I like having cable TV. More than that, I like having good cable TV. Where I live, Spectrum is the only traditional cable TV offered, and much like other traditional cable companies, they can get pricey after the promotional period ends. That is something I don’t want to deal with, even if the Spectrum cable experience, either through their set-top boxes or through a Roku, is pretty good. If only traditional cable companies could be transparent.
Because I have no interest in dealing with a satellite dish, my next option is an online solution. There’s a few big ones: Sling, AT&T TV Now, Hulu + Live TV, YouTube TV, and Philo. There are a few others beyond that, but these are the major ones. When these services first started, they were attractive because many of them were priced around $40 a month. Over time, the prices have increased higher and higher, reaching the $65 price YouTube TV is at now, up from the $50 I subscribed at a few months ago. Considering this, and because I’ve used all the services but Hulu + Live, in my experience, YouTube TV is second to none. While other services may be initially cheaper, when you option them up to the level of channels and features where YouTube TV is, you’ll find they can reach the same price and the experience of the other services is just not as good. While $65 is not an attractive price, here are at least a few reasons why, at this moment, I’m sticking with YouTube TV.
Before I talk about how great YouTube TV is, let’s compare it to the other services. Take Sling, a service that has barely changed since 2015. Sure, they’ve improved the guide, they’ve neatened up the show info panel, but it’s essentially the same app, and it looks and feels like it. The experience just isn’t as smooth as other platforms, and has glaring issues when viewed from someone going to the service from traditional cable. With DVR on Sling, there are no limits on pausing or fast forwarding with a recorded show, but live TV is a much different game. Few channels allow the user to pause and rewind live TV, and the ones that do don’t allow you to fast forward through commercials. The only way to pause live TV on a channel that doesn’t support it is to record the show, and immediately start playing it. That kind of workaround is just not acceptable.
The same rings true for the other services. The last time I used AT&T TV Now, there was no ability for pausing live TV, but it seems they have added it from what I’ve read. Also from what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem as though they’ve improved the poor performance. Hulu + Live makes you pay for the enhanced DVR to give you pausing live TV, which brings the monthly cost to $64 (look familiar?). Philo on the other hand I really liked. Great overall feel; I just wish they had a channel guide for when you are watching a channel (you have to leave the channel to go to the full screen guide, which stops whatever you are watching). Plus Philo has unlimited DVR like YouTube TV and unlike the other platforms, but the recordings only last 30 days as opposed to YouTube TV’s 9 months, and pausing live TV works, but you can’t fast forward through commercials.
Some of the other platforms feel worse than traditional cable, others are on par, but YouTube TV feels better than cable. YouTube TV maintains the same functionality of DVR on cable, and gains unlimited storage with a recording lasting 9 months, as well as a great easy interface with the ability to remove channels from the guide a user doesn’t care about. That’s worth it to me.
The Amount of Channels and Locals
YouTube TV is not the only service with local channels, but it’s a big reason why I switched from Sling and Philo when I had them.
Philo is able to be $20 a month because they don’t carry locals and channels that air sports, and because sports channels are owned by companies that have other channels, cable providers can either carry it all or carry nothing. So no TBS because sports, no FX because ESPN, and no SyFy because Comcast Sports. That’s a fair amount of channels missing.
Sling has sports channels, but it is able to be $30 for a few reasons. One, they were able to negotiate an a la carte service with the cable channels, probably because they were the first in the game. Plus, I’d imagine a majority of Sling users subscribe to multiple packages, so it can’t be all that much of a loss for cable channels. In addition to packaging categories, they keep Disney-owned channels in their own separate Sling Orange base package. This existed before Disney bought Fox, so not all of the currently owned Disney channels like FX are with Disney Channel, Freeform and ESPN in Sling Orange, but because of how much it costs subscribers for access to ESPN, they’ve separated the service into two base packages: one with: Orange for $30, one without: Blue for $30 (which also comes with a lot more channels), and one with both for $45, and the savings for not having ESPN are insane. Packages are something YouTube TV should adopt.
The second reason Sling is cheaper is because they don’t have local channels. Yes, watching locals through an antenna delivers better audio/video quality and a faster signal compared to the slight delay of cable, but where I am, an antenna doesn’t work very well, and even if it did, there’s no cheap elegant way to DVR local channels. Sling’s AirTV is a joke, and HDHomeRun and Tablo work pretty well, but they are no substitute for using one app that has both locals and cable channels, and there’s where YouTube TV, or another service with locals, becomes very attractive, even if I am paying more for that experience.
On the surface, YouTube TV’s price is a lot, but when you directly compare the other services to get the same channels and as close to the same features, you’ll find they’re similar.
The base price for one of the two base packages is $30, but to combine them costs $45. Then add the $5 upgraded DVR, which takes you from 10 hours to 50 hours of recordings that don’t expire. To get the same amount of channels would require you to add the “4 extras deal” which brings in the Kids Extra, Lifestyle Extra, Comedy Extra and News Extra packages for $12 (which would cost $20 without the deal), and that brings you to $62, which doesn’t include locals. Of course you can pick and choose the packages you want, especially if you don’t care about ESPN, but if you are looking channel for channel, you’ll only save $3 compared to YouTube TV.
