Grading cable, satellite and internet TV providers on price, reliability, picture quality, options, installation, customer service and cancellation process to crown the overall winner.
Price - Best Bang for Your Buck?
When it comes to comparing monthly prices between cable, satellite and internet TV, at first glance they all appear about the same, matching plans with similar channel lineups. The difference is how much you end up paying when the real bill comes, factoring in regional sports fees, equipment rentals, miscellaneous surcharges and other provider-imposed fees.
Internet TV wins this comparison, easy. You pay much closer to the advertised price every month with cord-cutting options, with a very straight forward bill that typically only tacks on taxes. For example, with YouTube TV, if the advertised price is $64.99/month that is what your bill will be plus taxes, unless you explicitly sign up for premium channels. And they make it very clear what you should expect monthly as you are checking out online. There are no equipment rental fees as everything is app based, which helps keep your bill down.
Cable TV on the other hand is notorious for sending you bills far higher than the advertised price -- a 2019 analysis of many cable providers shows on average an extra 24% tacked onto your monthly bill. This study shows an average base price of $156.71/month jacked up to $217.42/month after all fees were added on, $37.11/month of which were company-imposed fees. Keep in mind this cost is higher in part because of bundle plans with internet and home phone. But still, comparing just the TV portion to the equivalent of cord-cutting options you clearly save money in most cases with internet TV.
Satellite TV falls somewhere in the middle. DISH and DirecTV both play the same game of 'hidden' fees and surcharges that always seem to surprise you monthly. Expect to pay more than the advertised price with either satellite TV or cable every month.
And finally, and most importantly, cable and satellite TV typically force you into long term contracts that have introductory offers that expire. And once they do, your rates go up, usually pretty dramatically. Make sure and read the fine print of what you will pay once the intro rates expire, and factor that into your budget. Internet TV doesn't play this same game. Most cord-cutting options are month-to-month.
When considering equipment rentals, intro prices that expire, and additional fees, it's clear which gives you the best price:
When you sit down to watch TV service you pay for, which service can you rely on the most? This will be short and sweet: it's cable TV. While cable is notoriously bad when it comes to expensive bills, the service is historically great when it comes to reliability. This is due to the technology -- cable TV uses fiber optics and coax cables, all run mostly underground and hardwired into setup boxes and DVRs that rarely go out, even in extreme weather.
On the other hand relying on cord-cutting options means you are banking on the reliability of your internet connection. Expect random buffering issues, even with the best and fastest internet on the market. 5G and 1Gbps+ home internet speeds are here and becoming more the norm, but we have yet arrived at perfect internet, free of lag. It's the major con for streaming live TV. It doesn't happen all the time, or everyday, but happens enough to annoy. And that doesn't even factor in trying to rely on your mobile carrier's internet connection, when streaming on the go. Unless you have unlimited data, you'll likely need to stay tethered to wifi when watching TV on your phone or tablet.
And satellite TV falls victim to inclement weather worse than cable or internet TV, by a wide margin, as it depends on a clear sky for a reliable picture.
Want the best picture quality for your HD or 4k TV? Go with satellite TV. They offer the most HD channels, and are leading the way in 4k options. Cable TV is right on their heels though, making vast improvements in HD availability in the last few years. Cord-cutting options lag far behind as the technology is still new and has to rely on internet connections to deliver you live TV, therefore the tech is less high definition by nature - internet TV providers purposely downgrade the quality to account for the average connection, to limit buffering issues. The average HD internet TV channel is really only 1080i, which is fancy way of saying 720p; not all 'HD' branding is created equal.
Picture Quality Grades
Features and Options
All types of TV providers score well in this category, so it really comes down to the company providing the service. Technology has advanced enough that both cable and satellite TV offer very impressive DVR options, voice-activated remote controls, integrated social media, live TV on-the go apps, split screen viewing for sports, all the premium movie channel packages and regional sports options galore.
And streaming TV providers are naturally good at features and customization, as everything is internet based. So by design you can easily live stream on the go, and make use of virtual DVR services very simply, from most any smart device.
Cable, satellite and streaming all offer premium add-ons like HBO, Showtime and Cinemax. They all offer regional sports networks. All offer the most popular national sports networks, like NFL Network, NBA TV, NHL Network and MLB TV.
What sets each apart is personal preference - cable TV offers the most local channels and ability to bundle your home internet into one bill. Satellite TV offers the best picture and most live sports (particularly DirecTV because they offer NFL Sunday Ticket). And cord-cutting providers offer the most ability to live stream TV on-the-go and the most customizable TV packages; they focus on offering add-on packages for sports, movies and news in addition to your base plan, instead of trying to include every channel into a massive one-size-fits-all package.
