YouTube TV is still a good deal — if you can afford it

Despite a recent 30 percent fee increase, YouTube TV is still a better value compared to traditional cable or satellite television.
The logo of YouTube TV. (Logo: Google/Image: The Desk)

Subscribers of YouTube TV were shocked last week when the online-based cable TV replacement announced it would finally roll out a handful of ViacomCBS cable networks along with a 30 percent fee increase.

That rate hike brought the total cost of the service to $65 a month — nearly double YouTube TV’s launch price of $35 a month just three years ago — and it signaled a reckoning for so-called cord-cutters who switched from high-price cable and satellite TV plans to what they expected would be cheaper options from streaming services in the long term.

As streaming services like YouTube TV add more channels, the additional programming comes at a cost — and that cost is increasingly being passed along to users. YouTube TV is not the only streaming cable replacement to raise its fees over the last few years — its rivals Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV, AT&T TV Now and Fubo TV have done so as well (PlayStation Vue, a competing offering from Sony, decided to shut down instead of raise fees) — but some thought YouTube TV would be insulated from the industry tend through its common ownership with Google. The thinking was, Google had enough money to supplement whatever fee YouTube TV had to pay to programmers, and therefore YouTube TV would be pro-consumer and find other ways to generate revenue.

Turns out, that wasn’t the case. It’s become more apparent now that the TV division at YouTube wants to run YouTube TV as a standalone product with its own offerings independent of any other division at Google or its parent company Alphabet. And that means users are going to have to cough up some more dough.

Despite the fee increase, YouTube TV is still one of the best cable replacement services on the Internet. Understandably, not everyone can afford $65 a month for live and recorded television, but those who can should park their money at YouTube TV over another rival for a few reasons.

More reliable than competitors

Facebook, Twitter and Reddit are littered with users complaining about the stability and reliability of live cable replacement streaming services. It takes a lot of resources to deliver live streams to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people across the country, and startups often find that they’re not able to deliver unless they make a few compromises here or there.

Backed by the technical prowess of Google and YouTube, though, YouTube TV has proven itself to be more reliable than the rest of its competitors. It has the infrastructure and the technical know-how to bring live and video on demand services to the masses — after all, YouTube is the most-popular streaming video site on the Internet, and you don’t run a company that processes one hour of videos every second without learning a thing or two about reliability.

Rarely has YouTube TV suffered from an outage or other kind of glitch due to high demand during an event like the Super Bowl or World Series, and on the rare occasions that it has gone down, it’s been brief — and the company has compensated users with subscription credits for hanging in there.

Better cloud storage — and more of it

One of my biggest frustrations with AT&T TV Now (back when it was called DirecTV Now) was the unpredictability of the cloud’s DVR feature. Sometimes it would record a show, and things would play just fine. Often, though, a show wouldn’t record as schedule, stop in the middle of a recording or glitch out in some weird way (dropped frames were common, which resulted in jagged movement and missed dialogue).

That was two years ago, and I’m sure AT&T has ironed out some of those bugs, but in cord-cutting groups I follow on Reddit and Facebook, the reliability of cloud DVR features on streaming services still lags far behind what users have come to expect thanks to years of cable and satellite companies offering better DVR features in their set-top boxes.

Switching to YouTube TV felt like using one of those cable or satellite DVR boxes. When you tell a show to record — surprise — it records! Not only that, it records every episode of a show and preserves it for nine months after it airs. Competing services will record shows, too (or so they say), but most preserve episodes between 30 and 90 days after they air, depending on the service.

YouTube TV also offers unlimited cloud storage space, with shows and movies being stored on the same servers used to host YouTube videos, whereas competing services limit the number of shows that can be recorded, with the average being around 20 hours for free or up to 500 hours if you’re willing to pay extra. Only Philo comes close to offering unlimited cloud storage space for recording, though it deletes episodes after a month if they don’t air again on a channel.

More program diversity

When YouTube TV first launched, it was one of the few services to offer programming from Disney, 21st Century Fox (now Fox Corporation), Comcast and CBS Corporation. The company’s deals with those four programmers made it one of the few streaming services to offer all the major national sports networks and a handful of regional sports networks to users for a blockbuster price of $35 a month.

Many felt YouTube TV was positioning it as an online cable replacement for sports, though from the get-go, the service offered many more general entertainment and news channels (a deal with Turner would eventually bring CNN and Cartoon Network into the mix along with TBS, Tru TV, TNT and Turner Classic Movies)  and unlimited cloud DVR storage to the platform.

