We are often told that we’re living in the information age – but it may be more accurate to say that we live in the content age. More than any time in human history, we’re inundated from every side by content, in multiple forms – music, advertising, social media – and perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the new frontier of streaming internet television.
For years, as consumers, we’ve had to pay more than we wanted for more channels than we needed. Now finally, the almighty “bundles” are being broken and it’s become much more possible to pay for what we want, when we want it.
There was a time, not long ago, when changing your television provider was a big hassle. You had to coordinate it with the termination of your previous service, you probably had to be on the phone with 2 different companies, you might have to pay an installation fee, and there was a high probability you’d be out of service for at least a small window of time. That’s not even to mention learning the ins and outs of a new remote control device!
Those days are over, and more and more people are “cutting the cord” to traditional cable television companies. Switching television providers now is as easy as downloading a new app to your smart TV or hitting a few links on your phone, and the competition for your business means that companies are incentivized to lower your barrier for entry by eliminating up-front costs and allowing you unprecedented control over your content.
For many people, their choice of television provider depends on what channels or shows they like to watch. In the current climate, many channels or shows are becoming exclusive to certain streaming services. For example, as you’ve probably seen in the news, AT&T-owned WarnerMedia recently spent $425 million for the exclusive streaming rights to the popular 90’s sit-com “Friends” (it will be part of the upcoming “HBO Max” service set to debut in 2020). With many viewers’ habits changing from so-called “appointment viewing” to “binge watching,” it has also become much more palatable for them to switch platforms as they switch shows.
Many viewers still enjoy the content on their local channels, which is often still available on some online platforms. Local sports, too, is another popular target of television watchers, and is similarly often available depending on the service.
Many streaming services offer free trial periods and promotional rates in the first few months. There are even a few totally free streaming services with robust channel lineups, the most popular of which is called Pluto TV (purchased by Viacom in March for $340 million). Most of the services offer a “TV Guide” type channel along with varying amounts of “DVR” functionality and storage space. A few popular cable-like services with local channels are YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and Sling, but a Google search for “streaming internet television” should reveal multiple options.
Competition is good for the consumer, everyone knows that. But in the world of internet TV, it can also create confusion and obfuscation. With so many options, how can anyone possibly know what to choose? The good news is, you don’t have to choose. Since it’s so easy to switch, you can essentially try them all.
Caveat: These services are changing all the time. All pictures and pricing are from Sept.-Oct. 2019. These are the opinions of one writer. Services were chosen somewhat randomly based on awareness of the service, user reviews, and accessibility. This is not an attempt to review all streaming services out there.
Considered by many to be the best current streaming internet television service, YouTube TV has the advantage of being owned by Google, which A) has a lot of money and B) knows what you like. It offers probably the best combination of local channels, sports, news, and regular programming. In addition, it offers unlimited “DVR” space, and allows you to keep recordings for 9 months, whereas many services only allow 30 days. It is also among the pricier options, at $49.99/month. Unlike many of the other services, there is only one level of service, with limited add-on channels. In many ways it is the most “Cable TV-like” of the streaming internet television services.
Their “Guide” looks good and is easy to navigate on both PC and mobile.
If YouTube TV, is #1 in the streaming television world, then the matter-of-factly named “Hulu + Live TV” is probably currently #2. Offering a similar quality of service, Hulu also has the advantage of offering exclusive original content such as popular shows “The Handmaids Tale” and “Letterkenny.”
Unfortunately, their Guide interface could use a little work. Instead of clicking on a show and having it immediately go to that show on full-screen, which is what you might expect, and what YouTube TV does, clicking on a show brings up a box with a play button, which if you press then brings up a tiny picture-in-picture version of the show in the corner of your screen which you then have to click AGAIN to get it to full-screen. Not ideal! Also, their Guide channel, with its lack of color or thumbnail videos, doesn’t look as good as YouTube TV’s.
Hulu with Live TV offers 50 hours of DVR storage space, as opposed to YouTube TV’s unlimited. There is an option to upgrade to 200 hours for an additional charge. However, their DVR does not allow you to fast-forward through commercials, which is a large part of the appeal of DVR. All things considered, Hulu with Live TV is a good service at a decent price, and YouTube’s advantages over it are somewhat mitigated by its good original content.
