TV used to be so simple. And expensive. Every channel came through a single box, and each month the cable company added a bunch of mysterious surcharges to their bill, turning what started out as a reasonable tariff into an eye-popping budget-buster. But we paid for it, because there really was no other option.
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Thankfully, cable companies have finally lost their monopoly, not that that has stopped them from continuing to raise prices. But the alternative to cable is a bewildering menu of services that collectively add up to … well, almost as much as one of those old cable bills, if you’re not careful.
Your smart TV or streaming device can handle independent streaming services like Netflix and Max and Apple TV+, but things get more complicated when you want to replace the stuff that used to be delivered over the coaxial cable. The most important bits of programming in that category, of course, are live news, sports, and weather.
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When I moved to Atlanta two years ago, I was determined to replace my cable subscription with something simpler, cheaper, and better. I succeeded, but it took more work than I expected.
How I chose
These days, you have plenty of alternatives to the cable company, as long as you have a high-speed internet connection. If you just want to watch movies and premium series, like Ted Lasso and Game of Thrones, you can build your own a la carte lineup. But things get more complicated when you want to add basic cable networks, local over-the-air channels, and regional sports networks.
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If those options are on your wish list, you need an online service that can replace your former cable company. Fortunately, there are plenty of services that promise to do exactly that, and ZDNET has already done the work of assembling the available choices.
My must-have list was fairly modest: A robust lineup of basic channels that includes all the cable news networks; access to local channels for major broadcast networks, including PBS; access to occasional live sports on ESPN and other basic cable channels; the ability to stream on more than one device at a time; and a reasonable amount of DVR storage.
My research led to a list of the same six services, but my final choice was a bit of a surprise.
The bargain basement
I started with the two cheapest alternatives. Philo promises 70+ channels for a mere $25 a month, while Sling TV (ZDNET’s choice as “best live TV streaming service overall”) has a slightly more complicated pricing structure, with packages that run from $40 to $55 per month. (Those prices last increased in December 2022.)
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It took me only about two minutes to cross Philo off the list. That list of channels doesn’t include any of the three big cable news networks: CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. As much as I love BBC World News, it can’t really fill in for an audience of Americans like me. And Philo doesn’t include any local channels or regional sports networks, either, which means no weekend sports. It also offers only stereo sound (all of the other streaming services in this list include 5.1 surround sound). I’ll pass.
Sling TV, on the other hand, was appealing enough to warrant a one-month trial. I signed up for the $40-a-month Sling Blue package, which is billed as “good for entertainment and news.” (The first month’s price is half off, so I paid a mere $20.00.) The channel lineup is solid, with top-tier basic cable channels like CNN and its peers; it also includes ample DVR space.
Alas, my Sling TV experiment didn’t even last a full month. That price is discounted for a reason: Sling doesn’t offer local TV channels in most cities. (In my hometown, Sling offers only the local Fox affiliate, but no NBC, CBS, ABC, or PBS.) There’s a workaround: Buy the AirTV device and an over-the-air antenna, and use the Sling TV interface to watch and record those broadcast channels.
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I might have been willing to go through that hassle, but the Sling TV interface was enough to kick them off my shortlist. Like many people, I usually record my favorite programs and then begin watching about 20 minutes after the live broadcast begins. That allows me to skip the commercials and catch up to the live broadcast near the end. I found Sling TV’s DVR interface slow and buggy. On several occasions, it simply froze, forcing me to restart the app and skip back to where I had been when I was so rudely interrupted. I came back for a second try with Sling TV about six months after my initial test, hoping the experience had improved. Alas, it hadn’t. I canceled my Sling TV trial.
So much for the cheap options.
The almost-cable alternative
DirecTV Stream (formerly known as AT&T TV Now) is the closest thing to a cable network without actually requiring a coaxial cable. And despite its heritage, there’s no satellite dish needed either; this is a pure over-the-top service.
Like cable companies, DirecTV Stream offers packages that start at a pricey $75 a month and go all the way to a cable-worthy $155 a month; you can get a $10 discount for the first three months, and I also found a few offers of free premium channels for two or three months. The basic Entertainment package would probably suit my needs and even includes the CSPAN and CSPAN2 networks, which aren’t on any other streaming service.
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I might be tempted to try the free five-day trial, but there’s a big red flag attached to that offer: If you want to cancel, you can’t do so online. Instead, you have to call and talk to a DirecTV representative. I was already wavering, but that was enough to wave me off. No, thanks.
The premium plans
The remaining three services all have similar price tags and roughly similar channel lineups, with all offering local channels as part of the package.
My first stop was Hulu + Live TV, which offers an unusual package that requires bundling the live channels with the Hulu/Disney+/ESPN+ package. As of October 2023, the total price is going up for the second time in a year. The new prices start at $76 for Live TV only; for an extra $1 a month, you can add Hulu, Disney+, and ESPN, all with ads. The most expensive package includes Live TV with ad-free Hulu, ESPN, and Disney+ for a pricey $90 a month. If you were already going to pay the $8 or $18 for a Hulu or Hulu ad-free package, that makes the add-on price for live TV $69 or $72, with Disney+ and ESPN thrown in.
The Hulu interface mixes live TV in with all the other Hulu content, making things more cluttered than the alternatives. From a usability perspective, I found it acceptable but a bit confusing. Anyway, the price is wrong, so let’s move on.
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The tagline for FuboTV is “watch live sports and TV without cable.” That’s a pretty accurate description, not surprising as this network started out as a service designed to deliver European fútbol to a sports-hungry overseas audience (fútbol, Fubo, get it?). The $70 a month package includes 135 channels, with a genuinely impressive collection of sports-related content. The user interface and the DVR features are slick and clean.
Ultimately, though, I settled on YouTube TV, which offers a simple but sophisticated user experience and has probably the easiest, cleanest, fastest commercial-skipping option of any service I tried: Tap the Fast Forward button to skip ahead 15 seconds, with a freeze-frame thumbnail showing you exactly where you’ve landed. Need to skip ahead two minutes? Tap that button eight times and you’re there. It also has the best picture quality of any of its rival services, although that’s a purely subjective judgment on my part.
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At $73 a month for the Base Plan, YouTube TV is competitive with of its premium competitors, and a current promo offers new users a free trial followed by an $18 discount for the first three months. There’s an option to pay $10 extra every month for a limited amount of 4K programming, which also includes the ability to download DVR’ed shows for offline viewing on mobile devices. That’s a 50% reduction from the previous $20 price, and might be worth it if you watch live sports in 4K.
YouTube TV is fairly priced and includes access to my two local PBS stations, a feature that neither Hulu + Live TV or FuboTV offers. That detail was enough to finally seal the deal for me.