What is the Difference Between Broadcast and Cable?

A spinning globe revealing a variety of tv channels that advertisers can target

Whether at a restaurant, at the gym, in your living room, or in a waiting room, we are constantly surrounded by screens. In 2019, it’s probably smartphone or tablet screens that come to mind in this scenario. But television certainly hasn’t gone away.

Most of us grew up seeing commercials on TV, and though adults 29 and under are watching more streaming content than ever, those over 30 are still tuning into cable en masse. We have to assume at least some of those same adults are also using the terms “cable,” “broadcast,” and “local” interchangeably.

For most viewers, that’s OK. But for industry professionals, lawmakers, and, of course, advertisers, the differences are crucial. We want to help our clients feel just as well-versed in the strengths of each TV advertising option. So, we’ve put together a handy guide to what is the difference between broadcast and cable.

What is the Difference Between Broadcast and Cable?

When you decide to advertise on television, you’ll be choosing among broadcast, cable, and local channels. Each one offers its own unique benefits and ad rates. But how do you know which type of television advertising network is right for your message and audience?

To the average customer, broadcast and cable offerings are almost indistinguishable. On the business end, however, broadcast and cable have some important differences. Let’s break that down. (Stay tuned for local programming a little later.)

Broadcast Television

Broadcast television is the most common form of television in the United States. Broadcast channels use public airwaves to transmit programs that are theoretically available to any TV set within range of a broadcast transmitter, at no cost to the viewer.

As such, most broadcast channels – so-called “commercial channels” – gain revenue through advertising. Think CBS, ABC, NBC, or The CW. Non-commercial channels, such as PBS, gain revenue through donations or other means.

Drawing the largest American audiences by far, broadcast channels are considered to be major legacy networks. Their advertising potential – and subjection to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – make their differences from cable and local TV significant for advertisers and lawmakers alike.

Cable Television

Unlike broadcast channels, cable channels like Animal Planet, AMC, or Comedy Central do not use public airwaves. Instead, they charge viewers subscription fees for transmission.

Cable channels are private entities offering all the pros and cons of private, demand-driven media. Because cable television relies on revenue from consumers, the FCC has passed a number of cable policies to promote fairness to consumers and broadcasters. Still, cable channels offer a ripe advertising landscape, just like broadcast channels.

Developed in the 1950’s as a way to provide better signals to areas lesser-served by broadcast TV, cable television is still present in about 70% of American homes.

Local Television

Local programming includes local news stations or syndicated programs. Here in Los Angeles, we receive local news and weather channels related to what is going on in our local area. Even as Americans’ viewing habits change, recent research shows local TV pulling strong audiences (particularly during election years).

As of the 1960’s, cable operators are required by FCC regulation to reserve specified allotments for local channels, preventing them from being charged for airtime and financially edged out.

Navigate the Television Landscape with Bloom Ads

Now that you know what is the difference between broadcast and cable, it’s time to get advertising! Our television advertising experts can help you get your message out effectively. We don’t just script, shoot and edit your TV spot – we also make sure that you are receiving the best possible ad rates available. Visit our website to learn more about the services we offer, or give us a call directly at 818-703-0218 to speak with an expert today.

Don’t forget to follow us on social media for more tips!

Scroll to top