Linear TV: A Streaming Service

Linear TV refers to traditional broadcast television that streams scheduled programming on set channels at specific airtimes.

Unlike on-demand services, linear TV adheres to programmed schedules and requires viewers to watch shows at their designated timeslots.

While streaming and on-demand video has boomed in popularity, linear TV still retains certain advantages that continue to make it a staple of home entertainment for many viewers today.

Linear TV: A Streaming Service

How Linear TV Works

Linear television relies on traditional broadcast infrastructure to deliver scheduled programs to consumers through over-the-air signals or cable/satellite subscriptions. The process works as follows:

  • Programming – Networks, local affiliates, and other channels curate their linear schedules consisting of shows, news, sports, movies, specials, and more. This creates channel guides.
  • Distribution – The channel distributes its live or prerecorded linear feeds through satellites, fiber networks, or over-the-air terrestrial signals.
  • Transmission – Signals are transmitted to consumers through cable/satellite set-top boxes or OTA antennas tuned to the channel frequency.
  • Tuning – The consumer selects the desired channel on their platform to start receiving and displaying the linear video feed in real time per the schedule.

This scheduled, channel-based system makes linear TV viewing more passive since viewers only have a choice over which pre-programmed channel to watch rather than full control on-demand.

Types of Linear TV Platforms

While declining, linear TV can still be accessed across several platforms:

  • Cable TV – Multi-channel packages delivered via coaxial cable infrastructure offer networks like ESPN, CNN, MTV, and hundreds more.
  • Satellite TV – Companies like DirecTV and Dish provide hundreds of linear channels transmitted from satellites orbiting Earth.
  • OTA Antennas – Over-the-air antennas can receive broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox transmitted terrestrially.
  • Live TV Streaming – Services like YouTube TV, Hulu Live, Sling TV, etc. provide live online streams of linear channels.
  • Network Apps – Many networks like ESPN and HGTV offer live streams of their linear feed through branded mobile apps or sites.
  • Network Websites – Networks also live stream their linear channel on their official websites, usually requiring TV provider authentication.

Today’s options make linear TV readily accessible across both traditional pay TV and internet-delivered platforms.

What’s the Difference Between Linear TV, OTT, CTV, and Cable TV?

Linear TV vs. OTT

Linear TV refers to traditional broadcast television that airs programs on a fixed schedule. Viewers have to tune in at a specific time to watch a show.

OTT (over-the-top) refers to streaming video services delivered over the internet, like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, etc. OTT is on-demand, allowing viewers to watch content whenever they want. Key differences:

  • Linear TV is limited to what’s currently airing live, OTT offers extensive on-demand libraries.
  • Linear TV comes through a TV or cable set-top box, OTT is viewed through internet-connected devices.
  • Linear TV relies on networks and broadcasting, while OTT requires a streaming subscription.
  • Linear TV has scheduled programming and ads, OTT allows ad-free viewing on your own time.

Linear TV vs. CTV

CTV (connected TV) refers to TV sets and devices like Roku, Fire TV, and Apple TV that connect directly to the internet to access streaming services.

This allows access to both linear TV through cable or over-the-air channels and OTT streaming options all on one device. Key differences:

  • Linear TV is accessible on both traditional TVs and CTVs, OTT requires a CTV device.
  • Linear TV offers scheduled cable/network programming, and CTV expands options to include on-demand streaming libraries.
  • Viewing linear TV on a CTV still has fixed schedules and ads, streaming through a CTV allows ad-free, on-demand viewing.

Linear TV vs. Cable TV

Cable TV refers specifically to linear television delivered via a paid cable subscription, like Xfinity, Spectrum, etc. This provides access to cable networks and content packages through a set-top box. Key differences:

  • Cable TV is a way to access linear TV channels, while linear TV can also be accessed through over-the-air broadcasting.
  • Cable TV requires a paid subscription, and linear TV over-the-air broadcasting is free.
  • Cable TV provides more channel options than free broadcast linear TV.
  • Cable TV viewing still follows linear schedules, while also providing some on-demand content.

Pros and Cons of Launching a Linear TV Service


  • Fixed programming can attract dedicated viewership and drive real-time engagement.
  • Linear TV allows for predictable scheduling and seamless integration of ads.
  • The linear format provides users with a lean-back viewing experience versus having to choose.
  • Linear channels are familiar and recognizable to mainstream TV audiences.


  • Requires significant upfront investment and operating costs for content and distribution.
  • Limited flexibility compared to on-demand programming.
  • At the mercy of fixed schedules, making it hard to compete with on-demand benefits.
  • Declining viewership as the audience shifts to streaming on-demand content.
  • Must compete for ad dollars with digital platforms.

