As American viewing habits evolve to a hybrid of pay TV and internet content, cheap cable TV is more in demand than ever. Of course, as cable prices rise year after year (NBC News says 2016 hikes amounted to between $2 and $10 per month for satellite and cable subscribers) "cheap" becomes a relative term. Still, if you know where to look and how to get the best cable deals you can do a pretty effective job of keeping that monthly bill under control.
Considering the notorious lack of competition in the industry, you might feel the outlook is bleak when it comes to finding cheap TV service. There are options, however, which I'll cover in this guide, along with the best cable providers and how to negotiate the best rate for your service.
How to Get Cheap Cable TV - In This Guide
Key Considerations When Purchasing Cheap Cable TV
There are a few useful facts to know before you even begin your comparison of cheap cable companies.
- The FCC requires that all cable companies offer a basic tier of service. This is the most inexpensive package and typically includes local broadcast networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS, along with the PEG access channels (public, educational, and governmental).
- While cable providers are required to offer the basic set of channels, they don't always list this option on the website. You may have to call to request the lowest tier plan in order to get truly cheap cable.
- Choosing cheap cable doesn't prevent you from accessing your favorite premium options. You will still have access to pay-per-view, as well as the option of adding on channels like HBO (for an additional monthly charge).
- Some cheap cable services require an agreement (generally one to two years in length) in order to lock in the promotional price. It's best to avoid this if possible, just in case you do decide to upgrade to more channels or add another service later on.
Despite the overwhelming amount of information flying around regarding the cable industry, finding cheap cable TV is generally pretty straightforward. Prices and packages tend to vary far less than they do on higher tier plans, which makes your ordering decision even easier.
Related: How to Get the Best Cable Deals
Cheap Cable TV Options
With so many different packages out there, from 10 channels all the way up to 400 or more, the term "cheap cable" can definitely be subjective. Your idea of affordable pay TV may be just the bare essentials like local networks, or it may be getting all of your favorite sports channels and other frills at a bargain rate. No matter what you're looking for, the following advice can help you get the best deal on cable for your budget and preferences.
The cheapest cable TV option is usually called basic or limited. This package typically includes 10 or more channels, including those such as:
- PEG access channels (public, educational, and governmental)
Other channels that come with cheap cable will vary depending on where you live. For example, I live near the Canadian border so the basic cable plan in my area comes with a couple of Canadian networks, like CBET. When you compare cable TV providers by ZIP code using our convenient tool, you'll be able to see which stations are offered with basic cable in your area.
Channels that come with the cheap cable TV tier may also include other content, depending on the provider you choose. Comcast XFINITY packages, including their Limited Cable option, come with an array of music channels. AT&T's basic lineup, on the other hand, lacks the wide choice of music channels but comes with the new Taylor Swift NOW network as part of an exclusive deal, giving only AT&T subscribers access to the channel.
Cheap cable packages range in price between about $10 and $25, depending on which cable providers are available in your area.
Expanded Basic Cable
Expanded cable is a solid cheap TV service option for those who want a little more variety than basic cable without going overboard. Cable providers may market this package under different names. For example, Comcast calls expanded basic cable "Digital Economy". Channels vary from provider to provider, however commonly networks with expanded basic cable include:
- Food Network
- Cartoon Network
- Animal Planet
What you won't get with expanded basic cable are networks like ESPN and HGTV. Still, as far as cheap cable services go, expanded is an affordable option with plenty of popular viewing choices.
If you're in the market for both cheap cable and internet services, bundling is a great way to go. Internet and TV bundles like these offer you the opportunity to get a discount on your services by getting them from the same company. There are a few things to keep in mind if you're going to go with bundling in order to get cheap internet and cable:
- As a general rule, internet and cable packages are made up of similar service tiers. This means that if you want gigabit-speed fiber-optic internet, it won't likely come in a plan with just local channels. Most providers do allow you to request custom bundles, however, so it doesn't hurt to call and see if you can get two tiers which wouldn't normally come together.
- Bundles may come with contract or service agreement requirements. Make sure you know all of the terms before making a commitment.
- Take all costs into account, including equipment rental for all services you're ordering, as well as any taxes and fees that aren't included in the advertised price.
If you take advantage of an introductory offer for your cable and/or internet services, the most important thing to know is that you might have to take action to make sure your bill stays affordable.
When you're researching cheap TV and internet plans, make sure to look up the costs of each service on its own so that you can make sure you're actually going to save money by bundling.
