The Best Cable TV
The Best Cable TV
When it's time to shop around for your cable TV provider, you may not have a choice at all. The industry is made up of regional monopolies, which means the cable companies that service your specific address are often limited. We’ve taken a close look at the nation's largest cable companies and each of their features, so you can evaluate the most common options, and find the best cable TV company for you.
Once you’ve found the providers available to your address, we’ll help you compare their channel packages to match your viewing habits and weigh what matters most. If you care most about the price of your service, you’ll want to pay close attention to the fees we list. For people who can’t stand long hold times and frustrating phone calls, you’ll want to weigh customer satisfaction scores more heavily. We’ll take a deeper look at how all of these factors compare below.
How To Find the Best Cable TV
First, find out which providers will service your address.
Unlike satellite TV (think DISH and DirecTV), cable TV companies aren’t available nationwide. Most people only have fewer than three options no matter where they live. Why? Building out cable TV infrastructure and wiring in new areas is an expensive endeavor — one that requires careful consideration. One of those considerations is the competition. If a large provider is already dominating a regional market, it usually isn't be worth the investment for others to compete, creating regional monopolies. If you’re not sure who the big players in your zipcode are, you can use our tool above or enter your address directly into providers’ sites.
Then, audit your viewing habits and prioritize your favorite channels.
In 2016, Nielsen company discovered that, of the average 200 channels customer were paying for, they were only watching about 19 channels. That’s less than 10 percent. To find the best provider for you, you’ll want one that can maximize your favorite channels in one package — so you aren’t paying for 180 channels of excess.
The best cable TV company will make it easy to find your favorites for a fair price. We took 2017’s 50 most watched channels and tallied them against providers packages to see which were offering the best plans for the best value. Popular channels like the Food Network hold more value and relevance for most viewers than channels that tally up in your package count, like the Gem Shopping Network or C-SPAN 4. But if you know your TV habits are a little more niche, keep track of the channels you frequent most and then compare the provider packages to see which offers the best price for minimal excess.
Watch out for hidden fees — they can add up fast.
It’s not just your extra channels that can rack up a cable bill. You’ll want to keep a keen eye on subtle fees, too. Installation, equipment, and a local broadcast station surcharge are common — but how much those fees cost can be vastly different between providers. For example, Charter’s installation fee is $35; AT&T’s is a whopping $200. To help you compare costs, we’ve compiled the most common fees from the top cable companies. If you’re more cost-conscious, you may consider these more seriously. Keep in mind, promotional deals for new customers tend to waive a few fees, too.
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Be prepared to bundle your services.
Most providers heavily encourage bundling your telecommunication services; phone, internet, and sometimes home security. Some providers, like Comcast and Cox, give you wide range of TV and internet options that you can purchase independently. Others, like Charter Spectrum, only offer one TV package without bundling. If you choose Mediacom, you won’t have an option at all, as all its TV plans require an internet bundle. By bundling, you’re likely to save an average of $20 to $30 for each service. We took a look at the speed tiers and channel counts available when bundling with each provider. When exploring companies available to your address, keep in mind the internet speeds your household will need and consider bundling your services.
Remember that customer service is largely bad — but some providers are worse than others.
The common narrative around any kind of telecom service provider interaction is one of woeful frustration. From being patched through a forest of phone trees to surprise jumps on your bill, it’s rare to have a pleasant experience with your cable provider post activation.
This bad reputation is reflected in ratings and scores by Consumer Reports, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), and J.D. Power. Each of these groups rate cable companies on customer satisfaction, with some breakout categories like performance, value, communications, billing, and technical support. And of all 43 industries that the ACSI scores, TV and internet providers are consistently ranked at the bottom.
Providers who consistently scored poorly weren’t favored in our ranking, either.
Mediacom, for example, received a 58/100 from both the ACSI and Consumer Reports. While Verizon FiOS has won the customer satisfaction award from J.D. Power and topped the rankings with the ACSI and Consumer Reports. Companies that score well from these consumer resources are more likely to resolve issues, clearly communicate changes in billing, and consistently provide reliable television service. We took a lot at their websites and considered how easy it was to navigate their services, to shop online (some force you to call just to see their package options), and solve technical problems using their help center.
