When I started reviewing live TV streaming services for Clark.com, Sling TV’s cheapest monthly plan was $20, DirecTV Now was giving away Apple TVs if you bought a few months of service and YouTube TV was only $35 per month.
Fast forward a couple of years and the main streaming TV companies have all raised prices, citing higher programming costs.
Cable vs. Streaming: Which is a better deal?
Every time I update my streaming TV articles with news about a price hike, I hear from readers who say they’re better off sticking with traditional cable or satellite TV. But is that really the case?
In this article, I’ll address some of the arguments for and against streaming. Let’s get started with some numbers…
According to the Leichtman Research Group, 78% of households subscribe to a pay-TV service. They pay an average of $107 per month, which is up 1% in the past year.
If you switch to a base streaming TV plan, you can cut that bill in half. Take a look:
Cheapest live TV streaming plans
|Streaming TV service||Starting price|
|AT&T WatchTV||$15/month or free for some AT&T wireless plan subscribers|
|Hulu + Live TV||$44.99/month|
|AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now)||$50/month|
Based on that $107 monthly average, you can sign up for any of the base streaming TV services above and save $50 a month or more. But there’s more to know before deciding whether cable or streaming is right for you.
Next, let me address three specific questions and concerns that I get from Clark.com readers.
1. Internet cost
I receive emails all the time from people who say the numbers I provide are misleading because I don’t include the monthly cost of internet service, which is required to stream.
Here’s why: More than 80% of households get internet service at home, according to Leichtman Research Group.
If someone in your household works from home or goes to school, chances are you’d be paying for internet service anyway. That’s why I treat internet as a separate monthly bill.
After all, the $107 monthly average is for pay-TV alone, not a TV and high-speed internet bundle.
Key takeaway: If you’re someone who doesn’t need internet at home and already has a competitive rate with the cable company, switching to streaming may not save you $50 a month or much at all.
2. Additional fees
While we’re talking about rates, there’s something else you should know when comparing cable and streaming prices.
When you visit a cable TV provider’s website, the price you see isn’t the price you pay. Broadcast and sports fees can drive up your bill significantly, plus there are monthly equipment charges.
The promo rate you see may involve signing a one-year or two-year contract, with hefty early termination fees.
Meanwhile, live TV streaming services have no contracts, no equipment charges and no extra fees. I subscribe to Hulu + Live TV and pay $44.99 per month — the same rate that’s advertised on its website.
The chart below illustrates the differences between a typical cable TV and streaming TV package:
|Typical cable TV package||Typical streaming TV package|
|Number of channels||150+||60+|
|Cable box or equipment fees||Yes||No|
|Internet connection||Not required||Required|
|Premium networks (HBO, Cinemax, SHOWTIME)||Extra monthly fee||Extra monthly fee|
|Watch anywhere from phone, computer or TV||Less flexibility||Greater flexibility|
|Contract or cancellation fees||Yes/Sometimes||Generally no|
|Broadcast TV and sports fees||Yes||No|
|Free trial period||No||Yes|
Over the last year or so, skinny streaming TV bundles have fattened up and so have the prices. But for every person who says there are too many channels, another person will focus on the channels that are missing.
What I hear most often is that people would like to pick and choose networks, not be forced to pay for what they don’t watch.
Unfortunately, that’s not how cable and streaming TV plans are sold. But with a streaming service, you could get most of the channels you want and fewer of the ones you don’t — for a lower price.
To see if that’s possible, there are two easy steps to follow:
- Open your cable TV guide and make a list of you must-have channels
- Search for those networks using our streaming TV channel comparison chart
Important note: Not all streaming TV services will carry your local ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and independent stations. You may be able to pick them up with a digital antenna.
If you want to cut your pay-TV bill in half by switching to streaming, it’s still possible. Stick to a base plan and avoid expensive add-ons and premium features that make the streaming vs. cable savings insignificant.
I’ve found that cutting the cable TV cord is easiest for those who really want to save money and make that a priority.
If you’re excited about getting that $50 a month back in your life, you’ll be more willing to give up some channels, learn a new interface or deal with occasional buffering.
But if you expect streaming to be exactly like cable or satellite, you may very well be setting yourself up for disappointment.