Magoosh English Lesson: Cable Television

Welcome to the next lesson in this series of Magoosh’s free English classes

In this series, we will advance your English skills through learning about American Television

Have you ever wondered how your favorite shows get to your tv screen? Well wonder no more! In this lesson we’re going to explore everything about cable television.


  • Learn terms related to the world of television
  • Explore the history of how cable and satellite tv made its way into millions of homes
  • Learn the mechanics of what makes cable and satellite tv work
  • Learn about a set of verbs that change meaning if they’re followed by a gerund or an infinitive

Difficulty Level: Advanced

Time: Approximately 15 minutes


Cable Television

As of 2019, there were over 46 million cable subscribers in America. Granted, this is a significant reduction in the number of subscribers from the heyday of the early 2000s, but it’s still a significant piece of the national television market. How did so many people get connected to these services and how does it work?

The Beginning

John Walson created the first cable television system in 1948 so that his small Pennsylvania valley town would have access to television. The problem with broadcast TV is that the broadcast signal is sometimes weak or inaccessible based on the geography. High mountains blocked the signal for his valley town, so Walson set up antennas at the tops of the mountains and retransmitted the signal via cable.

From this small town solution, a television revolution was born, but not immediately. Cable companies began operating commercially in the 1950s. However, they would have to cut through a lot of red tape from the FCC and advance technologically in order to turn into a profitable business. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that cable television was viable due in part to the technological advancements of satellite tv.

Transmitting to Satellites

TV networks began transmitting their programming to satellites in orbit that would then retransmit that signal to a cable network station on the ground. In addition, cable companies switched their coaxial cable lines to fiber optic cable lines. These lines allowed cable TV signals to travel over very long distances with little interference and better quality and could service over 500 households. This combination is the foundation of cable television.

Cable companies began offering their channel subscription packages to neighborhoods in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s. The number of channels in a package expanded over time as technology helped increase the bandwidth of cable TV systems. Also, scrambling technology allowed cable companies to offer premium and pay-per-view channels at an additional cost.

The Internet

Eventually, cable technology allowed companies to package internet services with their TV packages. Also, the companies switched from analog technology to digital technology which required the use of cable boxes to receive programming.

However, cable companies are quickly losing customers to cord cutters. We’ll explore the rise of TV streaming and the technology that makes it work in the next lesson!


Word Focus

  • Heyday – (noun) – A period of time where something or someone has their highest success or popularity.

The team had fallen over the years and couldn’t find a path of return to their heyday status from three decades ago.

  • Television Market – (noun) – Also known as a media market. An area where the population receives similar television or media offerings. These markets can be divided in a variety of ways based on location.

The New York City television market has over 6.5 million tv households.

  • Antenna– (noun) – Any device used to transmit or receive TV signals (or radio).

We purchased a new HD antenna for my grandfather, so he can watch the news with better quality.

  • Retransmit– (verb) – To transmit a signal from another from another transmitter to another receiver.

We lived too far from the source signal, so the company set up another antenna to retransmit for our neighborhood.

  • Cut through red tape– (idiom) – To get around legislative obstacles with a purpose or goal.

We were finally able to break ground on the new housing development but had to cut through a lot of red tape.

  • Coaxial Cable – (noun) – A shielded electrical cable able to carry a high frequency signal with a small amount of loss.

Coaxial cables are used in a variety of devices and can carry signals like broadband internet signals and cable television.

  • Fiber Optic Cable – (noun) – Similar to an electrical cable, but contains one or more optical fibers. Optical fibers are made of silica glass or plastic and have roughly the thickness of a human hair. Also, the fibers carry light signals instead of electrical signals.

Long range fiber optic cables are usually made from glass and short range are made from plastic.

  • Channel Subscription Package – (noun) – A body of channels a customer receives from a cable company that is typically paid as part of a monthly subscription.

Our cable bill kept going up so we altered our channel subscription package.

  • Bandwidth – (noun) – A number of frequencies within a band. The frequencies are used to transmit signals.

