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Satellite, Cable, or over The Air?

In the last 10 years the options for receiving TV signals have increased to 3. You can have an antenna (either outdoors or what is known is rabbit ears, or indoors), cable TV and now satellite. The differences used to be fairly obvious but the technology advances have complicated the picture. There are 3 or 4 main category of difference: picture quality, content, price, and a new addition in the recent past: HDTV.

There are two factors that can eliminate some these difference: availability and convenience.

For some the antenna is not an option either because over the air signals don't reach where they live (rural areas) or other obstacles block the signal (buildings, hills, etc.) In some areas the cable is not available or the channels one may want may not be offered on the local cable provider. The convince may also play a role. Antennas are not aesthetically appealing to some or may be logistically difficult to install. To some extend the same may apply to satellite dishes as well

Assuming all options are available the following table shows some of the pros and cons for each option.

  Picture Quality Available Channels Local Channels HDTV Premium Channels Price
Antenna Bad-Best Few-30 Yes Yes No* Free
Cable Bad-Best 20-80 Yes No* Yes $40**
Satellite Good 50-500 In Some Areas ~5 Maximum $40**

* Might be available in certain areas. Check your local listings.
** Depends on choice of programming and the provider.

The picture quality of the signal received by antenna varies by location. In some areas it can produce the best pictures and in some other areas it is barely watchable. Some of the best pictures are delivered over the cable. The capability is there. Unfortunately often times the installation at either or both ends results in poor picture quality. Typically if the neighbors are receiving poor pictures it is an indication of what you will get.

The video picture from a satellite receiver are usually "clean" with not shadows or snow. But they are "soft". Some totally object it, some find it very good. The good news is that the picture quality if fairly consistent. Go to a local store who has a fairly similar TV size and look at the picture. You will get the same picture quality at home.

Depending on where you live you can get very few to tens of channels over the air. If they cover your needs that is the best option since it is free and usually very reliable.

The cable companies offer many channels and for most people it is more than enough. Some specialty channels may not be offered on many local cable system (C/Net, Fox Sports World, CNN/SI, and NFL Sunday Ticket for example). The satellite systems offer the most channels. One offers 500 channels. However you pay for them. Typically however you get 100-200 channels for about $40-$60. Seldom one would find a channel available on the cable that is not on satellite, with the exception of local channels (or local access channels on cable.)

The premium channels (HBO, ShowTime, etc.) are available on both cable and satellite, but not on the over the air signals. The satellite can offer more premium than cable, however. As an example in most areas there is only one HBO channel on the cable, while there are 8 on the satellite. Although some of those extra channels are the east coast and west coast feeds (3 hour time difference) but there are also additional channels (HBO2, HBO3, ...) that just are not on cable. At best cable can match what satellite can offer.

The cable might be the best choice for the local channels. Not only they offer all the over the air broadcasts, but the also have additional public access channels (local colleges as an example) that can be received over the air. Satellite service providers have started covering the top 50 or so major metropolitan areas for the local channels. They still cannot cover all the cities and will most likely never will be able to do that due to technical and economical factors. However in terms of the total population coverage they are satisfying most of their customers. In the rural areas they offer broadcasts from the closest major cities or choice of New York or Los Angeles stations.

The HDTV broadcasting that has started in the US since 1998 is currently available over the air, mostly. Satellite broadcasters now offer one HBO and one Showtime channels in HD. In addition there is a CBS feed and a general HD channel (movies, some sports, etc.) available for the satellite users. Additional programming will be available via satellite (ESPN, Discovery, etc.) The cable systems don't carry the HD signals, with a few exceptions. The bulk of the HD signals reach the users over the air. Currently CBS has an impressive lineup of HD programming. ABC is entering its second season of wide HD support and NBC at long last has joined the other networks with several programs. Jay Leno has been in HD for a few years now. Fox has adopted a widescreen format and has a reasonable coverage include the Super Bowl last year. WB has started their HD programming this year. PBS has been showing some programming in HD for 3-4 years now. To receive all of these high definition programming one would need to use an antenna in most of the country. Read more about HDTV programming here.

IThere are a few signal delivery choices each with pros and cons. You should choose based on your needs. One last thing. It is not unusual to end up picking more than one. For example many pick over the air, or basic cable for local programming, and then satellite for all the other channels. In rare occasions one may need all three! Some public access programming are only available on the cable, certain channels are only available through satellite (international programming for example) and in most cases HDTV can only be pick up over the air. If you need all that, you will need all three delivery mechanisms.

Hopefully this article will help you make a better decision.