Cable vs. streaming: Which is best for bringing you the channels you want?

Joe Supan

Feb 6, 2020 — 5 min read

While live TV streaming services offer greater flexibility, cable and satellite providers still have the edge when it comes to robust channel lineups.

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With more than 270 services currently available in the U.S., we are firmly in the era of streaming. But while it might seem like everyone is cutting the cord these days, some content (like sports and news) still needs to be viewed live. 

To get live TV channels, you’ll need to subscribe through an old-school cable or satellite TV provider or try a live TV streaming service like fuboTV or YouTube TV. Streaming services generally position themselves as cheaper alternatives to cable, but outside of a few “skinny bundles,” you’ll probably end up paying just as much. 

But what are you really getting for that money? We compared some of the most popular options on the market to find out. 

How we compared cable, satellite and live TV streaming services

Every cable, satellite and live TV streaming service trumpets the number of channels they offer as proof of their quality. But in almost every case, those raw numbers are propped up by a lot of fluff. DIRECTV, for example touts 155+ channels in its Select package, but 60 of those are different versions of Music Choice — essentially radio stations on your TV.

To gauge the true quality of each provider’s channel lineup, we utilized an annual report from TiVo, which asked 3,330 respondents, “Which channels would you be interested in including in your TV package?” The more people wanted a channel, the higher it ranked. We then used these rankings to compare the channel lineups of each cable, satellite and live TV streaming service. 

Cable vs. streaming

Across the board, cable TV packages offer better channel lineups than live TV streaming services. While both YouTube TV and fuboTV are missing a handful of channels in the top 25, the only ones the cable providers don’t have are HBO and Showtime — premium networks that can be added on for an extra fee. 

While AT&T TV has a channel lineup that is more competitive with cable, you’ll have to lock into a two-year contract, so some of the benefits of streaming are negated. 

Bundling cable TV with internet can also save you more money

While the prices shown above are for TV only, most cable providers offer heavy discounts if you bundle with internet service. That said, there are often a number of hidden costs with cable TV that streaming services don’t have. Here’s how the prices break down when you factor in internet costs:

Even with the added fees associated with cable TV, you’ll still end up paying more for a live TV streaming service in most cases. Keep in mind, though, that’s only for year one. Consumer Reports found that advertised rates generally go up 3-4% in year two, along with “broadcast TV fees” and “regional sports fees.” 

Satellite vs. streaming

Like the cable TV packages we highlighted above, DISH and DIRECTV are missing very few of the most popular channels. AT&T TV is the only streaming service with a better overall channel lineup, but like the satellite providers, you’ll have to commit to a two-year contract. However, AT&T TV also includes a 4K streaming device in all of its plans, so you do get some extra value for that commitment.  

So, are cable and satellite really better than streaming?

If you’re looking purely at the quality of channels offered, cable and satellite both provide better packages than live TV streaming services. You’ll get more channels in total — and more of the ones that viewers say they want the most. And unless you switch to a skinny bundle like AT&T Watch TV ($15/mo.) or Philo ($20/mo.), going with a streaming service probably won’t save you that much money, either. 

Here’s how the average scores compare for every cable, satellite and streaming service we pulled: 

While streaming is generally a better deal than satellite, you’ll usually get more channels at a better price if you go with cable TV.

With all that said, part of the appeal of streaming is that you don’t have to pay for a bunch of channels you never watch. We used YouTube TV and fuboTV — two of the streaming services with robust channel lineups — in the examples above, but you can potentially pay less if you only watch a handful of channels.  

Streaming also comes with a number of benefits you won’t get from cable and satellite. Aside from AT&T TV, you’ll never have to commit to more than a month at a time with a live TV streaming service. Most also come with plenty of DVR storage and the ability to stream on a few different devices at once. 

So while streaming services might not have as strong of a channel selection as traditional TV providers, there’s a good chance you’ll have a better experience overall. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ASCI), streaming services as an industry scored a 76/100 for customer satisfaction — on par with internet search engines and hotels. Subscription television services (which include cable and satellite) were the lowest-rated industry by a mile with a 62/100. 

If you’re in the market for a new TV service, we recommend making a list of the the channels you want the most and comparing them across the cable and satellite providers in your area and a few streaming services. If the price and channel lineups are comparable, the streaming service will provide better extra perks and flexibility.

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Joe Supan

Written by:

Joe Supan

Senior Writer, Wireless & Streaming Content

Joe oversees all things wireless and streaming for Allconnect. His work has been referenced by McAfee, Fox network and more. He has utilized thousands of data points to build a library of metrics to help users n… Read more

Trey Paul

Edited by:

Trey Paul

Editor, Head of Content

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