Eli5: Network vs Cable vs Streaming


From my experience, after I bought the TV, I just paid monthly to Bell which was a telecommunication company in my country (Canada), and they connected a receiver (a black box) to my TV which allowed me to watch the channels. No antenna or cable box involved. So I’m just confused about how you can watch Network and Cable after you buy a TV.

Also, on smart TVs, Network and Cable channels have their streaming apps. We know they have to follow governmental rules (no nudity or profanity, etc.) due to the way they broadcast their content. But now that they are streaming their content on their apps, why do they still have to follow these rules? Because streaming services like Netflix don’t have to follow these rules.

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When you say “network” I think you’re talking about channels that broadcast over the air (OTA). Not sure about Canada’s lineup, but in the US, the most common OTA networks are ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and Fox. There’s a few others, but that largely depends on your region.

These networks can all be watched for free without the need of cable/satellite/internet services. Up until maybe 10-15 years ago, TVs with built in antennaes could receive these OTA signals without any additional equipment. As new technology (SD, HD, UHD, 4K, etc) developed, the networks improved their OTA broadcasts to accommodate this, but it required the consumer to purchase a digital antenna to receive this new signal.

These antenna are compatible with just about any TV as long as it has a coax jack on the back…so even televisions from the 80s or a brand new tv from 2022 can receive these OTA networks without the need of a subscription service.

Now, as to why certain networks can’t show nudity or use profane language, that answer is simple: Federal Regulation. All broadcast media is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). I assume there’s a Canadian counterpart for this. FCC guidelines are fairly simple regarding anything being broadcast OTA – no nudity, no profanity, no excessive blood/gore/violence. I’m pretty sure the regulations still apply to their streaming services, but even if they could get around that, it’s probably not worth it to them to start producing more adult driven content. That content would (a) only be available through the app, so the available audience is still really limited, (b) People probably don’t want to have to put parental controls/locks on every damn streaming service they have, (c) if the app still relies on advertising revenue to be profitable, then advertisers will still probably demand the content be more “family friendly.”

Other networks that do not have an OTA broadcast aren’t necessarily governed by those same rules. These would be networks that are only available through cable/satellite/streaming services such as AMC, TNT, TBS, etc etc.

These networks are far more “relaxed” than the big OTA networks and the shows and movies they show often have more profanity and violence, but they still keep the nudity under wraps. The reason for this is advertising. These networks still rely on advertising (commercials) revenue to make money, so if AMC decides to air Beverly Hills Cop on a Saturday afternoon and the advertisers who are paying for commercial time during that time slot say that they want the PG version, not the R rated version, then you’re going to be watching a heavily edited version of the movie.

And then there’s add on premium channels like HBO or Showtime. These channels can basically do whatever the hell they want because they don’t have to comply with OTA regulations and they also don’t have commercials, so there’s no advertiser demands to concede to. This is the same for other big streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.

As for the difference between OTA, Cable, Streaming, it’s fairly simple:

OTA = Completely free to watch but limited channel availability.

Cable = A paid service that sends the signal to your television through a cable. The set top box is used to translate the data so that it displays properly on your TV.

Streaming = A paid (or free) service that sends the signal to your television via internet connection and doesn’t require any additional cables or equipment (unless you choose to use a streaming device such as AppleTV, Roku, etc).

In this example, Bell is your cable company.

Back in the day, cable TV was provided by a cable TV provider and telephone was provided by a phone provider. In most areas of Canada that would have been Bell for phone and Rogers for cable. Both of these companies had actual cables installed on top of telephone poles that ran from their central systems into everyone’s homes.

So, the cable company ran one kind of wire that carried TV signals and the phone company ran another kind of wire that carried phone signals.

Over time, both of those systems have gone digital so the actual kind of cable that’s attached to your home mattered less and less and eventually both phone and cable service companies switched to providing this service over a fiber cable. But that’s not really important to this question.

Today what Bell is providing to you is cable TV, the box they have you connect to your TV is your cable box.

Connected with all of this is that the “over the air” networks also transitioned from the old fashioned analog signal to a more modern digital one.

In Canada the broadcast networks are CTV, Global and CBC. In most of Canada we can also pickup the major American networks of ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and FOX. Not everywhere can access everything though, where I live (Nova Scotia) we are to far away to get the American Networks on broadcast.

But they are all included in a cable package, both the major American networks and the Canadian equivalents.

You’re correct that the rules all change when you are talking about streaming, broadcast and cable. In general CTV could choose to show nudity on their CTV app and it would not be against the rules. But in general CTV chooses not to do this because it’s against the brand image that they want to cultivate.

But there’s ways around this. CTV’s parent company is the same company that owns Bell (BCE). BCE also owns Crave and Crave shows a lot of HBO content. So if CTV wanted to make a show with nudity involved they would simply have it shown on Crave and not the CTV app.