Satellite TV is a service that delivers TV signals to customers via geostationary satellites. These satellites transmit TV signals from space to receiver satellites located on Earth at individual homes.
Because the signals are coming from space, satellite TV is available to anyone. But it’s especially popular among rural residents who don’t have any other way to get TV due to a lack of cable infrastructure. Today, the only two satellite TV providers are DISH and DIRECTV. But the history of satellite TV is much less conventional and buttoned up than the industry may appear today.
Pros and cons of satellite TV
- Nationwide availability
- More channels than cable
- Some exclusive content, including special sports packages
- TV access almost anywhere, including RV or cabin
- More advanced DVR systems than cable
- No reliance on internet connection
- Satellite dish required on or near your residence
- Susceptibility to weather interference, like heavy rain or snow
- More channels included than you actually want to watch
- Other options available to rural residents through streaming
Check out all our in-depth analysis of the best TV providers to find one that’s a better fit for you.
Satellite TV definitely still has a lot going for it, but there’s no denying that it’s been on the decline ever since streaming stormed the scene. As thousands of people continue to “cut the cord,” satellite TV providers DISH and DIRECTV have found themselves caught in the lurch. The main advantage of satellite TV used to be that you could get it anywhere—but now streaming can argue the same thing, thanks to the advances of the internet. That said, we still think satellite TV makes a ton of sense for those living with a satellite internet connection. When you’re using satellite internet, your data is limited (unless you happen to have Starlink). And streaming uses a lot of data.
So if you want access to live TV and on-demand content without worrying about data caps, we recommend getting satellite TV. But if you live in an area with better internet access or cable TV access, satellite TV is probably not the best option for you—although the exclusive content, sports access, and DVR still might sway you.
Another unavoidable aspect of satellite TV is the fact that an external dish is required. These dishes are generally inconspicuous now (some used to span up to 16 feet in diameter), but it can still be an eyesore. And that’s not to mention the hassle of braving winter temps to clean snow off your dish when your signal is obstructed. The sad truth is that although satellite TV was once the pinnacle of modern technology, it’s creeping into the background as a more cumbersome alternative to spiffier methods of watching television.
But the added competition has led to some improved offerings from both DISH and DIRECTV. DISH now offers a three-year price guarantee, claiming to be “the only provider that guarantees your TV price for three years.” (1) And DIRECTV touts that it’s ranked first “in customer satisfaction, quality and reliability over all the other cable and satellite providers.” (2)
They’re both prone to throw in gift cards when you sign up as well. And although DIRECTV can no longer claim the coveted NFL SUNDAY TICKET (YouTube TV has it now), it does still carry the most MLB games. And if you subscribe to multiple premium streaming services (think HBO Max, STARZ, Paramount+, and more), it might actually be cheaper for you to pay for a satellite TV subscription than for that many streaming subscriptions.
The history of satellite TV
Satellite TV didn’t start out as just DISH and DIRECTV. In fact, the very first satellite to broadcast a TV signal was the Telstar 1 on July 10, 1962. It relayed the “first live television pictures to France,” and it later broadcast the “first live transatlantic television seen by American viewers.” (3) Although this was an enormous milestone for satellite TV, Telstar was limited to transmitting the signal for only 18 minutes at a time. Now satellite TV is broadcasted using geostationary satellites as opposed to low-Earth satellites, so the signal can be broadcasted live without interruption.
One of the first satellite TV receivers on Earth was actually made at home by Taylor Howard, an electrical engineer. Since HBO was using satellite signals to broadcast its channel to cable companies, he was able to intercept it with his homemade satellite and watch HBO at home for no cost. (4) This led to an outpouring of homemade satellites intercepting broadcast signals, especially within rural communities. And those who couldn’t build their own were willing to pay high prices to get them, with some listed for prices as high as $36,500 in a Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog. (5) They were also enormous in size (up to 16 feet in diameter), which made them even more of an eyesore than they are today.
