Cable vs. Satellite TV Service | In-depth Comparison

If both cable TV and satellite TV are available in your neighborhood, congratulations: you have the luxury of choosing between two great options. Of course, that means you do have to choose, and often the differences between cable television and satellite television service get downright confusing. Plus, depending on your needs, one may be a better option than the other.

Overall, cable provides more flexibility, requires less equipment to install and typically has a wider variety of packages. However, satellite is best if you live in a rural area. Satellite is also a better choice for tech junkies and national sports fans.

We’ve broken down the best of the two per category, so whether price is top priority or it’s all about the customer support, we’ve got you covered.

Before we get started, though, sometimes it’s best to know all the options available in your area. Plug your ZIP code in below to find out.

Find the best TV Providers in your area.

High Definition

WINNER: SATELLITE

High definition is where it’s at. You didn’t stand in line for twelve hours on Black Friday to score a discounted 60” UHD 4K TV set just to watch some fuzzy reruns of Friends. You have standards: high definition standards.

Satellite generally has a better selection of national HD channels, while cable has a better selection of local HD programming, so if you want the best channels in the best quality, go with satellite.

Some HD channels are usually included in even the very basic package offerings. However, desirable movie channels like HBO and Showtime are typically included in more expensive service bundles or are offered as an extra. When you call to set up satellite TV service, see if you can wrangle in some HD movie channels along with your bundle.

Aesthetics

WINNER: CABLE

Cable television requires wiring inside the house from a wireless router to the set-top boxes adjacent to the television sets. Cable also requires a wired connection that begins at a trunk line in a neighborhood (within a mile of a subscriber’s home) and goes into a connection point to your home, typically a small exterior box. The bottom line is this: if you have cable, no one can tell.

With satellite, however, your home will need a dish attached to the roof or side of your home. While dishes can be positioned unobtrusively, they’re still somewhat unsightly. And, because they’re exposed to the elements, you can bet they’re much more likely to be damaged in poor weather (or from a stray baseball).

Paid Content

WINNER: TIE

Both cable and satellite offer a vast array of channels. Premium channels are often offered for free for a limited number of months by both satellite and cable unless a subscriber elects to pay for a premium (read expensive) package. For both mediums, a subscriber can tailor a package that meets all their viewing requirements.

Because the big cable and satellite providers are under continual pressure to deliver programming tailored to customer demand and have to compete with each other, they’re constantly updating their paid content. No matter which option you choose, expect to have thousands upon thousands of available movies and shows available for purchase with your cable or satellite TV subscription.

Channel Selection

WINNER: DEPENDS ON PROVIDER

Satellite is generally stronger for national news and sports, while cable is generally better for local news.

Here’s the deal though: with channel selection, it comes down to provider, not cable versus satellite. For instance, according to our expert picks, DIRECTV scores an 8/10 when it comes to channel selection, but DISH is only a 7. On the other hand, AT&T’s U-verse gets a magical 9, while another provider, Time Warner Cable, only nabs a 5.

We recommend sitting down and making a list of your favorite shows and channels, then making sure that the cable or satellite package you select includes them. It’s not rocket science, but you don’t want to be locked into a contract and suddenly realize you don’t have MTV. Because no one can live without Teen Mom.

Customer Satisfaction

WINNER: CABLE

ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) research from February 2015 found that pay television companies are one of the least-liked services around, with satisfaction rates among subscribers ranging from a dismal 51% to a borderline respectable 71%. Cable and satellite score about equally well, with DIRECTV and DISH outperforming the median for satellite providers, and AT&T U-verse and Verizon Fios outperforming the median for cable companies.

However, once again this comes down to provider, and for the majority of cable providers, they’ve ranked higher than DISH or DIRECTV. Cox, for instance, has a stellar customer service rating.

Pricing

WINNER: SATELLITE

With pricing and bundling options designed for confusion, choosing between cable and satellite television is a daunting task.

Many cable packages do not require long-term commitments but are more expensive on a monthly basis. For commitment-phobic consumers, a plan that allows someone to opt out at any time would be more appealing than most satellite packages that require a one- or two-year commitment.

On the other hand, satellite tends to provide a better $/channel ratio than cable, and under ideal conditions, satellite HD reception will be better. Both services have tiered package and pricing options.

For bare-bones service—minimum number of channels, no premium (HBO, Showtime, STARZ) channels and no HD—satellite service is generally cheaper than cable. If you’re looking for the absolute cheapest bet, go with DISH. You’ll get the most channels for about $59.99/month.

