Updated March 1, 2018
For people sick of the high cost of cable television, "cutting the cord" has been a longtime dream. But it’s been just that – a dream. Because of the way cable works, with high-demand channels subsidizing less popular ones, it’s been nearly impossible to have an a la carte cable service, so we relegated ourselves to the on demand world of Netflix, day-after Hulu streaming, and stealing our parents/roommates/boyfriend’s cable login to watch shows online on a channel-by-channel basis.
Then Sling TV came along, offering live TV streaming. They were followed by DirecTV, Playstation Vue, and more. Finally, YouTube, possibly the only name in video streaming bigger than Netflix, stepped into the game. YouTube TV launched at the beginning of April, 2017, promising to finally deliver a viable cheap alternative to expensive cable packages, and has been slowly growing.
Now that there's no shortage of streaming TV options, there are two things to consider when you’re trying to decide if it’s right for you: the individual platform (YouTube TV, Sling TV, etc) and whether or not cutting the cord in general is the prudent choice. We’ll tackle both as we see whether or not YouTube TV is the best option for anyone looking to free themselves from the cable company.
What is YouTube TV?
There are a few things that differentiate live TV streaming services: price, channels, and how the service works. Youtube TV offers a solid middleground in all of these categories for cord cutters
YouTube TV is $35 (with a one month free trial available; starting March 13 new members will need to pay $40 while current members are grandfathered in), which is par for the course for streaming services (Hulu starts at $40; Sling TV starts at $20 for its barebones option). As of March 2018, YouTube TV is available in the following markets:
- Baton Rouge
- Cedar Rapids
- Colorado Springs
- Dallas-Fort Worth
- Dayton (Ohio)
- Des Moines
- El Paso
- Ft. Myers-Naples
- Ft. Smith-Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers (Arkansas)
- Grand Rapids
- Green Bay
- Greenville (North Carolina)
- Greenville (South Carolina)
- Huntsville-Decatur (Alabama)
- Jackson (Mississippi)
- Kansas City
- Las Vegas
- Little Rock
- Los Angeles
- Miami-Fort Lauderdale
- Minneapolis-Saint Paul
- Mobile-Pensacola (Ft Walt)
- New Orleans
- New York City
- Oklahoma City
- Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne
- Paducah-Cape Girardeau-Harrisburg
- Portland-Auburn (Maine)
- Roanoke-Lynchburg (Virginia)
- Rochester (New York)
- Salt Lake City
- San Antonio
- San Diego
- San Francisco Bay Area
- South Bend-Elkhart (Indiana)
- Springfield (Missouri)
- St. Louis
- Washington DC
- West Palm Beach
There are YouTube TV apps available for Android and iOS (both iPhone and iPad), and you can access it on your computer browser, as well as major streaming platforms like Roky and Apple TV. You also get a complementary Chromecast once you pay for your first month that you can use to stream.
(I still don’t totally understand why the Chromecast is round, either, but that too is not a deal breaker and I expect it’s for some reason that someone much smarter than me at Google understands.)
You get up to six accounts and three simultaneous streams with YouTube TV, which solves one of the big limitations other streaming services have. And you get on demand access for some shows and movies, as dictated by the channel providers.
YouTube TV has Google-level information
One of the cooler aspects of YouTube TV is how it ties into YouTube proper and Google as a whole.
For example, clicking on a TV show will often (I say "often" because while it’s been on everything I’ve looked at, I’m not positive it’s available for every show) have a "Related on YouTube" feature that links to videos on YouTube. It’s a cool way to see supplementary clips and look at what the fandom at large is doing.
You also get information from Google that can make a program more enjoyable. For example, I have a recording set up for all University of North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball games. Very cool. But by clicking on the recording, I can see their schedule, roster, and other information. For shows, you can get detailed cast listings.
Google has a wealth of information, and while the extras provided are useful-but-basic, I’m excited to see what this can offer in the future.
YouTube TV offers unlimited DVR
Every service wants to have a killer feature, and the DVR seems to be it for YouTube TV. You get unlimited DVR storage space (for comparison, Hulu offers 50 hours of DVR storage, with a $20 upgrade for 200 hours) and recordings are kept for nine months. You can access them from anywhere.
There isn’t much else to say about the DVR – it’s pretty self-explanatory – but this is a huge selling point for me, because (as we’ll get to later) live TV isn’t really what I use my live TV service for.
YouTube TV channels
Of course, the biggest thing you need to know when it comes to choosing a live TV streaming service is what channels it has. The initial lineup offered by YouTube TV was average, and the recent additions of AMC, BBC America, and more have shored up some holes.
Currently, YouTube TV offers the following channels:
- Broadcast - ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, NBC
- Sports - Big Ten Network, CBS Sports Network, Comcast RSN, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPNU, Fox RSN, FS1, FS2, Golf Channel, NBCSN, NECN, SEC Network, YES
- Entertainment & Lifestyle - AMC, BBC America, Bravo, Chiller, E!, Esquire, Freeform, FX, FXM, FXX, Nat Geo, IFC, Nat Geo Wild, Oxygen, Pop, Smithsonian, Sundance, SyFy, TBS, TCM, TNT, TruTV, Universal HD, USA, WE tv, YouTube Red Originals
- News - CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC, Newsy
- Kids - Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Disney Jr, Disney XD, Sprout
- Spanish language - Telemundo, Universo
There’s a lot to unpack here. The broadcast channels are available locally for the current YouTube TV markets, which means you can get local news and programming. Yes, you can use an OTA antenna to get those stations for free, but anyone who has used those knows they’re hit or miss at best.
