Broadcast TV channels are those that are broadcast over the air and are freely available to anyone with a TV tuner (these channels include ABC, NBC, CBS, and others). Cable, on the other hand, refers to channels that can only be accessed with a cable, satellite, or internet provider (these include the more niche networks such as Food Network, TBS, HGTV, and MTV). So what’s the difference? The key distinction is that broadcast TV channels, since they are considered public access, are bound by certain FCC laws, while cable channels aren’t. This means that there are certain pieces of content that broadcast channels aren’t allowed to air (especially during certain times of day). Plus, since cable networks can be supported by customer subscription, some of them don’t have advertising.
There’s also a subcategory of cable channels known as “pay cable” channels. These include the high-end (and high-priced) exclusive networks like HBO, Starz, Showtime, and others. These networks are essentially a genre all their own, and generally broadcast nothing but movies. But these stations tend to play by their own rules, so we’ll get to them later.
This censorship isn’t always problematic. For instance, if one f-word is the only piece of content in a film to earn it a PG-13 rating, and the word is silenced or bleeped out on TV, one can assume what the word is, and overall, no artistic vision is lost. The problem only comes when films are muddled with omitted scenes, excessive blurring, or (my favorite) so many overdubbed stand-in cuss words that it becomes distracting.
A big difference between movies and TV is aspect ratio—the comparison of how wide the picture is and how tall the picture is. Since televisions have a set screen size, TV shows have had two standard aspect ratios: 4:3 (fullscreen or standard definition) and 16:9 (widescreen, high definition, or 4K UHD). 4:3 has been the norm for the majority of TV history, and is the aspect ratio of all pre-2000s shows. 16:9 came to replace it when high definition came to be the norm, and is now a strict industry standard (it’s now nearly impossible to find any current content not in 16:9 HD; it’s the ratio of your TV screen and the computer or phone you’re reading this on). Here’s the point I’m trying to make: while TV shows and made-for-TV content have a standard size, movies do not (at least not since 1952).
Pan-and-scan refers to when broadcasters crop and pan over the image of a film so that it fits the standard 16:9 aspect ratio. One can easily see how this process is problematic. First and foremost, it cuts out a piece of the image for each shot in the film. Plus, if the broadcaster “pans” as well, they are essentially redirecting the film to fit their vision—not that of the auteur. For instance, they may have to replace a still shot with a moving shot to keep a key element in frame.
This editing may not seem like such a big problem to most, but it can be detrimental to a film, since it can lower its overall scope, reconstruct and disrupt its visual style, and (most importantly) destroy the mise-en-scene that the auteur has created. Take this shot from one of my favorite films, 2001: A Space Odyssey:
Now don’t get me wrong—some TV stations who play by their own rules strip away all these problems. For instance, some all-movie cable channels like TCM, who understand the storytelling process of a film and respect it as a piece of art, will usually show movies completely unedited: with no interruptions, with no content omitted or edited, and in their original aspect ratios. Others may only introduce one of the three major problems. For instance, most “pay cable” movie channels will show movies uninterrupted and unedited, but may pan-and-scan them. It’s still problematic, but it’s less trouble than dealing with all three.
There are other benefits to watching movies at home by other means besides seeing the film uninterrupted and unedited, and the biggest of these is quality. I’ve found that the picture quality of most standard def DVDs is equal to that of most HD broadcasts. And of course, Blu-rays look best, and in my opinion, are the best way to watch films at home: their picture quality is unmatched by any other means, they have a sound quality that’s technically unobtainable by any other means, and there’s almost no chance of interruption, which can happen with other means via a scratch on a DVD (which is unlikely due to Blu-rays’ protective layers) or via a flaky internet connection during streaming.
For this article, I originally wanted to compose a list of TV stations that show movies and note which ones allowed for each problem, but I am unfortunately unable to compose such a list for various reasons. Therefore, I will leave this as my conclusion: Watching movies on TV is more trouble than it’s worth, since there are too many potential problems, and since watching by other means is more beneficial. Respectful channels such as TCM are safe, most cable channels are iffy, and broadcast channels are dangerous—beware.