I’m changing television providers again.
My two-year contract with Dish expired last month. Wanting a better deal, I shopped around. After considering all the alternatives, I’m switching to AT&T.
My search didn’t have to end up that way. And if the options keep improving, I may not be with AT&T for very long.
Before shopping around, I drew up some criteria for what I wanted in my next television service. The most important thing for me was to save money.
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My Dish deal was a typical one. It started with a low introductory price that ballooned in the second year of the contract. For the last year, I’ve been paying about $91 a month for my television service, before taxes.
That might seem reasonable to many people, but it’s felt increasingly absurd to me. My wife and I rarely watch television of any kind; some programs have sat on our DVR unwatched for more than a year. While our kids tune into the tube more often, much of what they watch comes from Netflix or the PBS Kids app, not our Dish service.
Still, we weren’t ready – or maybe I just wasn’t ready – to completely cut the cord and give up pay TV service. We watch – or at least record programs – on about 17 channels, representing a mix of cable and local networks.
I like to access all of those in one place rather than figuring out which app I need to use – Netflix? Amazon? Hulu? the CW? – to watch particular programs. I also like being able to tune in my local channels without having to buy or install an antenna. And I like having a DVR, where I can skip commercials and pause live shows.
So, I was looking for a pay TV service that offered a DVR and gave me access to all or nearly all of the channels we watch.
Go the internet route?
But I was open to alternatives. I was particularly intrigued by the new online pay TV options, because they seemed like they might be a good option for consumers like me.
Over the last two years, Dish, Comcast, Sony and, most recently, AT&T, have begun offering television service over the internet. These services – Sling TV, Stream TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now, respectively – resemble the traditional bundles of channels you’d get from your cable or satellite provider. But they generally cost a lot less, because they offer fewer channels and don’t require you to rent a pricey set-top box. Instead, you tune them in using any of a number of digital media players, like Chromecast or Roku Premiere.
Another advantage of the new services: They allow you to get service on a monthly basis. You don’t have to sign a long-term contract. Instead, you can cancel at any time.
But for us, the online alternatives weren’t great options.
Comcast doesn’t offer Stream TV where I live, so that was out. While DirecTV Now offers all the cable channels we watch and, at $35 a month, has a great price, it doesn’t include the local PBS, CBS or CW channels and it doesn’t offer a DVR. So it was out, too.
For $40 a month, we could get Sling TV’s “All Channels” service, which offers all but one of the cable channels we watch. But that service lacks the same local channels as DirecTV Now. And its new DVR service is still being tested and is only available by invitation and only if you have a Roku digital media player, which I don’t.
Perhaps the most compelling of the online options is PlayStation Vue. For $40 a month, its “Access” bundle offers not only a DVR service, but a decent selection of cable and local channels.
But some of the channels it lacks – Comedy Central, Lifetime and the local CW and PBS stations – are among those that we watch most frequently. And its DVR is a bad match for us, because it deletes recordings after just 28 days.
Dish, Comcast, AT&T: head to head
So, that left me back with the traditional providers. We got services from all three major TV providers in our area; we subscribed to Dish for TV, Comcast for broadband and AT&T for cell phone service. So I called all three to see if they could offer a good price to a returning customer.
As I’ve experienced in the past, the response was uneven. The best deal I could get from Dish for the service options I wanted was $67 a month. But I would have lost access to a channel I like a lot – BBC America – and I would have been paying $25 a month more than I would for PlayStation Vue, which seemed like an expensive premium.
Comcast offered a deal that seemed to be too good to be true – and turned out to be. The rep I spoke with offered to bundle pay TV service and broadband access for $100 a month, or about $45 more than I’m paying for broadband alone. That price included a DVR, all the local channels we watch and all but one of the cable channels we watch – Pop, a station we don’t tune in all that regularly. I’d have to sign a one-year contract and would have to pay a $30 activation fee, but as part of the deal, Comcast offered to double our broadband speed to 200 megabits per second for the same price.
After discussing it with my wife, I called back the next day to sign up. But as has happened repeatedly in the past, Comcast refused to honor the deal, instead insisting that I’d have to pay an extra $10 for the faster broadband speed. Even then, it wasn’t a bad deal, but as a frustrated Comcast customer I hung up and went with my other choice.
That was AT&T. With its U-verse U-200 service, we’ll get all the channels we watch and a DVR. I only have a one-year contract, so I can change service next year if I don’t like it. The cost is nominally $70 a month. But the deal includes a $200 gift card that I can use to pay my service costs. If you average that amount over the one-year contract period, the monthly price comes down to about $53 a month.
That’s still more than I would have spent with the online choices. But it gives us everything we were looking for. And unlike Comcast, AT&T offered me the same deal when I called back to sign up as when I called initially.
So we’re back to being AT&T U-Verse customers, at least for now. There’s a good chance we’ll do something different next year.