Sling is the plan with the lowest base cost and the most add-on channels. Their base plan is split between their “Orange” and “Blue” plans, at $25.00/month and $24.99/month, respectively, with many add-on channels available.
The differences between the two plans are somewhat complicated.
Again, depending on what channels you like to watch, this could be a solid budget-conscious option. (Sling recently lost all Fox channels to a fees dispute, but have since re-added them.) For example, Sling Orange is currently the cheapest way to get ESPN. If you start adding a lot of extra channels to your base plan, the price could start to become prohibitive. But the ability to edit your subscription at any time means that you probably don’t need to have them all at once.
Unlike many other services, DVR is not included. You can however pay $5 a month for the ability to record 50 hours, although you can’t record Disney or ESPN channels.
Their menu and guide are fairly intuitive and along the lines of the others. The black interface gives it a bit of different look.
Netflix is different than most of the others on this list, for many reasons. They are the only one to not offer a Live TV component, being purely a Streaming Video on Demand (SVOD) service. They are also the only one without ads, although the convenient DVR functionality of most of the other services reduces the need to watch commercials.
Netflix is thought to be one of the only streaming providers to have “spent years and untold millions building out its own global CDN Network” [source].
They also correctly predicted the future importance of owning their own content, as they continue to spend billions of dollars on original content. Literally!
Another outlier on this list, the documentary-only video-on-demand service CuriosityStream is available on its own, as a website or app, or as an add-on channel for some of the other services. At only $2.99/month, it has a huge catalog of documentary and educational viewing. If your favorite part of Netflix is the David Attenborough-narrated nature shows, this is the channel for you!
Honorable mention to Playstation Vue. Contrary to what is probably popular belief, you do not need to own a Playstation to watch Vue. It is a streaming over-the-internet service, not tied to a device. It gets generally good reviews, but this writer has not tried it. Unlike many of the other services, it is offered in bundles, although they do also offer a variety of add-on channels.
In an illustration of this sometimes volatile market, Playstation Vue recently announced that they are “going dark” in January of 2020, leaving their estimated 500,000 subscribers in need of a new streaming service.
In our last blog, we talked about internet speed tests, and the many factors that can influence them. One of those factors which we did not discuss is called a “content delivery network.”
A Content Delivery Network, or CDN, is a term for a particular way of distributing internet content. Traditionally, when you browse to a website from your computer, the information is pulled from the website, carried over the internet, sent through an unknown amount of Internet Exchange Points to your local network, and then translated by your browsing software.
In a CDN, content providers (e.g. Netflix) place servers with the most accessed content in strategically placed locations at the very edge of where the Internet meets your local network (often in the central office of your ISP).
The benefit of a CDN structure for the end user is that the information is able to be delivered much more quickly and efficiently. The closer to the edge the content resides, the less devices it has to pass through, and the less likely it is to encounter some form of resistance or traffic.
Internet traffic is very similar to actual traffic in that the amount of it that is sustainable is dependent on how wide the road is and how many other people are traveling on it at the same time. If a typical internet connection is like driving a car down the information superhighway, a CDN is more like flying to an airport close to your destination, and then renting a car to drive the last 20 miles.
The benefit of a CDN structure for the ISP includes increased reliability, reduced costs, and improved security. Most ISPs purchase bandwidth from one of the Tier 1 internet providers, so by decreasing their need to download information from the internet-at-large, they can reduce costs.
CDN servers, by storing the content users are accessing most often in a local server, is one of the easiest ways to decrease that need. They also make it possible to download content even when that content provider’s website might be down. Finally, since less information is being transmitted from the Internet, there is less of a security risk since all routing is done locally.
CDN servers are usually obtained by the ISP directly from the content provider. This business arrangement can take many forms. Typically, the server is provided at no cost, as the content provider wants the end user to have the best experience with their content possible. However, the FCC’s removal of net neutrality rules in 2017 opened the doors to the possibility of ISPs favoring some traffic over others, which could take the form of “pay to play” CDN situations. More on that in a future blog on the topic of net neutrality.