AT&T last November launched its would-be game-changing television streaming service, DirecTV NOW, with a star-studded event featuring actress Reese Witherspoon and a product tie-in with Taylor Swift. Since then, the service, which lets subscribers watch upward of 120 live television channels like CNN and AMC on TVs, computers, and mobile devices, has become nearly as famous as its celebrity backers—but for being an unusable mess.
Exactly how fed up users have been with the service's poor performance was unclear until now. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Motherboard obtained more than 50 customer complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission covering the two-month span from DirecTV NOW's launch in November through January. Customers angry enough at the poor performance to contact the federal government's primary telecom regulator rattled off numerous complaints, ranging from the basic (constant buffering issues) to the more severe (obscured cancellation and customer service options on the service's website).
"The service has not had one day where it works as advertised."
"It buffers constantly. I've been unable to watch shows, frequent interruptions, missing features."
"I have been a customer with DirecTV Now for about a month and a half and it has been nothing but a stressful disaster. I continuously get an error 40 message and the video will not play at all. When this is not happening, I can get live tv but it locks up and goes standard definition instead of HD."
"AT&T are refusing to grant refunds for a service they are not delivering. The DirecTV NOW service is unwatchable and plagued with glitches and freezes. Their own rep acknowledges thousands of customers are having the issue, and they won't refund people's money. THIS IS WRONG!!"
"I paid $130 upfront for 3 months of service and it's been a horrible experience. They didn't sell this service as beta. It's basically unwatchable. I'm consistently getting login errors."
"It's not fair to pay for a service that is inopt or in beta stages."
"Feels like I am a 'beta' tester"
Clearly, the service is not ready for prime time—literally, in fact, because one customer wrote, "I'm unable to watch anything with this service during prime time hours."
To analysts who closely study the streaming industry, DirecTV NOW's launch was so severely botched it's questionable to what degree AT&T can salvage the service's reputation.
"This is 21 years now we've been doing streaming media," said Dan Rayburn, a streaming industry analyst. "It's a pretty sad state of affairs when a company like AT&T thinks it can have an impact on the market rolling out a product that is half baked. You've got to set the right expectation in the market no matter what business you're in. And then you roll out a product that's running off of a platform, Quickplay, a company [AT&T] acquired, and you didn't have enough time to test it or integrate it … Come on."
With limited-time introductory packages starting at $35 a month for 100 channels, DirecTV NOW was meant to change the industry and conquer the ever-growing nation of cord-cutters, not become a hilariously inept lemon. So what happened? AT&T won't comment on the timing of the launch, but it's worth considering the larger picture: namely, the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger that's up to the government to approve, if regulators decide that it's in the public interest.
At congressional hearings and elsewhere, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson held up DirecTV NOW and its low, low price of $35 per month as a shining example of how consumers won't get gouged by his company's $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner. Did this lead to a premature rollout? Possibly.
That original $35 offer expired in January, though, and now $35 per month gets you 60 channels. Currently you need to spend $70 to get 100 channels.
AT&T wouldn't comment on specific complaints about the service—even the most common ones—or a timeline for fixes, but it tacitly acknowledged the array of problems in a statement to Motherboard.
"With any new technology there are going to be fixes that need to be made," said an AT&T spokesman. "While we understand we still have work to do, overall feedback on DirecTV NOW has been very positive. We're continuously updating the app to provide a better experience for customers. We encourage customers to keep the app updated."
AT&T touted its 200,000 paid subscriptions as evidence of success—although those are 2016 figures, and, Rayburn points out, do not include all the paid subscribers who cancelled in the new year. Nor does it factor in all those who signed up solely for the limited-time offer of a free Apple TV.
Though AT&T is hard at work fixing the many glitches, they may not have a whole lot of time. Because even though DirecTV NOW rushed to market, Hulu is expected to unveil a live TV service in 2017, and YouTube's and Amazon's moves into this space are looming on the horizon as well. Not to mention similar services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, both of which are long past their growing pains phase.
This is all great news for consumers—assuming they'll have a lot less to complain about as the year goes on.