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What Is Basic Cable and How Do I Get It?

Looking for more about basic cable and other cheap alternatives to standard cable? Our TV experts have you covered.

What is basic cable?

“Basic cable” refers to a cheap TV package with a local channel lineup available from a cable provider. Basic cable usually costs $20–$50 per month for roughly 40–70 local channels.

But you don’t have to pay a cable company monthly to get basic cable channels. An over-the-air (OTA) TV antenna costs only $25–$60 (a one-time payment), takes only 10 minutes to install and set up, and picks up the same channels. But if you happen to live in a rural area with poor reception, a cable TV provider’s basic cable packages might be your only option.

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Basic cable channels

Basic cable channels include local affiliate stations of nationwide networks like ABC, CBS, The CW, NBC, and PBS. Locally owned, independent channels are usually included in basic cable packages as well.

Because of US government regulations, all cable TV companies must provide these local broadcast channels for a lower rate than they usually charge for cable and premium channels like ESPN and HBO.

Basically (pardon the pun), any channel you’d get with an HD antenna with good reception, you’d get with a basic cable package.

Pro tip: Learn which cable providers offer basic cable with our “Basic Cable Packages and Channels Guide.”

So why would you pay a monthly subscription fee for basic cable when you can pay a reasonable one-time fee for an HD antenna?

Good question. If it’s hard to get antenna reception where you live because of tall buildings or hills, then basic cable might be right for you.

If you’re not sold on basic cable or an HD antenna but still want cable, we recommend getting a standard cable package instead.

With a standard cable package, you’d get all the local channels you’d get with basic cable and popular cable channels like ESPN and Hallmark for about $40–$90 per month.

How to get basic cable

Getting basic cable is super easy—all you have to do is follow these four steps.

  1. Pick a cable provider
  2. Call the cable provider
  3. Tell your sales rep you want basic cable
  4. Schedule your basic cable installation

Easy, right? We recommend calling because most cable providers don’t let you purchase basic cable packages online.

Top TV providers that offer basic cable

After you sign up, you’ll need a cable box from your TV provider to unscramble the cable signal.

Once you get your cable box in the mail, all you’ll need to do is connect it with a coaxial cable to a compatible wall outlet and then use another coaxial cable to connect it to your TV.

Pro tip: Coaxial cables are the round cables with little wire “tongues” sticking out of the end. They screw into round-shaped outlets in most modern homes. (Some older homes may not be wired for cable TV.)

It’s a pretty basic process, you might say, which is part of the appeal of basic cable. Of course, if you feel like self-installation isn’t for you, you can always have a pro from the cable company do it for you.

Alternatives to basic cable

As we hinted at earlier, there are a couple of solid alternatives to basic cable that can save you money and hassles over the long haul: HD antennas and live TV streaming services.

TV antennas vs. basic cable

One cheap alternative to basic cable is a reliable HD antenna. HD antennas start at about $20 and usually increase in price as their range increases.

HD antennas are easy to install and look nothing like the rabbit ears of days of yore. In fact, most HD antennas are flat, plastic squares that take up little or no space.

Like we said before, HD antennas usually give you the same channels as a basic cable package would. That’s why, if you can get good reception in your home, we always recommend an HD antenna over basic cable.

Live TV streaming vs. basic cable

Another affordable alternative to basic cable is live TV streaming. What is live TV streaming you might ask? Live TV streaming is TV broadcast over the internet.

So, if you have cable or fiber internet, you can get dozens of live TV channels from anywhere between $25–$185 per month. For context, most live TV streaming services cost around $50 per month.

Truth be told, most of the staff at use streaming services to get our cable fix because they are affordable and have month-to-month contracts.

Pro tip: Check out our Editor’s Choice Awards and ratings of the best live TV streaming services by skimming our expert guide.

For example, my favorite live TV streaming service is fuboTV because it has pretty much every sports channel you can think of and a ton of entertainment channels like Hallmark and Lifetime.


Throughout the year,’s experts research and test TV services in order to bring you the most current information on plans, pricing, channels lineups, features, and functionality. To learn more about our process, see our How We Rank page.

Basic cable FAQ

How does cable TV work?

Cable TV works by sending a TV signal through a series of coaxial cables to a cable box in your home, which unscrambles the TV signal so you can watch it on your television set.

What is included in basic cable?

Basic cable includes local affiliate channels like ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, but doesn’t usually include cable or premium channels like ESPN and HBO.

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