Americans are dumping cable in record numbers. More of us have Netflix than we do cable subscriptions, cord-cutting is picking up speed as cable bills rise, and generally, live TV is struggling to stay relevant. The most recent attempt to get you to watch live TV is AT&T’s new service, which gives their unlimited data subscribers what amounts to cable TV without the sports. The plan joins a crowded field, and if you’re sick of your cable plan, but don’t want to forgo some networks, a live TV streaming plan might be a good option. But what’s out there, what do you get, and is it worth it? Here are all the options currently running, from most expensive to least.
Before we begin, there are a few things worth noting that apply to all these services. Despite what you’d think, local affiliates are not guaranteed to be on the dial; rights to stream networks vary from affiliate to affiliate, so check the site of any service you’re considering. Local news junkies especially should keep this in mind. Also, sports tend to be the most isolated and locked off on these services; for example, if you can’t stream your local affiliate for a broadcast network, instead you’ll get an “on demand” version that blacks out sports games. Sports fans may be better off looking into the streaming service run by the league of their choice, or for broadcast games, just buying an antenna. And finally: Sorry, ads are included and you can’t opt-out. With that in mind, onward!
Hulu Live, $40/month
What You Get: Hulu Live has pretty much the full basic cable suite, including a variety of sports channels, although what local channels pop up on your dial will depend on your zip code. There are also a few add-on networks, like HBO, you can get as well, and it comes with a 50-hour cloud DVR. And, of course, you can stream Hulu.
Worth It?: Hulu is a bit of an odd duck here because Hulu Live is sort of a competitor against its own parent. Hulu’s library of cable TV and older and classic shows on tap for $8 a month is pretty much what most of us get out of cable in the first place, and you’ll probably sit through fewer ads. Still, if you want cable, especially sports, but more freedom in how you watch it, Hulu Live is probably as close as you’re going to get. One other helpful factor: Hulu is easily on the most devices.
YouTube TV, $40 a month
What You Get: YouTube’s sales pitch is the most direct. Get 60-plus networks, including one of the more robust sports and news channel packages on these services, for $40.
Worth It?: We’d say yes except its platforms are absurdly limited: If you don’t have the neatest, hottest new phone, or at least got one in the last few years, good luck getting this service to work. Even YouTube essentially recommends trying to download the app to figure out if it does work; if you can’t, it doesn’t. That’s really the big black eye in what’s otherwise a surprisingly good service. Another downside? You have to subscribe to YouTube’s other services separately. And finally, sorry, Game of Thrones fans, but you can’t add on HBO.
PlayStation Vue, starts at $40/month
What You Get: Starting with the “Access” plan, $40 a month, and ranging up to $75 a month for the “ultra” option.
Worth It?: If you want to stream live TV on your PS4, this is the only game in town, which is already a wee bit obnoxious, especially as device support beyond Sony’s own products is relatively meager. Also a bit annoying for sports fans is that you can’t get the most basic plan and spend an extra $10 for the sports package: You have to upgrade your plan to the “Core” option, and then give Sony another ten bucks. That said, if you’re a movie fan, weirdly enough the Ultra option is actually a fairly good deal, as it includes HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime. So if you’re subscribing to all three on cable already, this might be a cheaper way to watch.
DirecTV Now, starts at $35/month
What You Get: DirecTV Now, run by AT&T, starts you at 60 channels for $35 a month, and goes up to $70 for 120 channels. The first tier is roughly equivalent to what you get from a basic cable package, and includes ESPN and ESPN 2.
Worth It?: DirecTV Now is still rough around the edges. It does support a decent number of platforms, but local channel support is less robust than you might hope. Features like its cloud DVR are still in beta, and it only offers 20 hours a month. The streams generally hold up well, so it has a solid foundation, but it’s definitely a work in progress.
Sling TV, starts at $20 a month
What You Get: Starting at $20 for thirty channels and $40 for more than fifty, Sling is about as close to a skinny TV bundle as you’re going to get in the live TV streaming industry. Sling makes its money with “packs” of channels you can add to your service for $5, such as kids networks or sports networks. But even the basic package is decently meaty, particularly for sports fans, who get the first three ESPNs. However, that $20 doesn’t include a cloud DVR.
Worth It?: Sling has come the closest to what consumer advocates have been demanding for years now, namely the right to pick and choose which stations you have on your cable bill. That said, they’re still bundled and while Sling, which has been in this game for years, can stream with the best of them, that bundling might hold it back for some.
Philo, starts at $16 a month
What You Get: Philo really strips it down to basics: 40 channels for $16, 49 for $20, no sports, no news, just some of the popular channels on cable. There’s a distinct lack of FX and Turner channels, however.
Worth It?: If you don’t care about sports, and can do without Legion and Brooklyn Nine Nine reruns, this may be worth it. But it’s very, very bare bones, and doesn’t support a huge number of platforms, focusing mostly on mobile devices and Roku.
ESPN Plus, $5 a month
What You Get: Alternatively, you can just get sports, and nothing but sports and sports-related stuff, for five bucks.
Worth It?: Notably missing from ESPN Plus, for now, anyway, is the NBA and the NFL. Still, it has hockey, baseball, golf and a decent collection of device support. That said, it also has a blackout policy, so be sure to look up if that’s in play.
Finally, there’s AT&T’s service, AT&T Watch TV, which, as we noted, will be free to unlimited data plan users and $15 for everyone else, and which is supposed to launch this year. This seems themed around AT&T’s newly acquired cable networks from Time Warner, such as CNN and Cartoon Network. AT&T is probably locking deals in as we speak, but while it may have more heft than Philo, you probably shouldn’t expect much beyond Turner. It’s a nice perk if you already use AT&T, but it doesn’t seem likely to shake up this part of the streaming world.
The main issue with all of these services is their cheaper, relatively ad-free competition. Even Hulu with the ads stripped out is still $12, and if you’re tapping it for its back catalogue, you can get it for $8 and just ignore the short ad breaks, usually a minute or less. Almost all the content on cable, except for sports, turns up somewhere on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime eventually, and it’s not hard to find news via news network websites. So, unless you really miss cable, for now, it might be better for your wallet to just wait.