Cutting Cable: Often Smarter, Not Always Cheaper
On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, my remote stopped connecting to my ComcastCMCSA 1.21% cable box. After an hour spent mostly waiting for Comcast customer service to “send signals” to my box, I finally had help—in the form of a Tuesday morning appointment. With kickoff coming a bit sooner, I fired up my Roku and opened YouTube TV, the live-TV service from Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL 1.82% video giant. Other than a brief hiccup when my Roku rebooted itself, all things Super Bowl streamed flawlessly for the next eight hours. People who watched the Super Bowl on Hulu and Sony Corp.’s PlayStation Vue, two of YouTube TV’s competitors, encountered a compelling endorsement for cable, though. Both services suffered outages during the game, including one during the thrilling final moments. Super Bowl snafus aside, streaming live TV from the internet works far more reliably now than it used to. Between the five big names in the space—the other two are AT&T Inc.’sDirecTV Now and Dish Network LLC’s Sling TV—you can get everything from a $20-a-month bare-bones replacement to a $75 option that almost resembles your cable lineup.My current pick in the shifting landscape is YouTube TV. It recently released apps for Roku and Apple TV devices, and on Wednesday added TBS, CNN and more to the service. (The others have recently added new channels, too.) It’s raising its price to $40 a month on March 13 to accommodate for the new lineup—but that’s still a far cry from the $100 or more that people on average pay for cable, according to the media analysis firm Leichtman Research Group. So far, the best thing about ditching satellite or cable is a sweet release from the constant, throbbing pain of dealing with your cable company: annoying set-top boxes, inscrutable bills, limited mobility. But in some ways, especially channel count and that vague-but-important sense that it’ll always work when you need it, cable still feels like the safer bet. Here are the four biggest benefits of internet TV:Not all services are equally portable, however. PlayStation Vue doesn’t let you stream some channels when you’re away from your home Wi-Fi. Similarly, if you want to stream to a TV via a device such as a Roku or Apple TV, Hulu’s service only works in your own home, though this limit doesn’t apply to mobile devices.These services tend to be far more modern in design than your average, blocky white-on-blue cable interface. They use large images and bold text to help you surf. Lots of services let you watch shows while searching for other content. And these apps all work well on the phone’s smaller screen. PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now still use those clunky, side-scrolling programming guides, which are especially hard to parse on mobile. They also don’t offer much else to help you find stuff to watch. DirecTV is expected to launch a redesign soon.If you could combine the best parts of each service—Sling’s price flexibility, Hulu’s on-demand content, YouTube TV’s interface and recording powers, PlayStation Vue’s device compatibility, DirecTV Now’s channel selection—your internet-TV Voltron would be nearly perfect. Over time, they’re all likely to copy each other. Still, for now you have a bunch of solid options and no truly great one. Among them, though, YouTube TV feels the most ready. It combines live and recorded TV with the massive YouTube library, so I could watch an episode of “The Good Place” then dive into bloopers and late-night interviews with the stars. Now that it’s available on the Roku I use every day, YouTube TV has become my go-to internet TV service. Yet it doesn’t work on Amazon’s popular Fire TV devices. (Come on, Amazon and Google, can’t we all just get along?) Its updated 60-ish channel lineup still doesn’t include HGTV or Comedy Central.Even as programming gaps continue to shrink, no service can replace all of cable. Nearly every one of the 100 most popular channels exists somewhere, but no service has them all. And by the time you get close, that $20 Sling plan you thought you were signing up for turns into more like $50 or $60 before you even get to HBO or Showtime. Cable and the other traditional pay-TV providers may be more expensive and frustrating, but at least they offer everything. And Comcast, Verizon and the rest are watching their new competition. Soon, you’ll likely get many of the features of internet TV with your existing subscription, once they feel the pressure to compete. Where does all that leave you? Maybe still paying your cable bill for a while, if it isn’t too high. If it is, call your cable company and threaten to leave. Reps can often find a way to reduce your monthly fees. But if you’re willing to miss out on a few shows, and suffer through the occasional outage, you can already get a TV experience that’s much more fun and modern—and mobile—than cable, and usually saves money, too. We’re heading toward the future of TV. It’s just buffering a little on the way.