Related: How to Get Cheap Internet Service
The Best Cheap Cable TV Providers
Even if you only have one or two choices in terms of cable providers in your area you will likely still be able to choose from among a couple of cheap cable TV plans. Here are a few of the most affordable options offered by major providers. Remember that introductory and promotional rates change frequently, so check with your local cable providers to find out their most current offerings.
- Verizon FiOS: What I like about this provider is their affordability and the fact that you're getting the latest technology (fiber optics). The Verizon Fios TV Local package comes with 15+ channels for just $10 per month for a year. There's no set-top box required, and the Broadcast TV Surcharge is $2.99, which is on the industry's low side. As far as cheap cable and internet bundles, Verizon shines there as well. Get local TV channels plus 50 Mbps fiber internet for $50 a month for the first year. The downside is that Verizon Fios is only available in nine states so far. You can learn more about Verizon's channel lineup here.
- AT&T U-Verse: Like other cheap cable offerings, AT&T U-Verse TV features a bare-bones plan with local networks plus other low-tier channels. Dubbed U-Basic, this limited cable plan costs around $20 for the service, plus a $5 Broadcast TV Surcharge. If you already have U-Verse internet, it makes sense to go with the cheap cable TV they offer as well. You may have to contact AT&T directly to find out about cable and internet bundles as they do not list U-Basic packages on their website. Like with Verizon, you can read more information regarding AT&T U-Verse TV channel lineup here.
- Comcast XFINITY: The draw with Comcast's Cable TV packages is their deeply discounted introductory rate. At the time of this writing, you can get the Xfinity Digital Economy package for around $20 per month for the first 12 months. That's certainly cheap cable TV service, considering you get 45+ channels, including popular choices like Food Network and CNN. There are two things to remember, however - Comcast charges a Broadcast TV Fee of up to $6.50 per month in some locations (and in fact, there is currently a class-action lawsuit filed over this fee). Additionally, if you don't cancel or renegotiate your terms at the end of the promotional period the price jumps to $40 a month. Comcast's lowest tier, Limited Basic, comes in at a regular rate of $25 per month. You can explore Comcast's channel lineup information here if you'd like to learn more.
Ultimately your options for cheap cable service will be determined by your location, so don't forget to check availability in your area using our zip code checker tool.
Related: We rank and compare the best Cable TV Providers in this buyer's guide.
After the First Year
As you can tell by most of the above offers, cheap cable doesn't necessarily stay that way. If you take advantage of an introductory offer for your cable and/or internet services, the most important thing to know is that you might have to take action to make sure your bill stays affordable. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take so that your cheap TV service doesn't turn into expensive TV.
- Call your provider before your promotional rate expires. It's much more difficult to negotiate a cheap cable price after retail rates go back into effect.
- Know what prices everyone else is getting. In order to negotiate your way into the cheapest cable rates, you need to know how much of a discount the market will bear. Talk to friends and family, and look at other introductory offers available in your area.
- Don't be afraid to switch cable providers. If you have more than one choice of cheap cable companies in your area, you've got a little leverage. If your current provider doesn't want to extend your rate over the next six months to a year, be prepared to walk.
If you got your cheap internet and cable as part of a bundle, it's especially important to pay attention when your promotional period is coming to an end. Once these services revert to regular rates they may actually cost more than purchasing each component separately. When it comes to cheap cable, it's all about doing the math.
The Changing Face of Cheap TV Service
I really like journalist Bob Sullivan's take on the current cable television climate - "It's a great time to be a pay TV consumer." It may seem like a counter-intuitive philosophy, but it makes sense given the speed with which alternative viewing innovations are barreling onto the market.
You may be shopping for cheap cable TV because you're streaming some of your content, or maybe you're just watching less TV in general. Regardless of the reason, competition between cable services and top live streaming options like Sling TV and Dish Network's Flex Pack are making it easier for you to strike a bargain with your cable provider.
As technology brings us more and more choices in terms of affordable ways to watch our favorite programming, the availability of cheap TV service should only increase. This is good news for you as a budget-conscious consumer and puts you in a better position to get great rates on your media services.
In order to get the cheapest prices for your cable TV service, know what kind of programming you want, compare all available providers' rates, and work with your chosen provider to negotiate a package that works for you.
Whether you're working with a customer service representative on the phone or through live chat, be polite yet firm. Sticking to your needs and budget allows you to resist being talked into packages you're not interested in. With a little time and legwork, you can find the services you want at a price you can afford.