Each channel is assigned a specific bandwidth frequency at which they can transmit their programming.

  • Scrambling Technology – (noun) – An electronic device used to distort a signal so a viewer can’t see it without authorization. No longer necessary with digital TV.

Premium and pay-per-view channels used scrambling technology to prevent people from viewing their programming without paying.

  • Premium/Pay-Per-View Channel – (noun) – A channel or program that is outside of a channel subscription package that costs an extra fee.

HBO was the original premium channel whereas boxing and wrestling matches were typically pay-per-view.

  • Cable Box – (noun) – A device (box) that retransmits television signals into a television set.

Most cable companies require that you rent a cable box from them at a monthly rate. This is another reason for the rise in cord cutting.

  • Cord Cutter – (informal noun) – The pattern of individuals cancelling cable and satellite subscription services in favor of media available on the internet.

Cable and satellite companies lost over 1 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2019. Most of the subscribers are cord cutters who moved to television streaming services.


Grammar Center

Read the sentence from the passage below:

Cable companies began operating commercially in the 1950s.

Would the meaning of this sentence change if the writer had written the sentence as shown below?

Cable companies began to operate commercially in the 1950s

Nope! No difference at all.

That’s because the verb begin can be used with a gerund or infinitive if the action is used in a non-continuous tense.

However, if begin is used in a continuous tense, only the infinitive can be used.

Cable companies are beginning to operate commercially.

But the meaning of the sentence has changed.

Begin is part of a set of verbs that can have different meanings based on whether they are followed by a gerund or an infinitive. That list includes verbs like: dread, forget, keep, need, regret, remember, start, stop, and try.

Let’s look at the past tense of the verb ‘forget’ to examine this grammar concept.

She forgot playing in the park as a kid.

The sentence above uses a gerund with forget. In that situation, it implies that she used to play in the park as a kid, but forgot about it.

She forgot to take her dog to the park yesterday.

When forget is used with an infinitive, it implies that she forgot to do something that she needed to do.

Both sentences use the same verb, but the meaning changes based on the gerund or infinitive used.

As an advanced speaker, it’s important to be able to understand these differences in order to communicate more effectively. We won’t go into more detail on the subject here, but you can click that link above for information on this topic. And for tips and tricks on other grammar topics, be sure to visit the English Grammar Category of the Magoosh Speaking Blog.




1. Based on your understanding of the passage above, which statement best describes the main idea of the passage?

A. Cable companies fought the government and won their right to provide cable services to the masses.
B. Satellites were key to the evolution of cable TV.
C. Cable TV has a long history and evolved over time through business and technology.
D. Cable companies were at the top of the market, but are losing business to cord cutters.


2. What is the main weakness of a broadcast signal?

A. The signal doesn’t work with coaxial cable lines.
B. It’s sometimes weak or inaccessible based on geography.
C. It requires scrambling technology.
D. It must be retransmitted.


3. A fiber optic cable uses what to carry a signal?

A. Electricity
B. Water
C. Radio 
D. Light


4. Cable companies used scrambling technology with which kind of signal?

A. Analog
B. Digital


5. Which of the sentences below is written correctly?

A. I keep forgetting telling her about the back door.
B. I keep forget to tell her about the back door.
C. I keep to forget to tell her about the back door.
D. I keep forgetting to tell her about the back door.


6. If the word begin is used in the continuous tense it can be followed by a:

A. Gerund
B. Infinitive
C. Both



  1. C
  2. B
  3. D
  4. A
  5. D
  6. B


Jake Pool

Jake Pool

Jake Pool worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade and left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. In his time at Magoosh, he's worked with hundreds of students and has created content that's informed—and hopefully inspired!—ESL students all across the globe. Jake records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension as he also works as a voice-over artist who has been featured in commercials and on audiobooks. You can read his posts on the Magoosh blog and see his other work on his portfolio page at You can follow him on LinkedIn!
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