Tech Tuesday: How do TV services work?


As video streaming services gain more popularity, people are switching away from traditional cable TV subscriptions, with more than 20 percent of American households “cutting the cord” last year.

Services such as Netflix and Hulu are enjoying increased revenue shares from this “cord cutting” movement, gaining an additional 30 percent in revenue. About 21 percent of all American households are expected to have cut the cord by the end of this year, according to Fortune.

Television services can be obtained from three general sources: cable, satellite and online streaming. The oldest of these is cable television, followed by satellite and, most recently, streaming.

Originally, only four television companies existed, each sending out their own frequencies to be received by antennas in the area. However, only antennas that were not obstructed could receive the signal, so those living in valleys or other remote areas could not receive a signal, according to

This led people in Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Oregon to create their own reception enhancement solutions in 1948. They put antennas on hills or other high points and ran cables down to their houses, according to the site.

People came together and created “community antennas,” sharing the signal with each other. By 1952, 70 of these “cable” systems were working to serve 14,000 people across the country, according to the website for the California Cable and Telecommunications Association.

A few years later, people who operated these antennas began to focus on getting more distant signals, enabling programs to reach farther outside of their local areas.

As cable systems began to spread, television manufacturers added a switch to let people control which channel frequencies they received. The switch allowed users to access a wider variety of channels, according to How Stuff Works.

The dishes that received television signal changed over time to accept a wider variety of channels. Alongside this, the cable itself that brings programming to the television advanced to improve quality, according to the site.

In the 1970s, fiber-optic cables were developed. They are made of glass and could effectively transmit signals over a long distance without losing much quality. They could also serve hundreds of homes at once, so programs could be more targeted if needed, according to the site.

Eventually, in the 1980s, digital technology was developed to allow multiple channels to be transmitted in a smaller bandwidth range. This meant customers could receive almost 1,000 channels compared to the 91 they would have with a regular antenna, according to the site.

Further, this technology prevented “scrambled” channels by encrypting the signal. Only televisions with the right key to decode the signal could show the channel, so any channel that could not be decrypted only showed the famous blue screen, according to the site.

In the 1990s, satellite television was introduced to the general public. It offers solutions to the problems cable television has, such as greater audio and video quality as well as a wider variety of programming, according to the site.

Much like cable, satellite television uses an antenna to transmit signals to the customer. But cable television keeps that antenna on the ground, reaching only a small area. Satellite television can reach a much wider area by sending the signal from a satellite orbiting the Earth, according to the site.

Broadcast signals are sent from the programming source to the satellite broadcast provider. From there, it is sent to a satellite orbiting the Earth and received by modules connected to or part of the television, according to the website for Comcast.

Satellite television differs from cable by primarily being available only to customers with a clear view of the sky, so any potential obstruction will ruin all signals whereas cable television only needs a cable to access the customer, according to the site.

Further, satellite television is highly dependent on the weather, so poor weather like thunderstorms or strong winds can cause signal loss. It also requires a special satellite dish on top of the customer’s home to receive the signal, while cable has neither of these issues, according to the site.

Despite this, satellite does provide greater audio and video quality and can provide more secluded locations with greater number and quality of programming, according to How Stuff Works.

Compared to both of these options, streaming television is completely different, as it uses the internet to transmit programming rather than an antenna. For this reason, it has the potential to be accessed by more customers but is restricted by the bandwidth required to stream content, according to

Streamed content has to be produced, stored so they can be streamed on demand, processed to become deliverable over the Internet, encrypted and finally received by the customer, according to the site.

The faults of streamed content are that it requires a lot of storage space for its content, the ability to support many clients at once and retain quality in the event information is lost during transmission to the customer, according to the site.

Despite these disadvantages, online-only services allow customers to only pay for what they want to watch, making it better suited for their viewing habits. 38 percent of people aged 21 to 34 say they plan to switch from cable and satellite services to an online-only service, according to a report by Nielsen.

Harshel Patel is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry. He is the digital editor of The Daily Targum. He can be found on Twitter @harshel_p.

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