Compare Basic Cable Channel Plans Before You Buy

Even in our solidly online global community, many people still prefer television to the internet. Still, they don’t need the upper-tier 400+ channel package or 17 different streaming services to tend to their fix. 

In other words, we still need basic cable in this world.

What the best basic cable channel plans offer is a modest selection of popular entertainment choices. You won’t be mired in a lineup of shows you don’t watch. Cable service providers are sneaky salespeople. They’ll have you sold on 100 different features and every channel under the sun. Before you know it, you’ve signed up for a package with more bells and whistles than you can count.

With basic cable, there are enough choices to satisfy the sports-aholic or raging interior decorator inside of you. There is nothing better than a comfy recliner, adult beverage, and a full slate of games. Or maybe pull out a hammer and follow along with an entire house demolition and renovation. 

This is not to slander the web.   

The internet is fine. Wouldn’t trade it for all the sand in Florida. But for certain generations, there’s no substitute for cable television’s affordability and simplicity. But first, we should define precisely what we’re talking about.

What is Basic Cable TV?

To be blunt, basic cable is the least expensive plan with the fewest offerings. That’s not bad, though, if you know what you want and don’t need anything more. Most cable companies fill their basic plans with what most people consider “essential” channels. You can expect anywhere from 40-70 channels and package costs of $20-$50 monthly.

What is basic cable tv

What channels are we talking about? Typical inclusions are local news and PBS. After that, you can expect some permutation of the cable channels that have been with us for a long time: ESPN, A&E, USA, CMT, Disney, E!, and then national news like Fox, CNN, MSNBC, etc.

Most people would agree that these channels have long been staples of the cable industry. As a point of comparison, the upper-tier plan that most cable providers offer can have upward of 300 channels, most of which you’ll never watch.

Now that you know what we’re talking about, let’s dig into the good stuff.

The Benefits of Cable TV

People see value in a basic cable plan because you can’t walk down the street without tripping over one. As long as they are available on the roster of Enormo Cable Company, you can rest assured that people are buying them. Maybe not like hotcakes, but definitely like something slightly less popular than hotcakes. Maybe biscuits. 

Here’s what to like about a basic cable plan.

Affordable Pricing

Why not just get a few streaming services and skip cable entirely? Well, you can if you have a gold mine in Colorado. The price of streaming services adds up way too fast for the rest of us. At anywhere from $5 to $15 monthly, you can quickly blow past what you would spend on basic cable.

And they’re tricky; oh my, those streamers are tricky. They’ll reel you in with a flashy original series or movie, but after sign-up, you come to your senses and realize that the overall selection isn’t that great.

Same problem with satellite television. Their prices are typically higher to start with, you often have to buy the equipment to the tune of several hundred dollars to get started, and there is almost guaranteed to be signal degradation during inclement weather.

Hope you don’t live in Alaska.

Basic cable, on the other hand, costs next to or nothing to have set up. Make a phone call. If your house or apartment is already wired for cable, which often it is, you’ll be clicking through the channels like a madman or madwoman before long.

Live Events

If you like live programming, cable television is the easiest way to catch it with a flick of the switch. We’re talking about sports events, holiday specials, award shows, and even pay-per-view specials. It all comes together in one place, and that’s cable television.

Extensive Channel Options

It might be hard to believe, but television used to offer three whole channels. Ask your parents who grew up in the 1960s. They’ll tell you.

So, now you have access to a basic cable plan that includes around 50 channels. That’s a lot. It should cover most of the things you’re interested in. While the exact channels offered differ depending on the provider, all have an excellent selection that serves the vast majority.

We’re hedging a bit here because the basic plan does not typically include The Iguana Channel or The Sleeping Channel, but you have to admit those serve small audiences.

Usually, the basic plan includes the flagship channel of an organization, like ESPN. If you are a sports junkie beyond all reasonable definitions, you can upgrade to a higher-tier channel and receive channels like ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPNU.

If you need them all, go for the gusto, but you might be okay with the 24/7 sports programming on the original ESPN.


Who ever thought the word “bundles” could convey such marketing brilliance? Without it, cable television on its own might have well gone the way of the (now extinct) Cordoba Fighting Dog. And you know it turned out to be an excellent idea for the industry because everyone is doing it.

Here’s the deal. While basic cable is a heck of a deal, your friendly neighborhood service provider will make you an even better deal if you sign up for broadband internet and maybe even a phone line or mobile phone. True story. In the eternal commercialized logic of the day, the more money you spend, the more you save.

The part of this that appeals to human nature is its simplicity. Rather than three bills, you get one. That gives the average person two fewer things to think about, and that’s always a good thing.

Is bundling next to godliness? Maybe. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s pretty good.

No Need for Internet

Without cable television, you might find yourself at the vicious whim of sometimes unreliable internet and left with nothing to entertain yourself with but an old box of Tiddlywinks. But wait! If you have cable, you’ll always be entertained, even when the web goes dark. 

Interestingly, your internet and television signal run inside the same coaxial cable, but the internet can go out while the television remains unaffected.

