If you’re looking for an alternative to Comcast for pay TV, you’re soon going to have another option.
But how long that option, and others, will survive may be up to federal regulators.
Recently, YouTube announced it will be entering the pay-TV game. The Google-owned company, best known for hosting free-to-watch videos posted by individual creators or pirated from Hollywood media companies, will soon be offering, for a monthly fee, a collection of broadcast and cable TV channels.
YouTube is only the latest company to offer a pay-TV bundle distributed over the internet. Over the last two years, Dish launched Sling TV; Sony, PlayStation Vue; AT&T, DirecTV Now; and Comcast, Stream TV.
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Google’s upcoming service won’t be the last internet-based pay-TV service. Hulu has already announced that it will begin offering a multichannel service later this year. And Apple reportedly has long been eyeing the market.
Excluding Comcast’s Stream TV, which is only available in a few areas of the country and is designed largely for in-home use, the new internet pay-TV services are all similar. They each offer the same trade-off: You get far fewer channels than you’d get with a typical satellite or cable TV offering, but you’ll pay significantly less and you can cancel at any time.
Unlike many traditional pay TV services, you can watch the new services on the device of your choice, be it a tablet, smartphone, computer or television. And to watch on your TV, you typically only need a low-cost digital media player like Google’s Chromecast or one of Roku’s players; you don’t need to rent a costly cable box.
The YouTube plan
YouTube TV will fit right into that mold. At launch, it will offer some 44 channels, including all of the major broadcast networks except PBS. For that, the company will charge just $35 a month.
The service will offer notable advantages over its rivals. It will launch with a cloud-based DVR feature, which will allow users to store recordings of programs on Google’s servers. That’s a function Sling TV is still testing and one that DirecTV Now still lacks.
YouTube TV users will be able to record as many programs as they want and keep them for up to nine months. By contrast, PlayStation Vue’s cloud DVR deletes recordings after 28 days and the one Sling is testing will store only 100 hours of programming.
Another feature that’s likely to please: YouTube TV users will be able to access up to three video streams from the service at a time. So, you could be watching something in the living room while your spouse watches something else in the bedroom and your kid watches a third show in their room. DirecTV Now only allows two concurrent streams and Sling TV’s base offering only permits one stream at a time.
But YouTube TV will have some limitations that may make it unattractive. At least for now, the company is saying that if you want to watch it on your TV, you’ll need a Chromecast device or a TV with built-in Chromecast support. If you have a Roku box or Amazon’s Fire TV or an Apple TV, you may be out of luck. Of course, you can pick up a Chromecast for only $35, so that problem is easily solved.
What’s likely to be troublesome are the channel options. YouTube TV will include Fox News, ESPN and USA, which are three of the most popular cable channels. But it will be lacking lots of others. Among the missing: TBS, HGTV, TNT, the Discovery and History channels, CNN, AMC and Lifetime. So if you want to watch “The Walking Dead,” “Project Runway” or “Fixer Upper,” you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Still, the launch of YouTube TV is something to be excited about, even if its lineup doesn’t match your viewing habits. After years of being stuck with ever pricier television service from a handful of competitors – at best – we now have a growing number of lower-priced options. If you include not just the multichannel services, but Netflix, HBO Go and the large number of individual cable channels available online, the market for internet-based TV services appears to be growing and thriving.
But there’s trouble on the horizon.
The business model for these kinds of video services depends on an open internet. Unfortunately, the open internet is very much in question right now, and the big broadband providers – most of which have their own video services that are under threat from the Sling TV’s and YouTube TV’s of the world – have a strong incentive to see it go away.
If broadband providers could block video services that competed with their own or slow down their streams to the point where they were unwatchable, they could put rivals out of business. If broadband providers were allowed to charge rivals a toll to access the providers’ customers or ensure a fast connection to them, they could make those rival services unprofitable or prohibitively pricey.
Conversely, if broadband providers, many of which limit the amount of data their subscribers can consume in a given month without facing extra charges, can exempt their own internet video services from those data caps while applying them to their rivals, they could give their own services a leg up. If one service eats into your limited data allotment and another, similar service doesn’t, which one are you more likely to use?
Those notions may seem alarmist, but Ajit Pai, the new head of the Federal Communications Commission, has made it clear that he’s no fan of an open internet, at least as it’s commonly understood. He’s already given companies like AT&T and Verizon the green light to exempt their own video services from data caps they apply to their rivals.
And in a speech recently, he gave his strongest indication yet that he will seek to roll back the FCC’s strong net neutrality rules, which protect the open internet by preventing broadband providers from blocking or throttling or providing fast lanes to particular sites and services. Without those rules, the FCC would have no power to protect competition in internet video services.
So enjoy the new pay TV competition. Shop around, find a service you like. Just be aware, this era of choice may not last.