The 10 Best TV Channels for Quality Programming

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Jason

Written by Jason Lin

Best Channels On Tv

Watching quality television programming has gone from a passive leisure activity to an immersive entertainment experience. With so many channels and streaming platforms competing for viewers’ attention, finding shows that are worth your time has become a chore.

This definitive guide cuts through the noise to highlight the top 10 TV channels known for airing prestigious, critically-acclaimed series across genres like drama, comedy, documentary, and more. We’ll outline the standout programs each channel offers and provide tips on the most affordable ways to access these channels.

Overview of Top Channels

When deciding which channels made the cut, priority was given to those airing multiple groundbreaking, award-winning series spanning both past and present. Channels producing innovative original programming with high production value, critical acclaim, and cultural impact ranked the highest.

The top 10 channels that stood out are:

  1. HBO
  2. AMC
  3. PBS
  4. Showtime
  5. FX
  6. Hulu
  7. Netflix
  8. BBC America
  9. IFC
  10. Sundance TV

While some may argue other channels deserve to be on this list, these 10 consistently set the standard year after year for quality programming. Now let’s explore each in more detail.

#1 HBO

Hbo Logo

As a premium cable channel, HBO has always focused more on prestige than profits. With an emphasis on respecting creative vision instead of chasing ratings, HBO has fostered some of television’s most groundbreaking series.

From genre-defining shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Game of Thrones to sharp comedies like Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO boasts one of the strongest lineups on television. Some standout HBO series include:

  • The Sopranos – Considered one of the best TV dramas ever made
  • The Wire – Critically-acclaimed inner city crime saga
  • Game of Thrones – Epic fantasy series that became a global phenomenon
  • Girls – Controversial but impactful comedy-drama about millennials
  • Westworld – Futuristic sci-fi western that keeps you guessing

How to Watch: As a premium channel, HBO costs extra no matter how you choose to access it. Many cable packages offer HBO but it doesn’t come cheap, usually $15/month or more. For cord-cutters, HBO Max now offers all HBO programming plus a huge backcatalog of movies and shows for $15.99/month.

#2 AMC

Amc Logo

AMC may have started out as a venue to air classic movies, but for the past 15 years it has been home to some of cable television’s most prestigious dramas.

Critically-acclaimed series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad brought AMC into the cultural zeitgeist and established its reputation for taking risks on unconventional concepts executed with superb writing and production value. Some highlights include:

  • Mad Men – Transportive drama set in the volatile world of 1960s advertising
  • Breaking Bad – Morality tale of family man turned drug kingpin
  • The Walking Dead – Juggernaut hit that made zombies appointment television
  • Better Call Saul – One of few worthy spin-offs in TV history

How to Watch: AMC comes standard in most cable bundles but you can also get it on all major live TV streaming platforms like Sling TV, Hulu Live, YouTube TV and more starting around $40/month.

#3 PBS

Pbs Logo

While it might not attract ratings like the major networks, PBS has long been a bastion for cultural programming often ignored by commercial television.

Home to award-winning documentaries, historical retrospectives, independent films and children’s programming, PBS offers an oasis of substance in an increasingly superficial media landscape. Some highlights include:

  • Frontline – The gold standard for investigative journalism on TV
  • POV – Showcase for compelling independent documentaries
  • Masterpiece Theatre – Brings acclaimed British dramas like Downton Abbey to American audiences
  • Nova and Nature – Commercial-free science and wildlife programming
  • Sesame Street and Arthur – Beloved educational kids shows

How to Watch: The best part is PBS is 100% free with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna or TV tuner. But PBS documentaries and other programming can also be streamed through PBS.org, PBS KIDS app and PBS VIDEO app.

#4 Showtime

Showtime Logo

As a long-time premium channel competitor to HBO, Showtime has more than held its own in recent years with a string of acclaimed original hits.

While HBO still edges out Showtime overall in terms of cultural footprint, Showtime continues to produce compelling, cinematic programming to critical acclaim and growing viewer numbers. Some highlights include:

  • Homeland – Controversial but gripping espionage thriller
  • Billions – Soapy corporate drama with razor-sharp writing
  • Shameless – Unflinching comedy about a dysfunctional working-class family
  • The Affair – An emotional rollercoaster exploring infidelity
  • Dexter – Morally ambiguous drama about serial killer with a code

How to Watch: Like HBO, Showtime is only accessible as a premium add-on, usually running $10–$15 per month depending on your provider. However, many streaming bundles like Hulu Live include Showtime as part of package upgrades.

#5 FX

Fx Logo

Helmed by edgy auteur-producer types like Ryan Murphy and Donald Glover, cable channel FX has always courted controversy with provocative series pushing boundaries.

But beyond the shock value also lies compelling performances and creative vision earning FX a respected position in the era of “prestige TV”. Some highlights include:

  • The People vs OJ Simpson – Riveting dramatization of an American obsession
  • Atlanta – Surreal exploration of culture and identity
  • Fargo – Darkly comedic anthology crime series
  • The Americans – Twisty spy thriller drama set during Cold War
  • Pose – Groundbreaking portrait of 1980s ball culture

How to Watch: FX is included in most standard cable bundles but also offered on all major live TV streaming platforms like Sling TV, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, etc. generally $40–$70 monthly. Can also buy shows on VOD platforms like Amazon, iTunes, etc.

#6 Hulu Originals

Hulu Originals Logo

While Hulu started out as just an on-demand streaming library of other networks’ shows, in recent years Hulu has made its mark with acclaimed original programming and become a prestige TV player.

