Everyone hates their cable company. For decades, though, your only options for in-home TV entertainment were to shell out for a big cable package or use your parents’ HBO Go login to watch “Game of Thrones.” No more.
The last couple of years have seen the emergence of the internet TV bundle with services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, and in the last few months Hulu, YouTube, and DirecTV have all joined the fray with internet-based channel packages, which the TV industry refers to “OTT” for “over the top,” in that they bypass the traditional cable box.
Why the sudden flurry of activity? Big media companies are coming to terms with the fact that so-called “cord-cutters” may never come back to traditional cable TV, and they might as well consider them a market. “Hulu can now be a viewer’s primary source of television,” Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins said at the unveiling in New York two weeks ago. Hulu had already served for years as an on-demand repository for broadcast and, eventually, some cable shows. But as the potential market grew, it became worth Hulu’s while to go through the trouble of negotiating deals with broadcast and cable networks to carry their programming live.
Even pay-TV stalwarts like DirecTV and Dish Network are using internet TV bundles to retain or acquire new “’s no question now that it’s game on to convert a cable subscriber to an OTT subscriber for essentially the same services,” Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen told investors in early May.
So let’s get a couple of things straight: First, no one is cutting the cord, because all these services require a broadband connection, which runs $25 to $80 a month depending on speeds and where you live. Second, while you may get a better deal on a smaller bundle, you’re still paying a giant corporation for TV. It may just be Google or Sony instead of Comcast.
That said, here are the options:
Hulu with Live TV ($40/mo, optional upgrades)
What do you get? The $40 Hulu package includes 50 hours of cloud DVR space, more than 50 live channels (not currently including AMC or the ability to add HBO, sorry), and, depending on where you live, live local broadcast networks like ABC and Fox. And you get access to Hulu’s on-demand library.
Once the pain-in-the-ass process of making sure your devices are up-to-date enough to even download the app has been completed, you’re greeted by a sleek, friendly interface that nonetheless doesn’t take you immediately to live TV on your iPhone. The algorithm might need a little work, too — serving up “Two and a Half Men” based on my interests seems suspect — but that’s true of every single one of these services. It’s definitely the best-looking of the ones we tried.
Who you’re really paying: Hulu is owned by 21st Century Fox, NBC Universal, and Disney. Time Warner took a 10 percent stake in the company just last year, meaning that Hulu paying companies like ABC and Fox and NBC and TNT for access to their live programming is nothing more than a great big corporate ouroboros. Comcast has owned NBC since 2014, and Time Warner is currently closing a merger deal with AT&T, which owns DirecTV, which has its own streaming live TV service (see below). So, consider it a direct payment to your TV content overlords, through Hulu.
Sling TV ($20/mo for basic Sling Orange or $25/mo for Sling Blue)
What do you get? $20 a month gets you 30 networks, including AMC, FX, and ESPN and their associated corporate siblings. Sling Blue doesn’t have ESPN, but it gives you some other some of the other Disney-owned channels like Freeform (no live ABC, however). There are also add-on packages for more sports or movie networks for $5, and premium channels like HBO for another $10.
Most of the channels’ shows are available on demand on a rolling episode basis, meaning you can watch the latest episode the day after it airs and generally the previous four episodes. That doesn’t really help if you’re way behind, or if you just want to watch “The Leftovers” but didn’t realize it was on till half an hour into its airing. This problem is solved by tossing another $5 a month in for cloud DVR service, but the rolling five- (or so) episode arrangement is an epidemic in an industry that wants you to have an incentive to watch things live.
Occasional bugs still pop up, but compared to the stop-and-start experience it delivered even a year ago, that’s a big improvement.
Who you’re really paying: Surprise! A satellite TV company. Dish Network, the satellite provider, started Sling TV in 2015 as an effort to reach out mostly to cord-nevers: Young people on the move who don’t want some sort of long-term contract. Dish’s business model is more vulnerable than other cable and satellite companies since it’s generally only able to offer other companies’ broadband internet services, and so it needed to find a way to stanch the bleeding from its video business.
YouTube TV ($35/mo)
What do you get? A little under 50 channels — including AMC, FX, CBS, and The CW — the ability to create profiles for five other people (three of whom can stream at the same time), unlimited cloud DVR space, and YouTube Red, the ad-free version of YouTube that also includes original programming … but only if you live in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and its surroundings, Chicago, or Philadelphia. YouTube is still sorting out deals with the big local affiliate groups elsewhere that will allow access to their live feeds.
Who you’re really paying: Google. This isn’t Google’s first attempt to act like a cable company. Remember Google Fiber? That came with an optional live TV package. But Google Fiber is being mothballed, and industry analysts say no one was really opting into the TV package anyway. YouTube TV is a smarter play on Google’s end, removing the massive infrastructure costs of laying cable. They’re after the same people Sling and PlayStation Vue are trying to lure in: millennials who don’t want to deal with the hassle of a cable subscription and who are already spending hours a day on YouTube. But here’s the real raison d’etre: Having access to everything you watch means Google can use the hell out of that data and sell it to any third party with a handful of dollars.
DirecTV Now ($35-$70/mo)
What do you get? The plans vary by the number of channels you want — the $70 a month package is no different from any overloaded cable package. The basic package will fulfill most of your needs, with a little more than 60 channels.
For those that don’t have a TV set in the house — it does happen — the service isn’t supported by Firefox, which feels rude, and if you have an Android device that is a couple of years old, it just doesn’t work well, with lots of lag time between touching the screen and that touch actually initiating a response. (That goes for all these services. Guys, not everyone can afford a new iPad every year.) On Apple devices, it works fine, and feels roughly similar to PlayStation Vue, with one notable exception: no cloud DVR, not even available as an add-on. This is typically not a technological problem, but a rights issue related to advertising revenue.
Who you’re really paying: AT&T, ultimately — it gobbled up DirecTV in 2016. AT&T really wants you to not only subscribe to DirecTV Now, but to bundle it with their wireless plan that won’t cap the data you burn through while using the service while you’re not tethered to your home WiFi. Net neutrality advocates, naturally, are up in arms over this kind of favoritism, but the current administration’s attitude toward it boils down to a shruggie — so don’t be too surprised when Comcast starts offering its own streaming TV bundle with a discount for its inevitable wireless service.
PlayStation Vue ($30-$65/mo)
What do you get? Vue is handy for gamers who want to get live TV through their consoles, but you’re basically getting the same stuff as DirecTV Now and Sling TV, with cloud DVR that saves your shows for 28 days. You don’t have to have a PlayStation console to use the service, and you can get up to five simultaneous streams on various devices, but if they’re not all connected to the home network you’ve designated, it might not work.
In fact, most of these products are borderline indistinguishable from each other while you’re using them. They may claim to have the coolest features and the best algorithms to predict what you want to watch, but if you just want to pop on a show or movie for some white noise, or even if you want to watch a show you love, you are, in general, going to be able to do that regardless of the service you pick. The rest is just dross.
Who you’re really paying: Sony owns this, which is why it took a while for it to expand from a few markets to nationwide availability — it took some time to negotiate the deals with affiliate groups and cable networks, something Sony isn’t necessarily used to doing. Sony has always been in the TV content business, though, unlike Microsoft, which would have a much tougher row to hoe if they really wanted to create a similar product for Xbox users. The same goes for Apple, which has been rumored for years to want to get into the TV business. Instead of live streaming, though, the tech giant is using Apple Music to test-run a couple of shows like “Planet of the Apps” and “Carppool Karaoke,” which it’s licensing from studios.