We used all these metrics to compare the nations most popular providers, and ranked them based on the value of their packages and the quality of their customer service. None of the providers nail everything, so be warned — you may have to sacrifice customer service for a good price or pay more for reliable connections, or vice-versa.
Our Picks for the Best Cable TV
After Charter Communications recently acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, it rebranded as Spectrum and has worked to simplify its services. Unfortunately, that means you’ll only have one option if you just want cable TV. That one TV-only plan is called TV Select. It comes with at least 125 channels and about 46% of the most popular channels. Notable absences include , E!, and the Travel Channel, but otherwise you’ll be getting a fair number of major networks.
For more package options (and more channels) you’ll have to bundle with internet and phone service. Those bundles come at a fair price though, and include free installation (normally $35), WiFi set up (typically $10), and DVR service ($13 per month). That’s a potential savings upwards of $200 in one year. Spectrum also includes HD channels free of charge.
Its customer service fares well with consumers. Charter received a 63/100 from both Consumer Reports and ACSI, placing it in the better half of providers. It was awarded by J.D. Power for its customer satisfaction in the South, and it received a 3/5 in the West and North Central regions.
If you’d like to switch to Charter, but are currently signed with another provider, Spectrum will help buyout your contract up to $500.
XFINITY from Comcast is the most widely available cable provider, with service in 39 states — so there’s a good chance you’ll be comparing it to another one on our list. Most providers either require you to bundle your TV service with internet, or they offer just one non-bundled TV option. With XFINITY, however, you can choose between all five of its cable TV packages — without signing on for internet.
Its TV packages come in a wide range of channels, from 10 to over 260. The most well-rounded plan is its Starter, that has 40% of the most popular channels, including ESPN and the Hallmark Channel. You’ll only be missing out on premium networks and specialty sports channels like the MLB Network and Starz.
Though Comcast has earned a reputation for bad customer service, it has steadily improved in ratings year after year. Its ACSI score has risen by four points in just the last two years, from 56/100 in 2015 to 60/100 in 2018. This is an indication that the company is making an effort to improve its reputation and will likely continue to progress. Last year, the company’s VP of customer service, Tom Karinshak, detailed some steps Comcast is making to overhaul its customer service, including; expanding digital care teams, a callback feature that allows you to schedule a time for Comcast to call you (rather than wait on hold), and an ETA feature that messages customers on the arrival status of service technicians (for installation and troubleshooting).
If you like to self-install and troubleshoot your own technology, Cox Communications’ website makes that possible. Its vast resource library offers educational how-to videos on setting up, using, and troubleshooting your services. If you have a problem, just select your issue in its search tool, and it’ll direct you to the right instruction manual. For example, if your TV isn’t working, you can designate whether it’s grainy, frozen, tiled, blue, or black. After a few more questions about your service, you’ll get a specific solution and clear way forward (even if that means scheduling professional help). It’s a small convenience, but we love the option to handle simple fixes ourselves, instead of having to parse through outdated forums or spend our lunch break on hold with a technician.
Its Contour TV plan with 140+ channels will suit anyone looking to capture a lot of favorites. It has nearly every channel except premium networks and specialty sports. You can also choose its TV Starter or Contour Flex (usually around $25 per month), and get the basics like PBS, ABC, the CW. Cox offers supplemental TV packages you can add on to that to get just your favorite genres. It has a sport, movie, and variety package. You’ll be paying for less than the 140+ package and can cater to your viewing habits.
Cox is one of the few providers that offer the option to self-install your service. The catch? It’ll cost you $20 — basically charging you to DIY. Your alternative is a $75 professional installation. This doesn’t seem to hurt its customer satisfaction though, as it scored a 65/100 from Consumer Reports and a 63 from the ACSI — both scores above Comcast and Mediacom.
With Frontier, depending on your location, you may be able to choose between FiOS TV or Vantage TV. FiOS TV is service by fiber-optic cable, rather than traditional. If you choose to bundle, you’ll have fiber-optic internet too — which means astronomical speeds. For your TV service, it might mean a sharper image but only if you have an HD or Ultra HD television to support it.