With talent like Margaret Atwood involved and series racking up Emmy and Golden Globe nods, Hulu Originals can now compete head-to-head with offerings from top-tier channels. Some highlights include:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Dystopian drama based on Margaret Atwood’s revered novel
  • Ramy – Groundbreaking comedy about Muslim American millennial experience
  • The Great – Genre-bending, satirical period piece about Russian empress
  • Little Fires Everywhere – Compelling small town mystery starring Reese Witherspoon
  • Normal People – Nuanced adaptation of acclaimed romance novel

How to Watch: All Hulu Originals are included as part of a Hulu subscription starting at just $7.99 per month. Choose ad-supported or ad-free starting at $14.99 per month.

If you get an error saying your Hulu login has been blocked, see tips in our article on resolving login blocked messages on Hulu.

And if you need help fixing error codes like TVq-100 that prevent streaming, our comprehensive breakdown of TVq error codes can help get you back up and running.

#7 Netflix Originals

Netflix Logo

Another major streaming player establishing itself in original content is Netflix. With an unprecedented budget for programming, Netflix lures elite Hollywood talent and gives them broad creative license.

While results are mixed, numerous Netflix Originals stand their ground against the most acclaimed shows on television. Must-see series include:

  • House of Cards – Slick political thriller that put Netflix Originals on the map
  • Stranger Things – Spielbergian sci-fi ode full of heart and horror
  • The Crown – Lavish historical drama with Emmy award-winning performances
  • Orange Is the New Black – Comedy-drama that humanizes women in prison
  • Ozark – Riveting slow-burn saga about money laundering gone wrong

How to Watch: All Netflix Originals are included with a Netflix streaming subscription starting at $9.99 per month. Choose basic, standard or premium plans.

#8 BBC America

Bbc America Logo

As the home of iconic BBC programming stateside, you can rely on BBC America for more nuanced, emotionally resonant series free from sensationalism or superficiality. UK television often focuses intensely on character development and BBC America brings the best of the genre across the pond. Critically-acclaimed imports include:

  • Killing Eve – Sharp, surprising spy vs assassin thriller
  • Orphan Black – Mind-bending sci-fi drama led by Tatiana Maslany’s virtuoso performances
  • Luther – Gritty psychological crime drama starring Idris Elba
  • Doctor Who and spin-offs – Beloved and genre-bending sci-fi institution

As a caveat, BBC America also airs reality competition shows and dramatic retellings of nature/wildlife stories that tend to sensationalize. But their imported dramas and sci-fi reliably deliver quality.

How to Watch: BBC America comes standard in most cable subscriptions. Also available on live TV streaming platforms like Sling TV and YouTube TV for $40+/month. Past episodes also stream on-demand via BBCAmerica.com.

#9 IFC

Ifc Logo

Original programming created by Independent Film Channel (IFC) tends to fly under the radar but delivers poignant cultural commentary through irony and imperfect characters.

While not every show achieves greatness, IFC Originals take risks and skillfully straddle the line between comedy and drama. The best offerings feature a unique mix of pensiveness and humor. Standouts include:

  • Portlandia — Wacky satirical sketch comedy lampooning hipster culture
  • Documentary Now! — Smart mockumentaries emulating iconic documentaries
  • Stan Against Evil — Horror comedy hybrid with offbeat flair
  • Baroness von Sketch Show — Whip-smart all female sketch comedy

How to Watch: IFC is available on most mainstream cable providers but doesn’t have the brand recognition to always make it on streaming “skinny bundles”. Currently offered on fuboTV but not YouTube TV or Hulu Live. Past episodes can be purchased on VOD platforms.

#10 Sundance TV

Sundance Tv Logo

A niche channel featuring prominent indie films and originals curated by Robert Redford’s acclaimed Sundance Institute. Known for cinematic offerings focused on complex characters that live between extremes. Signature shows include:

  • Rectify — Peabody award-winning drama about ethics surrounding incarceration
  • The Honourable Woman — Globally resonant thriller tackling issues of secrecy, security and change within governments and families
  • State of the Union — Improv-based vignettes exploring relationships at their most fragile through a couple meeting in a pub before marriage counseling

Don’t expect easy plot-driven series — Sundance favors character drama focused on internal conflict more than inciting incidents. Quality over accessibility.

How to Watch: Sundance TV is an amenity channel not always included in mainstream bundles. Currently offered on fuboTV and Philo streaming but requires upgrades on Hulu Live and YouTube TV. Purchase past episodes on VOD or Sundance Now.

For the most affordable ways to access these channels, click on our guides for how to block ads on Hulu, resolve issues with Hulu not working on Apple TV, and Netflix not working on Apple TV or smart TVs. Also check out our recommendations for the best Android TV apps.

Key Takeaways

  • Channels like HBO, AMC and Showtime lead the pack with cinematic original series attracting top-tier Hollywood talent
  • PBS remains the prime spot for commercial-free cultural programming like acclaimed documentaries
  • FX is the go-to for cutting edge originals from visionary auteurs
  • Streaming platforms Hulu and Netflix now compete head-to-head with premium cable offerings
  • BBC America imports some of the most emotionally resonant UK dramas
  • Niche players IFC and Sundance TV feature sharply written originals

Knowing each channel’s strengths helps target the programming most likely to meet your tastes. Hopefully this guide provided tips to efficiently match your viewing habits with the best channels!

Jason
Jason Lin
Tech enthusiast with 10+ years of experience, providing guides, reviews, and tips on Smart TVs, streaming devices, and TV apps.

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