Features & Options Grades
Installation and Setup
Satellite TV is far and away the worst when it comes to installation. In some cases its impossible to even get the service, if you rent; some landlords explicitly forbid satellite dish installation on their property because they are eyesores or because it costs money and takes time to remove dishes after the tenant leaves.
Satellite dishes also take up space and aren't aesthetically pleasing for most homeowners; it can be difficult finding a spot for the dish that's both out of the way and still has good line of sight for reception. Add to that installation costs and sometimes having to outright purchase the dish (which can be hundreds of dollars) and you might question why you are doing it in the first place.
Cable TV is annoying in its own right, a service infamous for being frustrating to setup. No one wants to wait on a cable representative to show up in an absurdly large time window that requires you to take an entire day off just to accommodate. Some cable providers are now tying to make setup easier by allowing you to pick up the setup box and/or DVRs in person, and then drive home and do it yourself. But this is still a process.
Internet TV wins here, easily. You can sign up for cord-cutting options within minutes online and starting watching live TV immediately. All you need to do is to create a username and password. The only other hurdle is to download the provider's app on your smart device or login on your streaming box. But you only have to do that the first time. It will remember you thereafter.
This category is a mixed bag and depends more on the company than the type of TV service. In general internet TV probably should win because they have the most straight forward billing and terms of service. So there shouldn't be many issues to ever have to call in for. But given they are less brick-and-mortar than the competition, they lack the dedicated customer service infrastructure that cable and satellite providers have built up over the years and decades. Getting help from customer service for streaming TV usually involves emailing tech support or online chatting with a retention department, and that can be a pain when all you want to do is talk to someone on the phone.
Cable and satellite TV do have robust customer service call centers, but expect wait times and jumping through the hoops of automated menus long before you actually get to talk to a representative. And that rep will likely have to transfer you if you have a real issue.
At the end of the day, no one really likes dealing with customer service or tech support. You just want your service to work. For what it's worth, DirecTV was rated the best overall cable/satellite TV provider, with Cox coming in a close second. So those two top the list of satellite and cable TV options, according to those surveyed. The worst (of the most popular 11 services in the U.S) per the 2020 survey were Suddenlink, Frontier and DISH. Internet TV customer service surveys don't really exist in the same way online yet, which should tell you something.
Customer Service Grades
Contracts and Cancellation
No service is easier to cancel than internet TV. All you have to do is login to your profile and click cancel. You'll have to click a few times on the 'are you sure you want to leave?' type windows, but the whole thing takes a minute or two, and comes with zero cancellation fees and no fuss as you never signed a contract to begin with (unless you went with AT&T TV or TVision Home). So give the win to cord-cutting options here, hands down.
Cable and satellite service both usually come with a long term contract, between 6 months and 2 years. And cable providers generally have the absolute worst reputation when it comes to customers trying to get out of contracts. Retention departments can make it much harder than it should be to actually cancel your service, and you're usually punished with early termination fees on your final bill, that if you don't pay can screw up your credit. Also, don't forget to return their equipment once it's finally cancelled, or that's another fee they can bill you for, sometimes weeks or months down the road.
Satellite providers operate in much the same way, with a focus on you returning the dish equipment. At least with cable companies they can sometimes be lenient about returning old setup boxes or DVRs. But DISH and DirecTV are both (understandably) stringent with you returning that satellite dish back to them. If you don't they will very likely bill you for that equipment, and it's far from cheap. Don't pay and your credit will take a hit.
Final Grades, All Considered
Giving overall grades to Cable vs Satellite vs Internet TV is certainly subjective. If you give weight to all categories covered in this guide equally though, cord-cutting providers score the best, with cable TV coming in second and satellite TV service coming in last place.
These results are in line with where the pay-for-TV market is clearly headed -- customers want cheaper bills and more a la carte options. They want less interactions with customer service, and are becoming more and more comfortable streaming TV on their phones, tablets and streaming boxes like Apple TV.
Cable and satellite TV still offer the most variety of channels overall though, along with the best sports watching experience and superior picture quality. So until internet TV can match the competition's HDness and sports lineup, consumers will be tasked with picking the TV service that suits their wants and needs the best.
Picture Quality: D
Customer Service: B
Overall Grade: B+
Picture Quality: B
Customer Service: C
Overall Grade: C+
Picture Quality: A
Customer Service: C
Overall Grade: C