Best Cable TV Providers
A guide to picking the least-worst option
Cable is the worst. And it’s not just in our imaginations — it’s a fact. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), a research group at the University of Michigan, customer satisfaction of cable companies is the lowest of any industry, and it’s not done tanking. Last year it dipped another 3.1 percent. The benchmark score is a paltry 63 and some providers (ahem, Comcast and Time Warner Cable) are clocking in just barely above 50. For comparison, the US Postal Service ranks a 75.
There used to be no other option: Without cable, there was no way to watch your favorite shows. But with streaming devices and subscription services on the rise, that’s no longer the case. Some of the best shows on TV aren’t even on cable TV anymore — Amazon Instant Video has Transparent; House of Cards is exclusively on Netflix; Broad City broadcasts via Hulu — and streaming is becoming less an alternative to cable and more the go-to way to get our shows. In fact, we've taken an in-depth look at several ways to get your entertainment fix, including cable, satellite, and streaming.
But back to cable. If you’re sticking it out with one of the old-school providers, it’s because, for you, hundreds of channels On Demand, robust DVR functionality, and snagging a low (if only for the first year) rate truly matter.
The good news is every single cable company we researched has exactly the same features. They also had the exact same flaws: confusing bills, low-ranked customer service, inevitable rate hikes, long installation appointments, fees, complex package options, and discounts that require bundling with services that not everyone wants or needs anymore — like landline phones.
What they don’t all offer is service where you live. Unlike streaming services or satellite dishes, cable and fiber optic companies have to run a physical line down your block. Is there an easy way to find out where they do offer service? Of course not. To find your availability, get ready to type in your ZIP code and hope the form recognizes your address.
If you’re one of the lucky few who has more than one option, we suggest prioritizing customer support. In an industry known for poor customer service, imagine dealing with the worst of the worst. From there, choose on value — if there’s a reason to love something that’s a pain, it’s because you’re happily paying less for it.
Our Picks for Least-Worst Cable TV Providers
Verizon FiOS Verizon Fios is only in a whopping 13 states, but even with that low number, it beats the other fiber optic options in sheer availability. It also has the highest customer satisfaction score in the industry.
With a score of 71 from the ASCI, Verizon Fios is a full 20 points higher than the worst, and even a few points above our favorite satellite company, DirecTV. Even with the market in flux (and competition from streamers getting stronger) Verizon is adding more new video customers than any other cable company. In the first quarter of 2015, it added another 90,000 new subscribers to its 100 percent fiber-optic digital television service. The quality is there, too: a crisp picture, faster movie downloads, and no threat of winter storm warnings that can knock traditional cable out of service.
Comcast XFINITY Comcast is as nationwide as cable gets. At 41 states, it easily wins for best coverage. But best customer service? Not even close.
Comcast scored a poor 54 on the ASCI scorecard, so you can expect to do some hoop-jumping: Your rates will go up after the initial period; installation will take a few hours; and if you’ve got a billing issue, get ready to climb the phone tree.
That being said, what’s good is good: Comcast’s got the channels and the package options (ranging from a simple $28 month for local channels to $100 for 260 channels) and its newest X1 DVR has 500GB of storage, a remote with voice search, and the ability to record five shows at once. The only way to get the new machine is to sign up for a two-year Triple Play contract that includes a landline phone. Don’t need a landline? Tough. That’s just the way cable works.
AT&T U-verse® AT&T U-verse combines the quality of a fiber optic network with a massive lineup of more than 500 channels. Bundling options are also strong, especially after AT&T's acquisition of DirectTV.
Like Fios, U-Verse is fiber optic — aka fancy cable. It has the same channels at a higher speed, so you get a crisper picture and faster downloads. Customer satisfaction for AT&T is a few points lower than Fios, but it wins out in sheer volume with a truly mind-warping 590 channels — over 100 more than the next highest count. Honestly, though, we’re not sure anyone is going to notice. Nielsen says we really only watch 17 channels.
If you already have phone or cell service with AT&T, bundling with U-Verse may net you a great deal. And although U-Verse isn’t nationwide, AT&T acquired DirecTV, ensuring there’s a bundle for everyone.
Juggernaut-to-Be (Proceed with Caution)
Time Warner Cable Time Warner Cable is a large cable company that could get even larger if its merger plans come together. The resulting company could give Comcast a run for its money in the cable industry.
Time Warner Cable is the fourth-largest cable company with the lowest customer service rankings in the industry. With a score of 51, it’s easily one of the most reviled companies on the list. After its 2015 plan to merge with Comcast fell through, the company is pursuing a different merger that will unite the fourth-, seventh-, and 10th-largest cable providers into a behemoth with a 40-state reach.
It’s an attempt to improve the company’s market share and, some critics posit, to have enough power to pressure programmers to keep their shows off streaming services. The two other companies in the merger, Charter and Bright House, both have higher customer satisfaction scores, but that doesn’t mean that Time Warner customers will get a boost — mergers typically lower satisfaction rates in the short term.
Worst Customer Service Ranking (Not Recommended)
Mediacom MediaCom's decent coverage (23 states nationwide) is offset by poor satisfaction ratings — with customer service and reliability standing out as weak points.
Tied with Time Warner for the honor of worst of the worst customer service, MediaCom isn’t worth the hassle. With its 23-state coverage, the company has a reputation for spotty service and elaborate phone trees that lead to scripted call center reps. It’s easy to see, too: MediaCom’s Twitter feed is full of multi-state outages and the customer support forum has multiple new threads a day solving things like missing channels, equipment failures, and On Demand error codes.
The Bottom Line
The best cable company for you is probably whichever serves your neighborhood. If you’re lucky enough to have more than one option, compare their customer satisfaction scores — everything else is most likely standard fare. If dealing with cable becomes too painful, look into cutting the cord altogether — our TV provider review walks through which device to buy and which services to subscribe to.