What's better: Cable, satellite, or Internet TV?

Tony Moton

Watching television, for many of us, is a crucial part of our everyday lives.

In fact, Americans spent more than 34 hours a week watching TV during the second quarter of 2012, according to Nielsen, the global firm that monitors consumer habits.

With people spending so much time watching TV, an important question often comes to mind: What type of TV service is the right one for you?

David Salway, director of the Broad Program Office for the State of New York, says doing some comparison shopping could be a start. And with cable, satellite, and Internet TV options, viewers have a myriad of options to compare.

"I think you have to weigh your options because the way we see TV is changing,'' Salway says.

To help, we've highlighted some important aspects about television services to see which ones offer the most benefits. Stay tuned to learn more about cable, satellite, and Internet TV services.


Channel surfers, in particular, might want to know whether cable, satellite, or Internet services offer the most viewing selections for the buck. But are the more channels really the merrier?

"Cable services typically have certain tiers of channels," explains Salway, who also covers the broadband industry for about.com, an information and resource website. "They maybe start with 100 channels and then go up to a 150 channels. With satellite, you have the same type of choices, but you are stuck with a lot of stations you'll never watch."

Having a selection of tiers - or channel packages with a fixed number of channels - might work for some viewers. But if you're not too keen on paying for channels you won't watch, Internet TV service might be the answer to your prayers.

Internet service providers typically make channels or networks available on an a la carte basis, according to Salway.

"The downside is that you have to choose the programs on your own," Salway says. "You have to know what you want and subscribe to different places, but a lot of the (programming) services are free."

In the battle to keep up with the Internet's advancements, cable and satellite providers do offer similar on-demand programming options, Salway says.

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One thing that Internet TV pales in when compared to satellite, however, is the availability of sports programming packages, including pro football, according to the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association.

The trade group writes on its website: "With the combination of several satellite-delivered regional sports networks, sports-laden super stations, special sports networks and more, satellite dish owners have access to far more sporting events than any other TV viewer."


The reception quality of today's TV services is not fuzzy free. Any number of factors could influence how sharp - or dull - your picture looks, even on high-definition sets.

For example, satellite subscribers might have to endure the wrath of Mother Nature, who could affect the reception capabilities of your dish. She could inflict cloudy conditions to block satellite signals or blow winds to knock your dish off kilter (otherwise known as misalignment), according to Salway.

Cable reception might find Mother Nature at the root of its reception problems, too.

"If there is bad weather or a telephone pole goes down by accident, you could lose reception," Salway says. "It's the nature of the business."

As for Internet TV, it has its own share of reception issues, Salway says. If your connection speed isn't fast enough, your reception could suffer.

"Typically, if you don't have enough speed, there might be slow playback or buffering," Salway says. "Or, if the whole family is using the Internet and someone is downloading a game, you're going to have problems."

Knowing what kind of connection speeds are available to you could help inform your decision about subscribing to Internet TV. Consult with providers to get the lowdown on the speeds they offer, but, generally speaking, the faster you can go, the better your viewing experience.

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Cable reigns as the king of the hill in terms of its availability to users nationwide. According to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, cable is available to 93 percent of the U.S. households, as of June 2012.

But that still leaves some 7 percent of the country without the wiring necessary to receive cable TV service. On the flip side, satellite TV programming can be picked up anywhere a subscriber has a dish and a set-top receiver, Salway says.

Internet TV, in terms of availability, is waging a fierce battle with cable and satellite service providers. In fact, Salway says viewing content on the Internet is growing in popularity. How popular?

ComScore, a firm that tracks trends in the digital world, reported in its "U.S. Digital Future in Focus 2012" study that "more than 100 million Americans watched online video content on an average day to close out 2011." The figure represented a 43 percent increase in viewers over the year before.

Salway says flexibility and pricing are helping drive viewers toward Internet TV, but adds that cable is "still popular where people have a choice."

[Think cable TV is right for you? Click to compare rates from multiple providers now.]


No matter which type of provider you end up choosing, you will need an additional piece of equipment to give you moving pictures and leave you feeling, well, boxed in.

Known as a receiver or digital set-top boxes, these devices are necessary for viewers to watch their favorite shows. Companies typically provide them as part of the contracted service or on a lease agreement.

"Because everything is digital, you need some type of box for all three," Salway says, referring to cable, satellite, and Internet services, "but satellite only works if it's connected to a dish."

A dish, as the term implies, does resemble a large, curved plate. Most of the high-power ones for TV reception, according to the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association, are 18 inches in diameter. They can be installed practically anywhere - house, condo, balcony, RV, boat – "as long as there is a direct line of sight to the southern sky," writes the trade group on its website.

On the equipment issue, Salway says cable and satellite offer some strong positives, although some places might restrict the installation of dishes.

"Cable and satellite might be more convenient because someone installs the equipment and you are good to go," Salway says, "but it might be cheaper with an Internet connection. You can watch a lot of programming for nothing, unless you want to buy networks you want to watch."