Cable TV

When it comes to ease of installation and use, it’s a clear answer. While satellite has gotten easier to work with over the years, it will take a lot to catch up with just having a cable box and a connection to work. Ideally, you won’t even need to think about it for years.

Channel Options

A TV subscription isn’t all that useful if there’s nothing you want to watch. That means that the channel options are vital to people. In some cases, such as select sports and international programming, it can be the only thing some people care about.

When comparing the two, satellite TV has more options for international viewers, often straight from the source in international networks and channels. There are often specific custom package options for different parts of the world. Interested in what’s on TV in Latin America? There’s likely an option for that. And while cable offers channels in different languages or aimed towards audiences interested in international programming, these networks are often still based in the United States and may not be the same.

And what about cable TV? Generally, it is the more popular option when it comes to local programming and events and a focus on general interests or channels (though with more options than just broadcast TV). You might find more local sports networks, cultural or event programming, and more with a cable plan. You will find fewer international options, though some cable companies might specialize in offering certain types of programming, hoping to attract a particular audience.

However, in either case, it should be noted that your service type matters but so will the programming packages you add to your plan (or don’t add on). A premium cable package is often the same as a basic satellite package, so don’t necessarily put too much weight into the names. Instead, focus strictly on the price and what is offered. This will affect the cost of your monthly service, and not everyone will want every package. Yet the more options offered to people, the better. This not only goes for the general concepts of satellite and cable TV but for individual providers.

Our Pick: It’s a Tie!

It’s a close call to make. It is so close that we have to call it a tie. And it’s not because they mostly have the same programming. Since satellite TV has the edge in international programming and cable is more likely to support local programming and events, it ultimately comes down to your preference. Perhaps research what channels are available from providers in your area and let that information influence your decision accordingly.

Picture Quality

Most televisions bought these days can support 4K content, and nearly all of them can support HD content. Yet just because televisions can support such resolutions and provide fantastic picture quality doesn’t mean it just appears. The signal being sent needs to be good enough for that as well. Due to limitations on the equipment, cable often isn’t up to the task in terms of broadcast quality.

On the other hand, satellite doesn’t have this problem as much, so long as the signal holds (more on this later). Broadcasts are crisper, and many people notice the difference. It’s not night and day, but satellite has a clear advantage.

Our Pick: Satellite TV

Looking at the picture quality, it is clear to many that satellite TV offers a better experience. There might be exceptions, but we’re looking at the larger trends here.

Signal and Reception

Cable TV loses a bit in signal quality and picture quality but makes it up in the consistency of the connection and service. Cable reception isn’t lost unless the system goes down, a line goes down, or there is a major problem with the equipment. These things can be fixed promptly or as soon as emergency weather passes.

Satellite TV is more complicated. It requires that a dish get a clear line of sight to the sky to provide the best picture. It often can get a stronger and better signal, but rain, snow, other forms of weather, trees, buildings, and many other things could get in the way. While satellite and receiver technology has improved to the point where this isn’t as big a concern as it used to be, it is still a consideration.

This means that the exact best option for your household in this department will vary based on location.

Our Pick: Cable TV

While the quality of the picture is important, and a nicer image makes for a better experience, the most important thing is having a stable image and feed there in the first place. Therefore, cable TV will be the best option for most households. It is simply more consistent.

Customer Service

Most people probably don’t think about customer service in the context of their TV plan, and that’s a good thing. However, when something goes wrong, or an issue comes up, it’s important that we can call someone and get a resolution to the problem. At this point, good customer service makes all the difference.

However, satellite and cable TV are notorious for poor customer service, to the point where it has become a joke. People will regard contacting and talking with customer service as a Sisyphean task; things have not improved enough in recent years. While some companies may be better than others, and there’s no reason why customer service should be bad with either type of service, the problem remains.

Our Pick: No Clear Winner

There’s no clear winner to pick here, given that there are no standouts, and there isn’t any reason to believe one service type is predisposed over the other to provide better customer service. While customer service will be an important factor when picking a provider, don’t worry about it when deciding between cable and satellite TV.

The Future of Cable and Satellite TV

While we’ve certainly gone over enough about the past and present of cable and satellite TV, what can we say of the future? While streaming services are growing in popularity and will continue to do so for some time, cable and satellite TV still have millions of subscribers and are going nowhere soon.

And while streaming services are cheaper (at least one at a time), cable wins when it comes to the content and options available, making it a strong option for some time. Cable offers more channels at a better price, and often satellite does as well. It comes down to whether you use those channels, but people who love a variety of content will continue to love cable and satellite TV.

Furthermore, the disadvantages of cable and satellite in the past, often related to commercials and fewer on-demand options, are slowly diminishing over time. Pay TV needs to adapt to the freedom-of-choice trend with content on demand and content on the device of a user’s choice. It may not relate as much to the delivery method of cable or satellite, to begin with, but it is necessary.

Based on current trends, plans, and consumer desires, we will see some streaming services become more like cable and satellite TV in terms of their models and offerings, and cable and satellite TV services gain a lot more of the convenience of the streaming services. This is generally a good thing for consumers, though there may be a few bumps along the way.

The Bottom Line: Should I Get Cable or Satellite?

Both satellite and cable TV have fascinating histories behind them and places in the culture of the United States, but you don’t need both. One of them will be better for you and your household. You need to examine the different factors, the price, and more to decide what might be best for you or what you want to avoid. 

If you prioritize reliability and lower prices, cable might be the best option. It is commonly available, great with bundles, and can offer many channels with a consistent signal.

However, satellite TV might be the best choice for those users who like to consume a lot of international media, whether it’s related to sports or not. Additionally, it is often the best option for those living in rural areas where cable options might be slightly limited.

Whatever your choice, we’re confident you’ll make the correct decision once you sit down and evaluate your priorities. We hope this piece has given you all the information you need, and we invite you to return to this article as you need to during your process. Once you get signed up, enjoy your programming!

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