As a person who doesn't live in the US, but has consumed a lot of US media, I have over the years seen many references to the differences between "Cable" and "Network" TV.

Now a search has shown that Network TV is transmitted over the air and are free, while Cable arrives by a cable and you have to pay a subscription. This sounds a bit of a strange distinction to me, because while we did have the same concepts here in Ireland even back in the pre-digital days, but they were just different methods of getting the same channels - the cable was just a method of getting the data into your telly. Certainly the people making or scheduling the programmes don't take into account which method they will be delivered.

(OK you got/get more channels from Cable and the reception was a bit better, but again, the extra ones were just UK "airwave" channels anyway and a few of the more popular satellite channels)

Whereas, in the US, it seems there is a fundamental difference in philosophy between "Cable" and "Network". Almost as if certain shows or types of shows are made for one or the other. Or almost like "Cable" is a company in its own right which produces and schedules all its own shows and channels.

e.g. Cable seems more likely to show controversial programmes or adult dramas than Network, for example, whereas Network is more likely to show maybe sitcoms / news type programmes? e.g. Roseanne had an episode where a documentary was to be made about the family and they joked about the differences in the risquéness of the content depending on whether it was to be shown on Cable or Network.

In general, Cable seems to be a lot freer with what it can show. Besides the actual content, there is also the comments on this answer to another question which seems to suggest it has more freedom with the format of the episodes. e.g. Network TV appears much more restricted in the number of episodes per season it must show.


So my question is, could you explain to someone who only understands "Cable" vs "Network" just to be a physical medium of delivery - equivalent of "WiFi" vs "Ethernet" - why the two are so different, and why there is such an apparent difference between the level of freedom enjoyed by each both in content and format.


2 Answers 2


I don't think you're quite right with how you think broadcast and cable have operated in the UK.

Into the early 1980s, there were only three channels (BBC1, BBC2, and ITV) broadcast over analog FM signals - with regional transmitters showing local content or simulcasting national content. A fourth channel was added in the early 80s, and a fifth in the late 90s - about when digital transmissions started in the UK.

This is similar to the US network system - the major players being ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS - though local affiliate stations would also partner up with the major networks.

The problem of the old analog system was bandwidth - one station/network needed a wide frequency band, and there had to be clear space around that band to prevent interference. FM and AM transmissions are also heavily regulated - not just in terms of the frequency spectrum used, but also in terms of content (local vs national, public interest vs entertainment) and censorship (in terms of sex, violence and swearing, etc).

To overcome this, new content providers moved to using cable and/or satellite broadcasts. Cable allowed companies to bypass radio bandwidth regulation. Satellites require less infrastructure on the ground (though getting a tin can into geostationary orbit isn't cheap).

Cable and satellite brought more bandwidth - in the UK in the early 90s, BSkyB (later just Sky), a satellite broadcaster had Sky One, Sky News, three movie channels and three sports channels; additionally, they broadcast MTV, Nickelodeon, Discovery and a bunch more. In fact, there was more bandwidth than content - and some channels would repeat daily or even quarter-daily, at least in the early years. There was also a subscription and encryption system in place. Sky used the money to buy exclusive/early rights to popular content and sports, which made their service now popular and pulled more subscribers in. Cable companies started offering the same a bit later.

American cable had even more offerings than this, and started a little earlier than the UK: CNN, ESPN, sports, music, HBO, Paramount, and more were hooking until cable. Again, the cable model included subscription/encryption.

Then digital transmission came about in the late 90s and the lines became blurred. The original FM broadcasters began to offer more as they were able to squeeze more data efficiently into their allocated spectrum - meaning they had to get more content. Some of the cable channels also bought digital spectra to broadcast their content.

And now we're in the streaming age.


Starting in 1928 outside of Washington DC (https://www.edn.com/1st-american-tv-station-begins-broadcasting-july-2-1928/), all TV was broadcast over the air (OTA). All channels that came out at that time were available to anyone with the means to receive and display them. Starting in 1948 (https://www.ncta.com/cables-story), companies started running cables to locations that couldn't easily or consistently receive channels due to natural landscape, buildings, distance, etc.

In 1972 (https://www.company-histories.com/Home-Box-Office-Inc-Company-History.html), Time Warner created Home Box Office or HBO as a means to distribute recently released movies. Instead of broadcasting this over the air, they limited their service to only those who were using cable to receive their TV programming and only with payment of an additional fee.

Over the years, the channels that were almost always broadcast by the major TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, local affiliates, etc.) and were available without a cable connection were referred to as network or broadcast while channels that were only available via a paid cable subscription were referred to as cable. Even though cable customers still received their broadcast channels via their cable connection, the channels were still usually referred to as broadcast/OTA.

Since the majority of the broadcast channels were available on cable, the divide of network/broadcast vs cable became a way for people to refer to how they received specific channels and therefore different TV shows. Almost everyone was able to get network channels, but only some had cable channels, so there was a split.

As things continued to grow, some cable providers would carry basic channels as part of their standard offerings, but some channels would require additional fees. Basic cable covered whatever channels were received when you paid for cable, but the additional channels are usually referred to as premium channels. That didn't necessarily reflect the content itself, but was more of a marketing term for paying for "better" content on those channels.

The move to streaming blurred things even further, but when you talk to someone in the US and hear mention of different types of TV, they are usually referring to:

Network/Broadcast: Channels that were originally and usually still broadcast and available for everyone (assuming they can receive the signal) such as ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, etc.

Basic Cable: Channels that most everyone that pays for cable TV receives such as ESPN, TNT, History, CMT, etc.

Premium/"Pay For" Cable: Channels that you pay for "on top" of or "in addition" to your basic cable fees, such as HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, The Movie Channel, etc.

In some locations and up until the last decade or so, broadcast channels were available for free if you connected a cable connection to your TV, but the other channels were scrambled/encrypted and required additional hardware to display, which are available from the cable companies for a monthly fee. Now most providers fully encrypt their entire offering of channels so watching anything via cable requires leased hardware.

Unless you live in an area that can receive a fair amount of broadcast channels and want to watch TV, odds are good you are going to pay for cable. Until streaming came along, that was the only means to receive TV for most people, so the majority considered basic cable a utility. The premium channels were considered an added feature, so that is why even though they are on cable, they are you usually designated differently then when discussing "cable TV".

  • This has some good info but leaves out Fox (just like the other answer), and also doesn’t talk about the big difference in content allowed on broadcast versus basic cable TV. Jun 8, 2023 at 14:26

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