Google announced a major milestone for YouTube TV this week, revealing that the live TV service now has more than 5 million subscribers.
That makes YouTube TV the most popular cable replacement service by far. Its closest rival, Hulu + Live TV, had 4.1 million subscribers at the end of March (a loss of 200,000 from the prior quarter), followed by Sling TV with 2.25 million subscribers.
I’d love to argue that YouTube TV is winning the live TV streaming wars purely on quality, as I’ve always appreciated its unlimited DVR and found its interface easy to navigate. But the real reason for YouTube TV’s success is much simpler: It offers a strong lineup of cable channels for less money than its competitors.
It’s all about pricing and packaging
If you’re just looking to cut cable or satellite TV with minimal effort, YouTube TV ticks all the requisite boxes: For $65 per month, it offers all the major broadcast networks (plus The CW and PBS), national sports channels such as ESPN and FS1, and the major cable news channels CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.
That’s on top of a wide range of popular entertainment channels. As this chart from The Streamable shows, YouTube TV is only missing three of the top 35 cable channels: A&E, History, and Lifetime. The only service with more of the top channels is DirecTV Stream, and it’s pricier at $70 per month. (It’s also harder to cancel.)
Meanwhile, YouTube TV’s other rivals have become more expensive through recent price hikes.
Hulu + Live TV, for instance, raised prices from $65 per month to $70 per month in December, when it added Disney+ and ESPN+ in a mandatory bundle. FuboTV dropped its $65 per month package in April, requiring customers to pay $70 per month instead for a package with more DVR storage. (Unlike its competitors, FuboTV also charges a regional sports fee of up to $6 per month in certain markets.)
Cheaper options exist, of course, and I’m glad they do. Sling TV omits broadcast channels in most markets and uses two different base packages to bring its starting price down to $35 per month. Philo cuts out broadcast and sports channels to achieve its $25 per month price. Frndly TV gets even slimmer, with a $7 per month service focusing on the channels that bigger bundles lack.
Yet, studies have shown that major broadcast networks are among the most popular channels on cable, and I often hear from folks who can’t get those channels with an antenna. Skinnier bundles such as Philo and Frndly, which lack broadcast, news, and sports channels, will remain niche offerings as a result.
YouTube TV’s opening
All of which leaves YouTube TV at a clear advantage: The service has no major gaps in its channel lineup, and its cloud DVR service, which can store an unlimited number of recordings for up to nine months, has no major drawbacks. While I have some nitpicks with its interface, overall it’s easy enough to use that it’s not going to scare people away.
So for folks who are figuring out how to cut the cord, YouTube TV is now the obvious starting point. If your cable or satellite TV provider is charging upwards of $100 per month for TV service, you can buy a cheap Roku, Fire TV Stick, or Chromecast streaming dongle, download the YouTube TV app, sign up for service, and start saving hundreds of dollars per year.
I’m not naïve enough to assume YouTube TV’s advantage will hold forever. Historically, live TV streaming providers have played a game of price leapfrog, with costs inching ever higher as TV networks demand ever-higher carriage fees for their channels.
For now, though, YouTube TV’s 5 million subscriber milestone illustrates how simple the recipe for success can be. And if prices do end up creeping upward, it’s the perfect stepping stone toward even cheaper ways of cutting the cord.
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