My ZDNet buddy Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols just published his expert picks for best live-streaming TV services. He looked at AT&T TV, FuboTV, Hulu with Live TV, Philo, Sling TV, and YouTube TV.
Each of these services provides some set of channels over broadband for a fixed monthly fee. Some offer DVR capabilities, so you can time-shift shows you like to watch. Steven (and presumably a lot of other folks) like the live TV offerings.
I am not a fan.
I am a former YouTube TV and Sling TV customer because during election years, I like watching live channels to binge watch election returns. I love the charts. I love the graphs. I love the animated winner cards.
Because I signed up for YouTube TV a couple of years ago and Sling TV for this last election cycle, I had some time to get to know both of the services. I found them clunky and unpleasant.
YouTube TV seemed to do its best to emulate everything bad about the traditional cable company set top box interface. Sling TV (which was terrible when it first came out) got quite a bit better over the years, until it became tolerable. Both had the typical TV channel programming grid. Both also had basic recording capabilities.
But after years of watching commercial free TV completely on-demand, I found the live TV services to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. I didn't like the inability to watch what I wanted, when I wanted.
Since the dawn of time, over-the-air and cable live TV has always been "appointment TV," where you're expected to have tush-in-couch at a specific time. Yes, you can set up the DVR to record for later watching, but if you want to watch something right now, you're at the whims of the programming grid. The streaming live TV services emulate this, also expecting you to watch whatever programs are on at a given time (but you can plan ahead and time shift with the DVR).
If you want live TV, don't let me stop you. But I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a moment to sing the praises of commercial-free video on demand.
The joy of commercial-free TV
To be fair, going commercial free (for services like Paramount+, Hulu, and YouTube) is an extra fee. But, boy is it worth it. I didn't realize how much it was worth until I was forced back into the traditional TV commercial milieu and had to endure commercials -- often 20 minutes or more of every hour of TV watched.
Let's look at the economics and I'll come back to the benefits in a minute. My wife and I subscribe to Netflix, Paramount+, Disney+, Hulu, and HBOMax. We get Prime Video free as part of our Prime membership, so I'm not counting that in our video-on-demand budget.
If we were to subscribe to these services with commercials, our monthly cost would be $48.96. Keep in mind, we don't have a cable TV bill. We only watch these streaming services. We actually pay ten bucks more each month, because Paramount+ costs an extra four dollars and Hulu costs an extra six dollars each month to go commercial-free.
That extra ten dollars is worth it. The shows are so much more pleasant to watch without the commercials. Plus, I can get a little more actual TV watching in what little available free time I have. Some weeks, I have so little free time, it seems ludicrous to just fritter it away watching ads I don't want or need to see anyway.
Now, I'm aware this is both a first-world problem and the privilege of someone who can afford the extra ten bucks a month. But, after getting commercial-free TV for so long, I'd rather drop a service than forego commercial-free TV. These subscriptions are so easy to stop and start that you don't need to subscribe to everything at once. For example, if Father Brown gets another season, we'll fire up BritBox again for a month or so in order to binge watch the series.
Then, there's YouTube. Our most recent gift to ourselves is YouTube Premium. I signed up in October when the constant (and incredibly annoying) ads of a local pol started to stress me out. Initially, I ponied up for the $11.99/mo program, but once my wife saw how pleasant it was to watch YouTube videos without ads, we upped our plan to the $17.99 family plan.
I cannot emphasize how -- yeah, I'll use the word "wonderful" -- how wonderful YouTube can be without the banner, pre-roll, and interstitial ads.
All told, if you add in our cost for YouTube Premium, we pay a total of $27.99 more for our video-on-demand to be commercial free. Instead of $48.96 with ads, we pay $76.95 per month for ad-free. That's still a lot less than we paid to our cable company when we paid for old-fashioned cable TV. We paid at least $135 per month for cable.
YouTube TV alone (the live TV service, not the ad free service) is $65. I just can't see paying $65 for video that only comes on when it wants to and is full of commercials when, for about ten bucks more a month, I can watch everything I want, any time I want, commercial free.
Yes, some of the other live TV services are less expensive. But you're still stuck with time shifting and commercials. If you're a big sports fan or you like watching your local news, you may need the live TV services. But I'm happy with video on demand -- at least until the first primary election night in 2024.
Look, I'm not saying you have to fling down the extra bucks to go commercial free. What I'm saying is that it's very nice. My recommendation, if you have the budget, is to go commercial free for all your streaming services for just a month and see what it's like. For this test, also spring for YouTube Premium. That way you'll get the full experience.
Sure, of course you can go back to commercials. But once you see how nice it can be, I'm guessing you won't want to.
What about you? Are you a big live TV watcher? What streaming services do you use? Have you gone fully commercial-free? Now that you know more about it, do you think you will? Let us know in the comments below.
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