Here’s a breakdown of the cheapest package from each carrier:

ProviderPrice per monthNumber of channels
DISH (satellite)$59.99190+
DIRECTV (satellite)$35150+
Comcast XFINITY (cable)$49.99140
Cox (cable)$64.99140+

Overall Pick

VERDICT: Cable for most customers, but satellite for rural customers.

Cable generally offers more flexibility and requires less equipment to install, along with a wider variety of packages. Cable also doesn’t require customers to commit to longer-term (one or two-year) contracts, so if you want tons of options without the commitment, cable’s your best bet.

For those who live in rural areas where cable is difficult to get, satellite is always available as long as you have a good view of the southern sky. Satellite is also probably the better way to go for tech junkies and national sports fans, especially if you’re not averse to having a dish attached to the outside of your home. Satellite edges cable in signal quality and national sports and news options. On the negative side, satellite is still prone to weather interference and generally requires a longer term commitment.

If you’re ready for a breakdown of the best satellite TV providers, see our full expert review here.

If cable sounds like it’s more your style, head over to the top cable rankings.

Check out our Best Satellite Internet Services comparison for details on satellite internet giants Viasat and HughesNet.

Find the best TV providers in your area.

  • Mel

    This is very helpful. We’re trying to make a decision as we’re out in the boondocks on the Outer Banks in NC, after flooding everywhere w/Matthew has affected cable. We inherited the Charter Spectrum system that came with this house we purchased 3 months ago. Not having any television news for the last 48 hours has been annoying; not happy with their automated CSR’s, eirher. Now weighing the pros and cons because I vote for satellite and hubby votes for cable. I might be swaying him over with this information. Thank you.

    • http://dev-reviewsorg.pantheon.io Scott T.

      You’re welcome! Let us know if have any questions come up. We’d be glad to help.

  • jz100

    I don’t known where you are getting those prices from but Time Warner is a lot more money than that. They also charge for DVR.

    • http://dev-reviewsorg.pantheon.io/ Trevor Wheelwright

      Thanks for the feedback, cable TV service costs vary (sometimes widely) according to location.

  • David

    What about Directv in terms of customer satisfaction?

    Haven’t they been rated #1 in Customer Satisfaction for 16 consecutive years?

  • America Should Be Like Denmark

    I don’t like either cable or satellite. They are both a total waste of money.

    I collect DVDs of classic shows. I have over 9,000 hours of programming in my dvd library. I can watch all the programs I want to anytime I want to without any commercials period. Collecting DVDs is the better way to go without a stupid cable or satellite bill.

    • Mike

      So when it comes to news and current events you still think Reagan is president and minimum wage is $3.25/hr 😃

    • Bill Sanders

      Reminds me of a neighbor who only watches the Turner Classic Movie channel. But hey, go your own way and do what please YOU.

  • Bill Sanders

    Here in Tampa Bay, Brighthouse (a TWC company) was bought by Spectrum 1 year ago. They tried to raise my monthly fee by $20, but after calling twice and threatening to leave, they lowered my monthly fee by $5 and increased my internet speed to 100MB. Sweet!

    I still have the old-fashioned DVR that can only record 2 channels at a time and caps at 100 hours. For $5 more, I could switch to the 6 channels at a time and 500 hours+ model. But frankly, I don’t want to spend so much time in front of the boob tube anyway.

    I thought about switching to Verizon FIOS, but my property manager claims it’s a nightmare. Don’t do it – stick with trouble-free cable.

  • CF

    The zip code prover-finder doesn’t work.

  • NGC

    I just got off the phone with Directv because the picture and sound intermittently breaks. Directv had only two solutions.
    1. I pay them $99 and they will send out a repairman
    Or
    2. I can ad an $8 a month charge to my account to cover repairs.
    MY SOLUTION – I will be dropping Directv once I find an alternative without repair fees for their equipment.

  • tourpro1

    I swirched to Spectrum from Direct TV abour a year ago after 9 years with Direct TV. Spectrum is less costly, has excellent channel packages and reception and is pretty much hassle free, plus there is no contract or cancellation fees. Since AT&T bought Direct TV customer service has gone downhill.

  • JBanik

    I have had directv for five years and my bill continues to go up. I have no movie channels and two tv’s. My bill for directv and basic internet is $189 per month. I have scheduled an installation for Spectrum because my bill will be $132 a month with phone, internet and tv combined, also free installation. Also, Directv is horrible with overbilling and will not remove incorrect charges from your bill. Two months ago, I turned in two tv boxes to a UPS store (directv’s instructions) and cut off movie channels to reduce my bill. They are still charging me for tv boxes I turned in . I called twice and they said ” ok this will not happen again” but I still have to pay this month’s high bill for something I do not have and am not using.So, that was the push I needed to try something else.