Sports is always a sticky situation when it comes to streaming because they’re so expensive for providers to offer. YouTube TV covers the major networks, like your various ESPNs, but there’s a major gap for NBA and MLB fans with the exclusion of TNT and TBS. Plus, I’m sure plenty of games will be subject to market blackouts.
SyFy is a good inclusion (you should really be watching The Expanse), and the FX families means you have access to basically ever Fast & Furious, along with The Americans, Legion, Fargo, Atlanta, and other premier TV. AMC is a huge get – like it or not, The Walking Dead is still one of the biggest shows on TV – and BBC America will be there when the next season of Sherlock gets released in 18 years.
And then there are YouTube Red Originals. YouTube Red is another YouTube subscription service; it cuts out ads on YouTube and is their attempt at making original content (you also get Google Play Music bundled with it). You don’t actually get a YouTube Red subscription with YouTube TV, just the Originals. I couldn’t even be bothered to research a single YouTube Red Original for this article, and my only experience with them is seeing previews for them at the movies, so for now my apathy makes this a wash.
Downsides with YouTube TV
I’m actually very pleased with YouTube TV. The UI is clean and easy to navigate, the extra information is useful, and the unlimited DVR storage is great. My Verizon internet, which is allegedly DSL but typically fluctuates somewhere between smoke signal and dial up, handles streaming better than it does, say, the AMC website. But there are still a few quirks that stand out.
One is its kinda-but-not-entirely integration with YouTube proper. Before BBC America was added, I looked up Orphan Black. A result came up telling me it wasn’t available, but then directed me to YouTube to buy episodes. I’m not entirely sure why YouTube TV and YouTube are different levels of the same service. YouTube videos are integrated into the YouTube TV app, except when they aren’t and you have to navigate another (very similar) platform.
I’m fine with the channel options provided by YouTube TV, but Hulu’s recently released live TV option is making me second guess YouTube TV to an extent. For one, Hulu has TNT and it’s currently NBA season. Second, I can’t help but think that Hulu’s original shows are better than YouTube Red Originals. Granted it’s hit or miss – The Handmaid’s Tale is exceptional, but 11.22.63 was awful – but I’m much more excited for Runaways than I am for anything on YouTube Red (I assume; again, I don’t know any YouTube Red Originals).
Then there’s the fact that Hulu includes their existing streaming service that everyone is familiar with at no extra cost. Why is that a consideration? Because in my month with YouTube TV, I’ve realized that I don’t really watch live TV anymore. I’m using the service mostly for its DVR capabilities. Don’t get me wrong, those are exceptional: Atlanta wasn’t available on Hulu (or, inexplicably, on FX’s site even with a cable login – this is why people pirate things, fyi) and I was able to record the reruns and watch them at my leisure. I was able to finally finish the second season of Mr. Robot. I have the entire current season of The Americans saved, but haven’t watched a single episode live.
So do I just spring for Hulu? Do I use their live TV services the same way I’m using YouTube TV, and supplement it with the regular Hulu day-after streaming for everything else?
For now, no. I’m sticking with YouTube TV because I know I have more than 50 hours of recordings, I enjoy the small extras, and, well, because I’m already subscribed. It’s been a better experience than I’ve had with Sling TV, and I’m hoping Google will continue to improve on it.
Of course, I’ll almost certainly try a Hulu trial, so maybe my mind will change.
Decide if cord cutting is actually for you
Cord cutting is the dream of any tech-savvy person tired of being fleeced by cable companies, and the excitement can hide the fact that it’s not always the most prudent option. Why? Because you need an internet connection to make live TV streaming worthwhile, and the internet company is almost always the cable company. Bundled packages can make it more expensive to have internet without cable.
Let’s take a look at Optimum internet service in Brooklyn. Their internet and TV bundle starts at $69.99 a month. For an equivalent internet-only package, it’s $49.99 a month. Obviously it would be more expensive to chose internet and YouTube TV than the Optimum bundle.
But you have to consider what else is involved with that. Is what you’re paying the cable company a promotional price? They’ll usually let you keep promotional prices in place when it’s time to renew your cable subscription, but that involves calling up and threatening to cancel your subscription. There are also add-on fees, like installation (read: plugging in a box) fees, cable box rental fees, and additional costs for using service on more than one TV (adding a second TV raised the above Optimum bundle to over $100 a month).
You also have to decide if the service is better. What’s their mobile situation like? How much DVR storage is there? Where can you watch? In my past experience, Time Warner Cable severely limited what you could stream if you weren’t connected to your home wifi network, which made watching on the go a hassle.
For me, the cost of YouTube TV is well worth not having cable. It’s also, for the time being, the best option for a live TV streaming service. It’s a constantly shifting landscape, so new features, channel offerings, and prices from existing and current streaming services could make me change my mind.
But for now, I’m sticking with YouTube TV. Google already knows everything else about me. They might as well know what I’m watching, too.
Image: YouTube TV