Television used to be a simple entertainment medium. People plugged in their sets and tuned into one of only a few broadcast channels. Those stations still exist, of course, but the majority of viewers don’t access television with over-the-air antennas anymore. Instead, many people receive programming through a coaxial cable connection. Cable offers better picture quality and more channels than so-called “rabbit-ears” antennas did.
Changes involve much more than the delivery process, however. Cable providers now offer different levels of programming for varied fees; the more channels in the package, the higher the fee tends to be. These different programming levels sometimes include a variety of viewing methods as well, including computers and mobile devices; viewers are no longer restricted to actual television sets. Cable packages may also bundle additional services for a reduced price, such as Internet and phone delivered via cable.
Providers typically use a tier structure in designing their packages. Each programming tier builds on the previous one; however, there can also be side options that offer viewers even greater choices.
Basic cable is the least expensive option, and it also includes the fewest channels. The familiar broadcast networks, such as ABC, CBS and NBC, appear here along with FOX, CW and local PBS affiliates. What used to be known as “superstations” may be included in basic packages as well; WGN and TBS fit this category. Viewers with compatible televisions may have access to high definition simulcasts for some of these stations without additional subscriptions.
Local stations, shopping channels and some Spanish-language channels are also often part of basic cable. The other main component of basic tiers is PEG programming. PEG stands for public, educational and government, and access to these stations is federally mandated. The public arm of PEG provides individual access; anyone in the community may present content of their choosing for free or for very little cost. Educational channels support classroom learning, and government channels allow local governing bodies to air their proceedings.
Basic cable packages offer roughly 20 channels altogether. For a bit higher cost, viewers can access a good deal more.
Expanded Basic Cable
Expanded basic tiers can include as many as 50 additional channels beyond those available with basic cable. These often include the most popular national networks. Sports channels, such as ESPN and FOX Sports as well as their offshoots; news networks, including CNN, MSNBC and FOX News; federal government channels, such as C-SPAN and C-SPAN2; and entertainment channels, including FX, USA, TNT, TBS, AMC, HGTV, BET, BRAVO and CMT, among others, typically appear in expanded basic packages. Frequently, there are also a number of music channels available that broadcast various genres of music.
This tier is very popular with cable subscribers, but it often comes in two or more tiers itself, depending on the connection. Many televisions are considered cable ready. They allow subscribers to use a simple coaxial cable to receive programming they’ve purchased without attaching any additional equipment. However, many providers reserve certain programming and usability features for those viewers who lease a cable box or card; this is sometimes called digital cable even though all programming is digital now.
Expanded basic cable tiers that use a cable box or card include even more channels, but these can vary greatly. Channels that one provider makes available with direct expanded basic may be available only with an added device from another provider. Additionally, providers sometimes change lineups and move channels between different packages. A few channels that might be available only to those with set-top boxes or cable cards include TCM, National Geographic Channel, Science Channel or SyFy. Again, any or all of these could be available without added devices; it depends entirely on the provider.
Some providers also offer small add-on tiers to digital cable packages for an additional fee. These tend to be genre oriented and may include movie channels, such as the Encore or Epix channels; lifestyle tiers, including cooking channels, H2 (History), BIO (Biography) and other specialty channels; and sports specialty tiers or additional Spanish-language channels. Note: Lifestyle tiers sometimes undergo changes similar to expanded basic lineups.
In addition to channel expansion, digital cable usually includes an interactive programming guide, pay-per-view offerings and On Demand options that allow viewers to watch subscribed channels whenever they like. This tier frequently provides access to online and mobile viewing outlets as well.
Most cable providers don’t include premium channels, such as HBO, Showtime or STARZ, in general cable packages. Each premium channel comes at a price, but providers may offer special packages where new subscribers receive premium stations free for a few months or at a discounted rate. Additionally, many providers offer price breaks, lowering the cost of each premium channel with multiple subscriptions. One channel might cost roughly $15, but two might cost only $25.
With a wealth of options available, cable packages allow viewers to tailor programming to their individual preferences and budgets.