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What is cable TV?

Headshot of Cara Haynes
Researched by
Cara HaynesContributing Writer
Headshot of Bri Field
Headshot of Michal Ash
Reviewed by
Updated 5/16/23

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According to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), cable TV is “a video delivery service provided by a cable operator to subscribers via a coaxial cable or fiber optics.” (1) That means if you get your TV service via a satellite dish from a provider like DISH or DIRECTV, technically you have “satellite TV,” not cable TV.

That said, cable TV has become so popular that it’s often colloquially used to describe any type of paid TV service other than streaming, which can lead to some pretty confusing overlap. In this article, we’ll explain what really qualifies as cable TV, why the term is so pervasive across the TV industry, and how you can tell the difference between cable TV and other popular methods of watching live TV.

Trying to pick a live TV provider?

Learn more about cable vs. satellite TV and how to choose between them.

Pros and cons of cable TV


  • Often comes in discounted bundles with internet service
  • Doesn’t use up your internet data, which is especially handy if you have a low data cap
  • More provider choices than satellite TV
  • Not affected by weather

  • Most plans come with more channels than you’ll ever watch
  • Lacks access to some sports and streaming content only available through satellite TV and streaming
  • Frequent price hikes after the promotional period ends

Cable TV has garnered a reputation for being old-fashioned as of late, with phrases like “cut the cord” and “cord cutting” gaining mainstream appeal as streaming providers increase in popularity and people increasingly ditch cable. Over 52% of Americans now report no longer paying for cable TV. (2) Although cutting the cord is a good option for many people, cable TV still has a lot to offer—especially if you primarily watch live TV (including sports) or have an internet plan with slow speeds or a low data cap.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of cable TV is the opportunity for bundled discounts. Since many cable TV providers also offer internet service (think Xfinity), they’ll usually throw in a cable package with your internet deal for a really good price—at least for the first year or so. This can be a very convenient way to get TV since it’ll all be from one provider and come on the same bill.

Just keep in mind that all good things come to an end, and you’ll probably be in for a hefty price hike once the promotional period is over. You can always cancel and move to another provider if you’re up for going through the hassle of switching service providers. However, providers are counting on you not wanting to rock the boat with your entertainment setup and just swallowing the higher monthly cost.

Get more tips on how to understand your TV bill.

Is all TV considered cable TV?

No, all TV is not considered cable TV even though many people will use the term “cable TV” or just “cable” to describe any paid TV you can watch beyond local network television. To be fair, cable TV was the first type of paid subscription television available. It was available for nearly 30 years before satellite TV providers DISH and DIRECTV came on the scene. (3, 4, 5)

But now with TV options more numerous than ever, it can be confusing to navigate what is truly considered cable TV and what is something else.

Cable TV vs. streaming TV

Cable TV is transmitted via coaxial cables that attach physically into your home and your TV. Streaming TV is the most popular alternative to cable TV, and it’s transmitted purely over the internet. However, this line is rapidly becoming more blurry as cable providers evolve to meet the current market and avoid getting cut from your budget.

For example, cable TV provider Xfinity offers an app called “Stream” where you can watch the same live channels and on-demand programming that you get through your Xfinity cable package while also utilizing DVR capabilities. That means you’re technically paying for a cable TV package but watching it via streaming.

Learn more about live TV vs. streaming.

The simplest way to identify a cable TV package is to know who you’re paying for it. If you’re paying a cable provider like Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox, Verizon, or Optimum, it’s cable TV. But if you’re watching live channels through a streaming provider like YouTube TV, Hulu, or Sling, it’s not cable TV.

Cable TV vs. network TV

Network TV consists of the TV channels that you can watch for free if you have an over-the-air (OTA) antenna. These are channels that the FCC has designated as public access channels via the Communications Act. (7) Some examples of channels you can watch for free include ABC, CBS, PBS, and even The CW. C-SPAN (the channel that covers federal government proceedings) is also part of the crew, although we doubt you’ll be very excited to hear that. Cable TV, on the other hand, includes all the channels you can get for free through network TV in addition to channels that are available only to paid subscribers.

Keep learning about how to get free TV.

What is basic vs. premium cable?

Basic cable is considered cheap cable TV because it consists, at minimum, of all the channels required by the FCC to be part of network TV as well as “​​any public, educational, or government access channels required by the system's franchise agreement.” (8) In short, paying for basic cable (also called basic service), will get you all the local channels you could get for free with an OTA antenna plus a random smattering of other channels your TV provider decides to include (don’t hold your breath for ESPN, but you’ll probably get channels like the Hallmark Channel or OWN thrown in).

Cable TV vs. satellite TV

The difference between cable TV and satellite TV is often the most difficult for people to understand because what you watch and how the packages are structured are all highly similar between the two. The main difference is the technology used to watch cable TV and satellite TV. Cable TV relies on coaxial cables, which are buried beneath the ground. Satellite TV relies on an external dish attached to your home or installed in your yard that receives the signal from the provider’s satellite in space.

Cable TV is available almost everywhere, but there are some areas of the US where it’s not available since the necessary cable infrastructure has not been constructed. But the advantage of satellite TV is that it is available almost anywhere—just as long as you have a clear view of the southern sky. This makes satellite TV a popular choice for rural areas and vacation homes.

Best cable TV providers

The best cable TV provider is Xfinity because it offers the best channel selection, prices, and bundles. If Xfinity isn’t available in your area, we recommend going with Verizon or Cox.

Some cable TV providers lose points on their internet service by offering lackluster plans. But Xfinity has some of the fastest speeds in the industry along with cutting-edge apps to help you manage your entertainment and internet in the way that works best for you.

Want more details on why we recommend these cable providers? Check out our full review on the best cable TV providers of 2023 and get the down low on our ranking methodology.

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The people behind our research
We believe the best information comes from first-hand customer experience and methodical research by subject-matter experts. We never source information from "content farms," and we don’t generate content using artificial intelligence (AI). You can trust that our recommendations are fact-checked meticulously and sourced appropriately by authentic, industry-recognized people.
Contributing researcher
Headshot of Cara Haynes
Researched by
Cara HaynesContributing Writer

Cara Haynes has been writing and editing about internet service and TV for six years. Previous to contributing to Helpful, she worked on HighSpeedInternet.com and SatelliteInternet.com. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your lifespan.

Contributing reviewers
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.

Headshot of Michal Ash
Reviewed by
Michal AshManaging Editor

Michal directs the Switchful content strategy and leads the editorial team. With a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she has more than a decade of experience in the world of marketing communications. Her diverse career has included public relations, brand development, digital strategies, and more; her key skillset has always been centered around strategic efforts for consumer-focused initiatives. In her free time, you can find her camping with friends, chasing waterfalls on her kayak, or searching for the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.

Endnotes and sources
  1. Cable television,” Federal Communications Commission. Accessed 13 March 2023.
  2. Over half of Americans have canceled cable TV,” Cord Cutters News. Accessed 13 March 2023.
  3. Cable television,” Federal Communications Commission. Accessed 13 March 2023.
  4. Dish network,” Wikipedia. Accessed 14 March 2023.
  5. DirecTV,” Wikipedia. Accessed 14 March 2023.
  6. Xfinity Stream now available on Flex,” Xfinity Discovery Hub. Accessed 14 March 2023.
  7. The public and broadcasting,” Federal Communications Commission. Accessed 14 March 2023.
  8. Cable television,” Federal Communications Commission. Accessed 13 March 2023.