AT&T TV Now
Yes, you get locals, and yes, the $55 base package is cheaper by ten bucks, but you are getting a base package listing with 45 channels, much less than YouTube TV. The next one up is $80 at 60 channels, which does include HBO Max, so that’s something. The packages range further up from $93 up to $135 for the premium channels. As far as deals go, you aren’t getting them from AT&T.
Hulu + Live
Subscribing to Live also gives you regular Hulu, so that’s a plus, but you still have to pay to pause live TV, bringing the price up to $64. With that you do get locals, but you’re missing channels I like to have, like AMC, IFC, and Comedy Central. It’s an okay deal to get Hulu with the service, and has regional sports, but overall not the same experience.
I really like Philo. It makes me angry that it is missing so many channels because it’s really nice to use. At $20, you’ve really got to be okay with missing some top channels like TBS, TNT, USA, SyFy, and FX. Great DVR, great experience. It’s so close, but so far.
So, there. At least in comparison, the price is closer to other services than you might think. The pricing, however, leads us to…
The Big Problem
I’ve been keeping an eye on AT&T TV Now for months when I noticed their prices were much higher than the competition. When the service first started as DirecTV Now, the price was consistent with the other services, around $40 or so, nothing crazy. Then as time went on, the service kept raising and raising its price, once as high as $65 for the base package where the user was forced to have HBO. Now HBO is separate for $55, but the low amount of channels in the package certainly draws attention. Initially I was shocked at how bad of a deal the service was, but then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is going to be a trend.
Sling and YouTube TV have been public with the fact that they haven’t exactly turned a profit with their services, probably due to the fact that of the ~90,000,000 subscribers of an MVPD, only around 8 million subscribe to an online MVPD. I was under the impression that the reason traditional cable TV costs so much, beyond the fact that cable channels are expensive, was because of the amount of technical support and technician staff they have to pay, and the overall infrastructure they had to maintain. With a service like Sling, I assumed those costs would be dramatically lower, but perhaps this isn’t the case. Or it isn’t the case when you only have >3 million subscribers.
Whatever the case may be, most online cable services are now around the price of traditional cable TV, at least for the price of service minus equipment rental. In my area for me to bundle TV and Internet with Spectrum at their promotional pricing would’ve cost around $110 after tax and fees, with no rental fees for equipment as I own my own modem and would use a Roku for Spectrum TV. With just internet at $70 and YouTube TV at $65, we’re well above Spectrum’s bundle, but that Spectrum promotional price will expire, and I’m sure the cost would add another $30, so we reach the same price eventually. The difference being, to my knowledge, there’s no DVR without spending $15 for one DVR box a month, but I would get the local subchannels YouTube TV doesn’t have.
Reaction to the Price Increase
The main thing that somewhat bothers me is the outrage online from some claiming that YouTube TV’s initial goal was to be better than cable, and this price increase, especially the amount of the increase, strays from that goal. To which I disagree. Traditional cable hides fees and taxes, causing their advertised price to be far less. YouTube TV does not do this. Traditional cable has promotional pricing that not only expires but you won’t find out the true cost until it expires, causing the more angry among us to call and complain for a lower price, a sometimes successful task. YouTube TV has no promotional pricing. Traditional cable forces you to rent equipment to fully use its services. YouTube TV’s full features are available at no extra cost on every device it supports.
The point is YouTube TV’s goal to be a better cable service is not equal to YouTube TV being cheap. Especially at the high level of features and polish that YouTube TV has over its competition. One could fairly complain they don’t see the value in spending $65 a month on a cable TV service, and I totally understand that. When I heard of the ViacomCBS addition to YouTube TV back in May, I thought the most it could raise was $5, but $15 more was a shock, and really made me reconsider my YouTube TV subscription. Then I considered the channel set and features of YouTube TV compared to other providers, both online and traditional, and it’s still a pretty solid service for the price. That being said, I can totally understand people who were on the fence already with the service priced at $50 are now completely turned off at $65. It makes me wonder how much of that price increase was due to the lack of profitability, or if ViacomCBS is completely overcharging for their channels.
While YouTube TV’s increase to $65 was dramatically more than I was anticipating, the service is still second to none for those who like cable TV. I may not take full advantage of all the channels on the service, but the ones I do are a joy to watch because of YouTube TV. I don’t have to worry about adjusting the antenna to get locals to come in, and I don’t have to think about how the DVR works. Other services may be cheaper, but YouTube TV is a noticeably higher quality product in comparison. YouTube TV is as close as it gets to traditional cable while offering a better product without the compromise found on other services at a realistically lower price than cable, once you factor in rental and miscellaneous fees and taxes.
For the time being, I’m okay with paying more for a better product to keep it better. However I’d also be very happy if YouTube TV can add packages instead of its one-size-fits-all method, which seems likely considering the wording in their price increase press releases, and ViacomCBS stating YouTube TV will get the rest of their cable channels, which generally show up in the higher packages on cable (unless YouTube TV can pull some magic and add them at no extra cost, which is incredibly unlikely).