Over the next several years, things progressed in several directions. On the one hand, broadcasters started taking notice and charging to use their signal (otherwise it would be scrambled). And on the other hand, the FCC loosened up licensing requirements in 1979 to encourage the industry to expand. (6)
While there were still no set satellite TV providers, the industry continued to expand and satellite dish sales exploded. Rural communities were desperate to get their hands on the TV entertainment they lacked due to their location. But as TV providers continued scrambling channels and others continued finding ways to unscramble channels, it became quite a tangled web between the TV providers and the satellite dish industry. (7)
So when the FCC finally passed the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, it opened the door for DISH and DIRECTV to enter the scene. The act levied hefty fines to anyone caught in signal theft along with a prison sentence: $50,000 and two years of jail time for a single offense and $100,000 and up to five years in prison for repeat offenders. (8)
Shortly afterward, DISH and DIRECTV began offering their services. Rather than forcing the TV broadcasters and the satellite manufacturers to compete, they combined both into one—and eventually offered dishes of a more palatable size. As you can imagine, they gained traction very quickly and garnered millions of subscribers. Since then, other satellite TV providers like Orby TV have tried to enter the market, but none have succeeded in the way that DISH and DIRECTV have.
The future of satellite TV
Although satellite TV had a meteoric rise and reign, the future of the service is not nearly as bright as its past. Both providers have been hemorrhaging subscribers since the dawn of cord cutting, and it’s now to the point that DISH and DIRECTV are considering a merger to stay afloat. (9) And for the first time since 2004, DISH has fewer than 10 million subscribers in 2023. (10) Since it was purchased by AT&T in 2015, DIRECTV has lost over 47% of its subscribers. (11)
It doesn’t seem things will turn around for satellite TV anytime soon, although we’re sure it’ll always be around. It still fits a niche for rural customers that can’t quite be filled by streaming given the limitations of satellite internet. However, as satellite providers like Starlink continue to push the boundaries of what rural internet access looks like, this could quickly change as well.
Both DISH and DIRECTV have taken steps to be a part of the streaming universe, offering easy-to-use apps that essentially allow you to access your DISH or DIRECTV subscription anywhere you have an internet connection, just like you would with Netflix. But it’s still to be determined if these efforts will be enough to keep them afloat over the next twenty to thirty years.
DIRECTV STREAM is a streaming app with almost all the same content as DIRECTV—without the contract or hidden fees.
Best satellite TV providers
The best satellite TV providers are DISH and DIRECTV—and they are also the only satellite TV providers. You will always have access to both providers, but we recommend DISH as the slightly better option than DIRECTV.
While consumer reviews for the two providers are pretty similar, DISH earned a slightly higher rating from our editorial staff (4.0 vs. DIRECTV’s 3.7). DISH also has a better DVR and a longer price guarantee, which are two big factors when it comes to satellite TV. That said, the channels lineups will differ slightly between the providers, so you might find it more useful to compare those to help you decide. For example, DIRECTV has more MLB channels than DISH does.
Trying to pick between DISH and DIRECTV? Check out our DISH vs. DIRECTV comparison and see why we recommend DISH as the best satellite TV provider.
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.
Vilja Johnson leads Switchful's editorial and creative teams. She has been editing content in the consumer tech space since 2016, and she has over a decade of experience teaching writing and editing. She's passionate about creating content that resonates with people and helps them solve real, day-to-day problems. In her free time, Vilja serves on the board of directors for the PrisonEd Foundation, where she runs a writing program for inmates in Utah prisons and jails.
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
- “3-Year TV Price Guarantee,” DISH.com. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “We’re doubling down. Two great ways to watch TV & save,” DIRECTV.com. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “Telstar opened era of global satellite television,” NASA. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “TV & Satellites,” Wessels Living History Farm. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “The Guide to United States Popular Culture,” Google Books. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “F.C.C. lifts rules on antennas in bid to spur satellite service,” New York Times. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “Satellite TV skies brighten as war with programmers ends,” Chicago Tribune. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “Public Law 102-385,” GovInfo. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “A DISH and DIRECTV merger may be coming soon thanks to cord cutting,” Cord Cutter News. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “Dish drops below 10 million pay TV subscribers,” The Desk. Accessed 24 March 2023.
- “DIRECTV has lost over 47% of subscribers since AT&T bought it,” Cord Cutter News. Accessed 24 March 2023.