Thanks to its broad programming agreements, YouTube TV was — and still is — one of the few online cable replacements to offer a wide variety of local channels in dozens of large, medium and even small TV markets across the country. In most areas, YouTube TV users will find all the major network affiliates — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — from the local stations in their community. Few other streaming cable replacements can make that claim.

The addition of the ViacomCBS channels means at least one of those four broadcast networks — CBS — will remain on the service long-term. Given their connection to sports channels, it’s unlikely local ABC, NBC or CBS stations will be removed anytime soon, either (unless YouTube TV can’t reach agreements with the parent companies of the local stations, which also seems unlikely). And while YouTube TV has allowed some agreements with regional sports networks to lapse, major players like Comcast, Fox Corporation, Disney and Turner are expected to stay on the service for at least a few more years.

Easier to split costs among family and friends

Thanks to a family sharing feature, YouTube TV allows one paid subscription to be shared among six individual Google accounts, with each account getting their own cloud DVR storage space and the ability to customize their channel lineup (move channels around or hide them entirely) without impacting the other five years.

Technically, the family share feature is supposed to be limited to just members of a subscriber’s household, but YouTube TV enforces family sharing based on connections made within a local broadcast market rather than an individual address. In other words, a subscriber can add up to five additional friends or family members, and as long as they get the same local broadcast stations, they shouldn’t run into any issues.

That makes it easy to divide the cost of a subscription among multiple people. Split among four family members, friends or roommates, a $65 a month subscription comes out to $16.25 per person, per month. Want to add HBO Max? That $15 a month subscription then becomes $3.25 per person, per month, bringing the total amount to $20 per person, per month.

Two possible downsides: Though the family share plan allows for six Google accounts to be linked to one subscription, YouTube TV imposes a limit of three concurrent streams at a time — that’s total streams across all six accounts. Some users have found a workaround to this limitation by using TV Everywhere, a feature that lets you use your Google credentials to access programming on apps distributed by TV networks themselves, but not all networks on YouTube TV support TV Everywhere, and the workaround seems to be hit-or-miss.

Another downside: While YouTube TV is currently enforcing family share plans based on local broadcast market, it could always switch to enforcing it based on a subscriber’s address, similar to what Spotify started to do last year for certain accounts. Depending on the situation, that may or may not be a problem (if you share with roommates who live at your house, for example, versus if you’re sharing with friends who live across town). For now, though, YouTube TV appears to be sticking to enforcement based on a local broadcast market.

Access across multiple devices

From the start, YouTube TV has been supported the two biggest smartphone and tablet operating systems — Google’s own Android and Apple’s iOS — as well as the most-popular streaming devices, including Roku, Apple TV, Amazon TV and natively on various smart TV platforms. One famous holdout: Amazon Fire TV, but things changed last year when it was finally added to that streaming platform.

That means there’s a good chance you own more than one device in your home that is compatible with YouTube TV. And the experience across all of those devices is going to be the same — the same lineup, the same live TV experience, the same cloud DVR feature, the same family share plan, the same premium networks, the same on demand programming, the same everything.

Favorite sports bar not showing the game you want to watch? Just pull out your phone and launch YouTube TV. Problem solved. Kids getting antsy at the grocery store? Let them stream Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. Want to watch two shows at once? Stream a channel on your TV and a second one on your phone, tablet or computer (also, you have a great attention span).

Great deal if you pay up front

Shortly after last week’s pay increase, an intrepid Reddit user said they’ve managed to save on their YouTube TV subscription for years by purchasing gift cards in bulk.

Their tactic works like this: A few times a year, retailers offer discounts on prepaid Google Play gift cards. This typically always happens around the holidays when retailers offer anywhere from $5 to $10 off prepaid Google Play cards (like this sale in 2018 when Amazon discounted $50 Google Play cards by $5).

Last year, Reddit user “pantheman75” spotted an amazing deal at Walmart where the retailer was taking 27 percent off the price of a prepaid Google Play gift card. Even better: There was apparently no limit on the number of cards a customer could buy — so pantheman75 bought “hundreds of dollars” worth of cards in one sitting.

“Whenever I get charged for something in Google Play…I’m essentially getting each purchase at 27 percent off,” pantheman75 said, noting that his monthly fee for YouTube TV is now $47 and change per month.

YouTube TV is one of the few streaming cable TV replacements that allows users to cover the balance of their subscription with prepaid cards — Hulu with Live TV being another one, since users can purchase Hulu gift cards at retail stores as well — and if you have the money to plunk down a few hundred dollars when they’re on sale, you could save in the long-run.

