Cable vs. Streaming: What’s the Difference?

When trying to decide between video services, you're probably deciding between services like cable TV and various streaming services. We'll break down the differences between them to help you find the best way to entertain you and your family.

In the section below, we'll compare cable TV providers like Comcast or Spectrum to their most similar streaming providers. These include services such as Sling, Hulu with Live TV and YouTube TV. It won't include standalone services such as Netflix or HBO that only display their own content (although premium channels like HBO may be part of the overall service).

Overall Cable Survey Results
  • More expensive, but with more content.

  • Provider selection is subject to regional restrictions.

  • A dedicated set-top box is required.

  • Broadcast content is independent of the Internet.

  • Some discounts are available on bundles.

Overall Streaming Survey Results
  • Cheap but still offers must-have content.

  • A full selection of providers is available anywhere there is internet.

  • Supported by many different devices.

  • Reliant on a good internet connection.

  • Premium add-ons are available at additional cost.

While cable TV and video streaming services provide the same result (watching a video on a screen), they do it in very different ways. Cable TV providers broadcast video content over their dedicated networks and have long-term relationships with content providers. The pay TV industry is built on this structure and the product you receive reflects this. Cable TV is generally more reliable and offers more content, but at the cost of being more expensive.

Streaming providers, on the other hand, are newcomers to the video market and are not bound by the same rules. They offer their services nationwide, and you can access their services through a variety of devices. They are not tied to traditional infrastructure, which is both a blessing and a curse. They can deliver over any internet connection, but they are also entirely dependent on that connection and have no control over their quality. They usually offer cheaper plans, although they include fewer channels.

  • More channels are generally available.

  • All channel variants may be available.

  • Premium channels are available for an additional fee.

  • Offers premium music channels.

stream media
  • Most major channels are available.

  • Main channel variants available.

  • Some premium channels may be available as add-on content.

Let’s cut right to the chase… Cable TV is still better than most streaming services when it comes to content availability. Their channel ranges typically number in the hundreds and, in particular, will include most, if not all, of the "variant" channels of networks such as sports. But that's also why you pay such a high price for cable TV. Their ability to serve you content is based on packaging deals with major content networks, and while these deals may cost less on a per-channel basis, you don't get to pick and choose.

Streaming services, on the other hand, offer fewer channels in total. However, they will likely include all the major channels that most viewers will need. For example, all four major networks will be present, as will popular cable channels. Unless you watch a wide variety of channels or have something unique on your must-have list, most streaming services will have you covered.

In the above context, a cable channel refers to a channel that is not broadcast over the air. For example, while most television markets have a local station that carries NBC, none carries HGTV. These types of channels were originally only available through cable channels, which gave them their name, before competition from satellite providers.

  • The monopoly industry structure is still basically formed

  • Smaller suppliers have largely consolidated to form some large suppliers

  • Some competitive suppliers exist, but incumbents have the upper hand

stream media
  • No location-based service restrictions

  • Products are offered by both emerging and established technology companies

  • More and more companies have been jumping into the streaming space

If you're considering cable TV service, you likely don't need to do much company research. The original structure of the cable industry was a monopoly. Each cable provider has an exclusive license to provide service in exchange for the right to build a network for a specific geographic area. Changes in the industry since then have allowed a number of competitive providers to compete (RCN Cable is one example). But the number of these competitors is likely to be small.

In contrast, streaming service providers offer their services nationwide. As long as you have access to good internet service, your access to Hulu or Sling is not restricted by where you live. However, the number of devices you can stream from a particular service at one time may be limited.

  • Broadcast media, all content is live.

  • Requires set-top equipment from provider.

  • If the Internet is down, video service may be available.

  • Set-top devices can emulate "on demand" functionality such as pause/rewind.

stream media
  • Content is delivered to every device on demand.

  • Works on any supported internet-connected device.

  • Rely on the Internet to receive content.

The streaming video service does exactly what its name suggests. You make a request and the provider uses your internet connection to send you the video content instantly. This brings many advantages. One of these is portability, or the ability to watch the service on any supported internet device, including computers, iOS/Android tablets or phones, and game consoles.

Another is mobility, which means you can watch anywhere you have internet access. It also means you can easily pause or rewind a show, even if it's live. This also means that your experience depends entirely on the quality of your internet.

Cable is a broadcast medium much like local television systems that send video over the air waves. Cables now use copper wires instead of signals and have long since been upgraded from analog to digital. But the basic idea remains the same. So everything is actually live.

Now, if you get up for a snack and miss something, most modern cable boxes can mimic features like pause/rewind by automatically recording the current show. But the extent depends on the operator, and this will reset if you change channels. Speaking of which, you'll need a set-top box from your provider to use their service.

  • The entry level is more expensive but includes more content.

  • Provides multiple channel tiers and advanced channels.

  • Additional fees may include premium set-top boxes.

  • Discounts available when combined with internet/phone service.

  • Typically a one-year contract is required, discounts may be available.

stream media
  • Basic-level streaming services are cheaper but offer fewer channels.

  • Most streaming services have fewer plans to choose from.

  • Premium channels are available as add-on content.

  • There is no contract.

As you might have guessed from the previous chapters, the bottom line here (no pun intended) is that cable TV is more expensive than streaming. If you have cable TV, the amount on your bill will be more, unless you're on the simplest plan (for example, the author's local cable provider offers a package that includes Internet for $42.49/month).

In a way, you get what you pay for in terms of more channels. But that number may go up if you choose a powerful DVR box, and it may go down if you combine it with other services like internet or phone calls. But be aware that after the first year, your bill, as well as the promotional price, will typically increase as your contract expires.

You can count on looser deals with streaming providers, though. Plans are typically month-to-month, can be canceled online, and will automatically terminate before your next bill date. As mentioned above, streaming providers typically aren't as expensive as cable companies. Just make sure all your must-have channels are available for streaming.

There are several considerations when making this decision. Technically, the two are relatively equal. For example, while streaming providers may be more flexible in terms of the devices they can use, many cable providers also offer dedicated apps for watching videos. Cable boxes also perform many of the same functions that streaming users are accustomed to, such as DVR functionality and pause/rewind live TV, although they do so slightly differently.

But you really have nothing to lose by at least trying streaming first. There's no need to buy additional equipment, and if you don't like what you're getting, you can end it (or try another provider) after 30 days.

That said, there are two specific situations where you should double-check your cables. The first is if the internet quality in your area is low, meaning your stream will always be blocked and/or buffered. The second is if you have a lot of people in your home watching different content at the same time. Even if your streaming provider doesn't limit it, all the internet throughput can be more than your home network can handle.