Advantages of Linear Television

While the popularity of on-demand streaming grows, linear TV retains some advantages:

  • Ease of viewing – No searching or decisions required; just turn on the channel and start watching what’s airing.
  • Watercooler effect – Shared cultural experience of watching events like finales or awards shows live simultaneously.
  • Sense of discovery – Stumbling upon entertainment while flipping channels can expose viewers to new content.
  • Background noise – Provides ambient “company” and background audio for some viewers.
  • Live audience – Watching a program as it airs makes you feel part of a larger engaged audience.
  • Consistent schedule – Habit-forming nature creates a sense of stability and routine for regular viewers.
  • Timely access – News, sports, and event coverage air on linear in real-time as they occur.
  • Less choice paralysis – Avoidance of decision fatigue from having to actively select from a vast on-demand catalog.
  • Personalized curation – Networks program channels to appeal to particular tastes and interests.
  • Watercooler effect – Shared cultural experience of watching events like finales or awards shows live simultaneously.

Drawbacks of Linear TV

However, linear television does have some limitations compared to on-demand that explain its shrinking role:

  • Lack of control – No ability to pause or rewind live TV or choose specific episodes/movies on demand.
  • Appointment viewing – Requires conforming viewing habits to air schedules rather than watching on your own time.
  • Interruptions – Linear feed includes advertising commercial breaks that interrupt the programming.
  • Content limitations – Only the particular program airing live is available, not full series or catalogs.
  • Rigid bundles – Channels are often only offered via expensive, lengthy cable/satellite packages rather than a la carte.
  • Platform constraints – Traditionally requires a TV and set-top box rather than multi-device access.
  • Session viewing – Difficult to stop and resume a program you’re invested in midway on a different device.
  • Spoilers – Watercooler talk on social media often reveals plot details before West Coast viewers watch recordings.
  • Signal reliability – Inclement weather or other interference can disrupt over-the-air or satellite transmissions.

Streaming’s Impact

The rise of on-demand streaming has greatly impacted linear television viewing:

  • Declining cable/satellite subscriptions as viewers shift to streaming for its flexibility and cost savings.
  • Audience fragmentation across many services means far fewer watercooler shows with mass simultaneous viewership.
  • Appointment viewing becoming outdated among younger generations accustomed to always-available on-demand libraries.
  • Binge-watching on services like Netflix training viewers to resist commercial breaks and weekly releases.
  • Many viewers wait to binge a linear series after it hits a streaming service rather than watching live.
  • Services like Netflix dropping full seasons at once rather than formal episode releases.
  • Linear ratings declining across broadcast and cable, especially among younger demographics.
  • Networks focused on leveraging streaming and online platforms in addition to traditional linear broadcasts.

Yet Linear retains enough of an audience, especially older viewers, to remain a valuable component of networks’ distribution strategies. The ad revenue model also continues to generate substantial revenue for cable channels.

But the medium faces ongoing evolution in response to changing viewer habits in the streaming era.

The Future of Linear TV

Here are some possible ways linear television may continue to adapt in the years ahead:

  • More cable-like live TV streaming bundles are offered directly to consumers online without long-term contracts.
  • Shift from ad-supported only to hybrid models with ads and paid subscriptions.
  • Increased use of VOD libraries to complement live streams and capture replay viewing.
  • Further fragmentation as niche streaming channels emerge.
  • Developing interactive second-screen experiences to engage viewers of live broadcasts.
  • Leveraging data to better personalize and target linear ad placement based on viewer profiles.
  • Integrating streaming capabilities directly into smart TVs rather than external devices.
  • Providing greater access to live linear feeds across more mobile and connected devices.
  • More broadcast stations transitioning to ATSC 3.0 for higher-quality over-the-air transmission.
  • Offering greater flexibility around live pausing, restarting, and catching up on recently aired programs.

While linear TV remains in flux, networks are taking steps to modernize viewing, advertising, and streaming capabilities to better co-exist with on-demand services going forward.

But linear will likely never regain its former dominance as viewer habits continue evolving.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q1. What is the difference between linear TV and on-demand streaming?

Ans. Linear TV schedules programs at fixed times on channels while streaming on-demand allows choosing any show or movie to watch instantly online.

Q2. Do I need an internet connection for linear TV?

Ans. You need the internet if streaming a linear channel online. But cable, satellite, or over-the-air antenna linear TV can work without the internet installed.

Q3. Can I pause or rewind live linear TV?

Ans. Traditional linear broadcasting cannot be manipulated or time-shifted. However, platforms like TiVo DVRs and some live TV streaming services allow pausing or rewinding capabilities.

Q4. Does linear TV require contracts?

Ans. Cable and satellite typically involve long-term contracts. Streaming TV bundles go month-to-month. OTA antenna linear TV has no contracts or fees.

Q5. Why is linear TV advertising declining?

Ans. Linear TV ads face challenges as viewership declines and shifts to streaming. Younger audiences watch less linear TV which reduces the reach of traditional TV commercials over time.

Andrea Wilson
Andrea Wilson

Andrea Wilson is an expert in finding simple and cost-effective alternatives to traditional TV. With years under her belt, she's a trusted voice in the cord-cutting community.

She has dedicated countless hours to in-depth research, guiding viewers how to stream their favourite shows without a cable subscription. she's an avid hiker, a mystery novel enthusiast and a dog lover.