There’s some risks involved with this, though. While YouTube TV is allowing people to pay for their subscriptions using Google Play credits, they could suddenly require customers to pay using a credit or debit card. YouTube TV could also abruptly shut down as PlayStation Vue did if subscribers continue to leave over fee increases. In both cases, users who paid hundreds of dollars for Google Play gift cards may find themselves with credits that they can’t use on live TV.

Paying hundreds of dollars for Google Play gift cards also creates an informal contract between a user and YouTube TV. Subscribers are less likely to leave YouTube TV for another service if they’ve already paid in advance for it, and that could be problematic if YouTube TV decides to drop programming that a user wants.

Still, the gamble of paying for Google Play gift cards to cover the cost of YouTube TV could result in a long-term savings, and that might be good enough for the casual user who feels their favorite cable network or sports channel is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Still cheaper and better than cable or satellite

Shortly after YouTube TV announced they were raising their price to $65 a month, some users did some mental math and quickly came to the conclusion that the higher cost was about the same, or even more, than what they were paying for traditional cable TV service.

But simply comparing the cost of one service to another based on price alone isn’t enough to prove if one service is a better value over another. And for the reasons stated above, YouTube TV still has cable beat on value.

While it’s true that in some areas cable or satellite might appear to be a cheaper alternative to YouTube TV, there a few things to keep in mind.

One: Advertised prices for cable or satellite service tend to be promotional prices that require a commitment of one or two years. In some cases, those promotional prices may even require a customer to sign up for another service like Internet, home phone service or home monitoring (AT&T is notorious for slipping this condition into their fine print). With YouTube TV, there’s no promotional price, no hidden prices in the fine print, and no commitment.

Two: Cable and satellite companies tack “hidden” fees onto bills that forces a customer to part with more money than they might be expecting. Cable and phone companies are regulated as a utility, and that means they have to pay certain municipal and other government fees and taxes. These get passed on to the consumer, and they generally result in bills that are substantially higher than what a customer might expect. Streaming cable replacements like YouTube TV aren’t regulated as a utility, so there’s no municipal or government fees to pass along (though YouTube TV does charge sales tax where they’re required to collect it). That makes it much easier to figure out what’s due at the end of a customer’s billing cycle.

Cable and satellite companies also charge additional fees that often aren’t included in package prices, including fees for local broadcast channels and regional sports networks. Not all cable or satellite companies do this, but when they do, those fees can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 a month on top of the advertised package price. And in some cases, there’s no way for a customer to opt out of these fees by changing packages (this is especially true with local broadcast fees). Streaming cable replacements, including YouTube TV, don’t charge extra programming fees.

Three: Cable and satellite companies charge extra to watch on multiple TVs. Typically, cable and satellite companies only offer a customer the ability to access their service in one room of their home, with each additional room requiring its own installation and hardware that, of course, comes with extra one-time and monthly fees. Want to watch in a bedroom? You’ll have to pay $5 to $10 per month to rent another cable or satellite box. Want DVR service? Well, that’s another $5 to $10 per month per box. And of course, your TV has to be near a cable jack, or it’ll be another fee to have one installed. If you like rearranging your furniture, that cost can quickly add up.

Streaming cable replacements, on the other hand, work with the devices you already own. Have an Apple TV in your living room and a Roku in your bedroom? Want to watch the news on your tablet while you’re cooking dinner? Like streaming sports on your phone while you poop? Just download the app, log in, and you’re set. No extra cable jacks to install, no extra hardware to rent, no additional monthly fees.

Four: Some smaller cable and satellite companies may not offer access to streaming apps. The major cable and satellite companies like Comcast, Cox and Spectrum offer apps for accessing live and on-demand programming on streaming devices like iPhones, iPads, Roku and Amazon Fire TV stick. But some smaller cable companies and startup satellite services don’t, meaning you’re stuck watching TV on your TV and if you want to watch on another TV, you have to pay for extra installation, extra hardware, additional monthly fees or some combination of the three. And some smaller pay TV companies don’t offer access to TV Everywhere apps, which means if a customer wants to watch a TV show or movie on a TV network’s app, they’re out of luck.

Last: You can’t easily divide your cable or satellite bill among your friends. Since YouTube TV (for now) only enforces their family share plans based on the local broadcast market of its users, customers can easily share one subscription among several roommates, family members and friends, then divide the bill into portions that are much easier to palate. Traditional cable and satellite services are harder to split among friends and family members who live at other addresses, meaning a customer is usually stuck paying the entire bill.

As with any service, it’s best to shop around, compare prices and features, and settle on the service that works best for you. Despite the recent fee increase, at a granular level, YouTube TV still offers the best programming and features for the price.

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