Considerations When Choosing the Best Basic Cable Plan

If you forget everything else from this article, remember this. Don’t walk into a cable television negotiation unarmed. You need to know what features you want and which you don’t need. The best plan for someone else might not be the best for you. 

Here are some tips to help keep you from paying more than you have to.


Before anything else, you’ve got to know what’s available in your area. Even within the same company, options, plans, deals, and services vary considerably. You can check out a provider’s website, but sometimes figuring those out is like solving trigonometry problems with half a brain. If you don’t understand something, pick up the phone and give them a call. Ask questions and expect specific answers.


Let your customer service rep know upfront that budget is a big deal and will likely be the controlling consideration in your decision. That will help them triangulate the discounts and offerings to mention immediately.

Hopefully, they’ll realize that you aren’t going to spring for the Big Bucks plan that includes every television channel on the face of the earth and a few from Mars. They’ll inevitably try to upsell you but stick firmly to your budget. 


Most cable providers don’t have an installation fee. If one comes up in the conversation, have at your fingertips a reference to one of the provider’s competitors who doesn’t charge an installation fee. Let them know that it could be a dealbreaker. That will likely get their attention, especially if they work on commission. The bottom line is that enough companies in the industry don’t charge them that you shouldn’t have to. Ask them straight out to waive it.

Consider Bundling

We’ve already discussed what bundling is. It might make a lot of sense to go that route if you need more services than just cable television. The thing here is to crunch the numbers. Pay particular attention to prices that are good for only an introductory period ranging from months to years. Be very clear on what you’ll be paying after the intro price goes away and, just as importantly, whether you will be locked into a contract for any of the services at any time.

Negotiate the Best Deal

You don’t have to say this part out loud, but you should enter your conversation with the customer service rep secure in the knowledge that you have a lot of power as a consumer. You can always walk away. There are plenty of other providers to talk to. Let them know that you know that. After you receive a final price, ask if that’s the best you can do. Tell them you’re going to take that price to a competitor and see if they can beat it. There’s a good chance that the final price will magically become smaller. Don’t be afraid to negotiate with the cable company! Like many industries, the final price does not necessarily have to be the final price.

The Best Basic Cable Channel Plans

All basic cable plans are not created equal. That’s one of life’s unfortunate realities. The time you take to sift through the options will be well spent. In other words, it’ll probably save you some money. Remember that price range we mentioned up there? It was $20-$50 monthly. If you can get in on the low end, you’ll save $360 on your cable bill next year. That’s nothing to sneeze about.

Comparing basic cable tv plans

To keep you from sifting through all 17 million basic cable plan options, here are the ones we think are pretty good. This shortlist is an excellent place to start your hunt.

Contour TV Starter

At $53 monthly, the Contour TV Starter package from Cox is towards the high end of our range but includes 75 channels. The lineup offers local news, 50 music channels, and even one premium channel at no cost for the first year. This Cox package might push the boundaries of “basic” a little, and you’ll have to pay for that premium channel after year one. Still, this is a solid entry from one of America’s largest cable companies.


This plan from Xfinity is similar in price to Cox’s Contour at $55 per month but also includes 400 Mbps internet service, which ain’t too shabby. The TV channel selection varies significantly among locations but looks much less than Cox’s version. The good news is you can upgrade or downgrade your plan on TV anytime. Also, remember that the $55 price is only guaranteed for two years.

Spectrum TV Select

You can snag this deal from Spectrum for a little more money at $59.99 monthly. The plan includes 125 channels, with offerings like news (CNN, Fox, and more), live sports from ESPN, ESPN2, Fox Sports 1, and CNBC Sports, and perennial favorites like Nickelodeon, Hallmark, History, TLC, USA, and more. It’s a bit more bang for your buck but might be more than you want to spend if you’re just looking for basic television.

Sparklight: Economy Cable

If you’ve been dozing off during our first three recommendations, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. Sparklight’s Economy Cable package comes in at a smooth $42 monthly. The downside is that it only includes 20 channels, most focused on local and primetime news and not much else. News junkies might be interested, but you’d probably be better off buying an HDTV antenna and having no monthly fees.

Optimum: Internet 300 and Basic TV

This bundle from Optimum is a decent option if you’re looking for moderately priced internet and TV. For 300 Mbps internet service, you pay $40 and can add on a basic television package for $30. These prices are good for two years, and no contract is required. The standard basic channels are included. The downside is that you won’t get a great TV deal unless you already have internet service.

Final Thoughts

Here are a couple of thoughts regarding the best basic cable plans. While there are always plenty of deals to be found, the details change a lot. What you see today that is perfect for your situation might not be available tomorrow. 

If you can’t find the deal you were set on when you looked last week, start a whole new search right now using our availability tool. Search listings will provide current information on deals available from all major service providers.

Lastly, there’s something we haven’t mentioned yet. Every cable television provider, and we mean EVERY one, will tack a bunch of taxes onto your monthly bill that might add as much as an extra $20 to your final cost. Some are required by the FCC. Others are just sheer profiteering.

Good luck out there!

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