Frontier boasts some tempting promotional offers including a free install, a free router, and Amazon Prime for a year. All enticing discounts that could lead to significant savings, especially because Frontier's usual charge for install is $80.
Customer service is fairly average, with a 60/100 from the ACSI and 59/100 from Consumer Reports. This can be attributed to the fact that you’ll likely have to call to get any information and access to more plan options. Those plans might include a Frontier Prime plan, that has 60% of the most popular channels. It only skips out on HBO, Nick at Nite, and other premium networks.
Mediacom only offers its cable TV service paired with an internet plan, but that starting bundle comes at a fair rate. You can get high speed internet (60 Mbps or 100 Mbps) with the Local Plus TV plan. It comes with the basic networks like NBC, the CW, and ABC — but not much beyond that. You’ll have to upgrade to the Family TV plan for everything except premium channels.
Mediacom also offers add-on genre packages that you can use to supplement the Local Plus plan, without getting a ton of channels you aren’t interested in. There’s one for sports, movies, and kids channels. This could be a great option for viewers who stick to just a few favorites.
No matter what set of channels you choose, Mediacom charges a hefty $99 installation fee. That’s a steep price in comparison to Charter’s $35 fee. On the upside, you can schedule that installation during evenings or on the weekends, and only need to schedule a 30-minute window. So no need to take a day off work, or wait around for hours when setting up your service.
Where Mediacom really suffers is its customer service. It consistently ranks at the bottom, a worrisome practice in an industry with an already poor reputation. Consumer Reports readers gave it a 58/100 and the ACSI a 56/100. If you choose Mediacom as your cable provider, keep a keen eye on your billing statements and confirm any deals your promised.
The Best Cable TV: Summed Up
Curious about Cable TV Alternatives?
While traditional cable is still capturing the majority of audiences, it’s not the only option out there.
Fiber-Optic TV is slowly replacing traditional cable.
Fiber technology doesn’t affect television like it does internet, but few providers give you the option of buying one without the other, so your quality of internet is a worthy consideration. Both AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FiOS run on fiber-optic networks — but they’ve earned the best reputation in the industry thanks to their wicked-fast speeds.
AT&T gives you the option to build your own bundle by pairing channel packages with different internet speeds. You can choose from its array of channel packages that range from 20 to over 550 channels. Even its starter 150 channel plan has 40% of the most popular channels, so you’re likely to find your favorites at an affordable price no matter what you pick.
We also like Verizon FiOS for its truly customizable TV package. Rather than choosing from a range of large channels number, half of which are C-SPAN, you purchase select channel packages that are bundled based on interest. You can choose from the Lifestyle & Reality, Kids & Pop, Home & Family, News & Variety, Infotainment & Drama, or Sports & News. There is some overlap between categories like Kids & Pop and Home & Family, so you aren’t completely limited when finding your favorites.
Satellite TV is more widely available.
Satellite providers like DISH and DIRECTV host service in all 50 states. The only clear differentiator between satellite and cable TV, is that satellite requires a dish on your roof. Unlike the slow speeds that come with satellite internet service, there are no restrictions on your television service. In fact, both DISH and DIRECTV offer a vast range of channels and exclusive sports packages like NFL Fantasy Zone and MLB Network Strike Zone. In our full review of all the best TV providers, we found DIRECTV excels in customer service and DISH Network comes with an industry-leading DVR that can record 16 shows at once and store 2,000 hours of content. When shopping for your TV service, take satellite competitors seriously as they often out value cable providers.
Cord-cutting has cable options, too.
Switching to streaming isn’t just for binging The Office on Netflix or watching yesterday’s episode of Bob’s Burgers on Hulu. You can sign up for services that allow you to stream select live TV channels, too. Some popular options are DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and Sling TV. Each allows you to choose between tiers of channels, but their base packages often offer many popular channels and for much cheaper than traditional cable. Curious about your options? We compare the best options in our TV streaming review.