  • Christopher

    Looking for some help from someone who has had Cablevision and switched to Direct TV. The cable company here on Long Island NY (Optimum – Cablevision) treats it’s customers as “cash cows.” I am thinking about switching to Direct TV. Has anyone made the switch? Are you happy with it? How is the service? Do you lose service much? If Direct TV didn’t have a 24 month contract to deal with, I would make the jump and go back if I didn’t like it. ANY help or ANY input would be appreciated.

    • John Wood

      Direct TV gets you on the sign up, and first year. Then they double your bill. They offer HD, and UHD channels. It’s a two year contract. I personally, don’t like going outside, and brushing snow, and rain off my dish. Which happened a lot when I had the service. Word to the wise, make sure you can reach your dish from the ground with a broom. It would make a sad obituary “John Doe age 47 fell to his death in a storm cleaning off his satellite dish” In a major storm you want the news.

      Cable throws a bundle , internet, phone , and TV at you with high speeds, and a good mix of local, and national tv. They have HD, but no UHD. The plus is they usually offer a one year contract, and they have satellite stores to change , and add equipment. You can also return your equipment and get credited on the spot.
      When I left Direct TV, they sent me an additional box after I terminated service with them. I sent it back right away. 6 months later they tried to send me to collections for the box they sent me. Thank god for UPS tracking info.
      Don’t get me wrong, I despise having to pay to watch commercials. I grew up in a time that cable had 4 premium channels, and there were no commercials on any of them.

      With cable, if you loose service, you can call, and complain, and get a credit on your bill. Buyer beware, no more freebies on installation, or service calls. If you don’t have service, or it becomes trouble some, you call, they reboot your box. If that doesn’t work they offer to send a service person out on your dime. You are going to upset when you discover Fido got bored, or the squirrels decided the cable makes them see colors.

  • I’ve Had Enough

    130 a month for cable here

  • Steven Bevis

    I have to disagree. Customer service with Direct TV/ AT&T is not only HORRIBLE but simply fraudulent. While it’s great to have lot of high def channels, it comes at a huge cost with this company with it’s shady handling of billing and contracts, outright lying to its customers about the pricing, until you’re locked into a mess of a contract and threatened to pay 500 dollars to get out of it, during its “free trial period” it claims for a month. It also has way too many channels of junk to sift through. It took me one week to go back to cable, despite the better picture quality with Direct TV, and will never use ATT/Direct TV again. I highly advise people not to sign up with them. At least with cable, you can get out of it and change your programming with much less hassle. Direct TV/ AT&T frequently takes writing corporate and contacting the FCC to get your issues resolved. Direct TV was sued in 2015 for fraudulent business practices, and they are still engaging in it today with AT&T.

  • ddcobbs

    one major thing this order fails to mention is the taxes associated with cable tv. I currently have Cox Communication bundled with phone & internet. there is a $30+ charge for each service totaling around $90 dollars or so in my state, which is Nebraska. this is a huge difference in price and should be considered when making the choice. do I want to loose TV connection during a storm or do I want to pay 3 times as much and never loose connectivity, unless the power goes out. either way I’m switch from cable and putting the savings into my 401K.

  • http://www.starzspooksnstuff.com starscreeam

    Found this article while looking for a replacement for my Spectrum account. I am bundled with phone, internet and cable, between that and all the little dings for this and that piece of equipment Spectrum was charging me $184 a month. NOW they just raised my account by $20 a month. When I called it was pretty much a sucks to be you attitude. Was considering Sling TV, however, even though I don’t watch a lot of tv, I *do* want to watch the channels I want and some of them aren’t available on Sling, plus the hassle of getting an antenna to watch local channels. Was considering DirectTV but after reading some of the comments I think I’ll pass. And I don’t want a dish, everyone I know that has it hates it. ::sigh:: it’s starting to look like Spectrum will continue to extort me.

    Oh! And while I was on the phone I was told that my bill would likely go down if I switched from the old Time Warner account to Spectrum. That sounded encouraging so I got on the Live Chat with Spectrum and discovered in the long run my total savings would be….wait for it….a whopping $2 a month. Yay me! I decided that the hassle of switching and possibly losing channels wasn’t worth it.

  • Siegfried Tomazsewski

    I live in 34743 Kissimmee, FL and have a monthly cost only for cable TV with Comcast (xfinity) of 123.00$). This is horrendous in my opinion. I am now considering changing, possibly to Satellite TV. Anyone with suggestions and help to what I would need to consider, especially with the start up cost?