Broadcast vs. Cable -- What's the Difference and Why It Matters

Beth Walsh

Beth Walsh About The Author

February 4, 2021 at 10:41 AM

Broadcast vs. Cable -- What's the Difference and Why It Matters

The marketing reach of television has become incredibly strong over the years and remains so to this day. For example, the first quarter of 2019 TV reach in the United States among all adults aged 18+ was 90%. TV remains a powerful medium that advertisers can use to reach and engage with their target audience.

Of course, two of the most popular forms of television are broadcast and cable. In this article, we'll discuss what broadcast and cable TV are, what differences exist between them, and how you can use one or both of these marketing channels in the best way for your brand.

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Broadcast vs. Cable TV

Let's begin with a definition of these two terms:

  • Broadcast TV is the most common form of television in the United States. Broadcast networks use public airwaves to transmit their programs. Thus, these channels are available for free to any household with a TV set within the range of a transmitter. Broadcast channels make their revenue by selling commercial spots to advertisers. These channels include CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and others.
  • Cable TV is television that, as the name implies, reaches households through coaxial cables — or, more recently, fiber-optic cables. Cable channels charge customers a subscription fee to watch their programs. While cable TV doesn't have quite the reach of broadcast, advertisers still offer many opportunities to reach their high-value demographics through commercial advertising. Cable networks include HBO, AMC, Animal Planet, Comedy Central, etc.

The Pros and Cons of Each Medium

Now that we've defined broadcast and cable TV, let's drill down into each marketing channel’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Pros of Broadcast TV:

  • Broadcast TV has a broad, nationwide reach, with over 96% of TV homes having access to at least one major broadcast network (CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX).
  • Many people tune in to broadcast TV for live events, such as soccer, football, or the Olympics. These consumers are usually highly engaged with the program they're watching and more likely to pay attention to commercials from advertising brands.
  • Companies that advertise on broadcast TV can take advantage of highly topical and relevant content for their consumer base.

The Cons of Broadcast TV:

  • Broadcast TV advertising can be costly.
  • This form of advertising doesn't have advanced geo-targeting capabilities.
  • There can be a lot of competition for inventory, especially during primetime hours.

The Pros of Cable TV:

  • Cable TV offers the potential for "persona-based advertising," in other words, advertising based on a specific group of consumers’ preferences and interests.
  • Cable TV also enables advertisers to focus on specific "zones" or geographic areas. They can thus save on advertising costs while still reaching their high-value demographics.

The Cons of Cable TV:

  • Cable TV doesn't have the same reach that broadcast channels do.
  • Many people are "cutting the cord" on cable TV — or have never subscribed in the first place, and have no interest in doing so. For instance, American households’ share without a cable TV rose to 36.1% in 2018 — and continues to increase.
  • Though it boasts hundreds of channels, many of an advertiser’s commercials often air on less desirable cable networks. Competition for the more notable channels is high, especially in highly watched programming.

Choosing the Best for You

How can you determine which advertising medium will be most cost-effective and yield your brand’s highest ROI? The first step is to identify and define your key business objectives clearly. Once that is done, utilize the medium that more closely aligns with your brand's goals.

For example, suppose you want to run a national brand awareness campaign or market to groups within specific DMAs (designated marketing areas that encompass large geographic regions). In that case, you may decide that spending your marketing dollars on broadcast networks is the best option for your company. Running a commercial during the Super Bowl or another, more geo-specific sporting event would be one way to meet this goal.

Suppose your strategy focuses on building frequency for your marketing message or targeting consumers on a more granular level (either geographically or according to shared interests). In that case, it may be more cost-effective to invest in cable TV advertising. For instance, you could buy advertising spots around a particular program on one of the cable networks, like the DIY channel, if you're targeting DIY-ers.

Using the Best Advertising Medium for Your Brand

In summary, broadcast TV has a greater reach, and cable TV allows for a more targeted advertising approach. However, both mediums can offer significant benefits for your brand. You may want to take advantage of both channels to further your company's marketing plan.

Of course, if TV advertising is not one of your core competencies, then you may want to reach out to an experienced media partner for assistance. Whatever the case may be, when you use broadcast and cable TV advertising in a practical, goal-aligned manner, your brand will experience measurable growth as a result.

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