A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
This week saw the launch of yet another streaming pay TV service, this time from Hulu, which is offering around 50 channels, including live TV and the four major broadcast networks, for $40 a month. Hulu is the fifth major company to enter this market over the last couple of years, following Sling, Sony, DirecTV and YouTube. Each offering has its strengths and weaknesses, and each makes different trade-offs in trying to achieve the mythical sweet spot for the cord-cutter. Local channels continue to be the biggest challenge, but another is trying to create bundles consumers will go for, and each company has taken a different approach.
The mythical $35 price point
I’ve noted before that these over-the-top pay TV providers seem to believe there’s a mythical price point around $35 at which cord-cutters will leap to buy their service. Each provider seems to aim at that target with at least one of its offerings, though we’ve seen those strategies evolve over time. Hulu is the only provider not to offer at least one package at or below $35, and that’s at least in part because it packages its $8 or $12 video-on-demand service into its $40 standard package.
But to hit that $35 price point, these companies have to ditch many of the channels that have driven the average traditional pay TV spend per month to around $100. Which ones to ditch? The sports channels are among the most expensive, so that seems an obvious place to start, but they’re also one of the few things keeping live TV alive and a key requirement for many cord cutters.
Only one company — Sling — has kept ESPN out of any of its base channel lineups, while all the others include at least one ESPN channel in every package, and several in the more expensive ones. YouTube solved the problem by dealing almost exclusively with the owners of the four major broadcast networks, so it includes their channels but excludes Turner, Viacom, Scripps and a number of other key channels. Given how much sports is either on regional sports networks or Turner channels (particularly basketball), they’re not offering a comprehensive lineup. Viacom has been hardest hit by these OTT packages, with only DirecTV and Sling carrying their channels and the others taking a pass.
Even though these companies, for the most part, seem to be aiming at that sweet spot of $35 or under, it’s quite possible to spend an amount monthly that’s much closer to the traditional TV package. PlayStation Vue’s top package costs $65 before add-ons, while Hulu’s offering can get up to $65 with extra features and channels. DirecTV’s base packages top out at $70 before add-ons. Consumers have to be really committed to ditching the cable company to go for these packages that offer few savings at these higher price points, especially given the holes in some of the lineups.
One of the great possibilities that should come with OTT pay TV services is flexibility. After all, people don’t just want to pay less; they also want to have more control over which channels they get and pay for, ideally moving toward an a la carte approach. And yet Hulu and YouTube TV offer minimal flexibility at this point, with a single base package with the option to add Showtime. The other three, however, offer more choices, with two to four base packages each and, in Sling’s case, a great number of add-on channel packages to suit topical interests or even channels from other countries. It has gone so far as to call what it’s offering today “a la carte TV.” Even though that’s a bit of a stretch, it’s certainly closer to realizing that ambition than any of the others. Meanwhile, the standard packages often bundle channels in a way that makes little sense to the consumer, mixing sports and news, lifestyle and movies in seemingly random ways that likely reflect deals with content owners far more than true consumer interests.
Some of these players have piled on features in the hopes these will entice customers looking for more than just a screaming deal on a smaller set of channels. DVR functionality is deemed to be a major draw. Most of the offerings have a DVR component, though it’s often a poor substitute for a real DVR, with limitations on skipping ads being the biggest bugbear. Some make up for it with VoD services, but those also often show ads, reflecting just how much power the traditional content owners still have and how much TV business models still need ads to survive.
User interfaces are another potential differentiator, with each company having its own take on how to reinvent the electronic programming guide. Some favor familiarity and a more traditional approach while others, including Hulu, focus on recommendations and a completely new (and unfamiliar) user interface. None of those I’ve tried (and I’ve tried all but PlayStation Vue) have cracked it, and several have either awful user interfaces altogether or significant issues.
Part of the promise of future TV services is the ability to watch what you want, when you want, where you want, including on the device of your choosing. With that in mind, these services certainly give you options that go far beyond a traditional set-top box, but they don’t all do equally well in supporting a wide range of devices. Interestingly, PlayStation Vue, which was very limited in its device support at first, now leads in this department, but new offerings like YouTube and Hulu are still lacking. Not all offer web interfaces, either, requiring users to either download native apps on their computers or stick to other devices.
Local channels are still the biggest issue
As I wrote several years ago, local channels were always likely to be the biggest challenge facing streaming pay TV providers because of the structure of the U.S. market and its affiliate system for TV stations. Because many local stations aren’t owned by the broadcasters, the latter have little control over getting those stations on board as part of a national rollout. As such, each of the services has made its own decision about how to roll out local channels, in some cases, offering all the major channels in theory but in practice only in limited geographic areas, while YouTube TV is only available at all in the areas where it has good local channel support, as befits its strong ties to the broadcasters. PlayStation seems to be doing better on the CBS side, leveraging the work CBS has done for its own All Access service, and it’s the only one of these services to offer any local channels (and even then only one) where I live in Utah.
A growing but frustrating set of options
What we’re left with, then, is a growing but ultimately frustrating set of options for those wanting to ditch their traditional pay TV provider and find a cheaper, more flexible, more modern alternative. Each of these services has its pros and cons, with some leading on content flexibility but lacking on the user interface, while others major in features but force users into narrow channel packages.
The table below summarizes the current situation as well as I can — one other thing I’ve found in researching these services is how hard they make it to easily see the channel lineups, pricing and features. None of them is great at this.
For now, would-be cord-cutters are often left choosing the best of a set of bad options, or even combining several of these to get what they really want. What I was most struck by with Hulu’s launch this week is how it has become my go-to for video on demand but adding live to the experience — especially missing local channels — adds far less than $30 of additional value.
What I want is a service that combines Hulu-like breadth of on-demand content with a live option for the major sports I watch and I guess I’m not alone in that. If I could combine Netflix, Hulu and an on-demand sports service that carried all the games I care about, that would serve me well but it doesn’t exist today. We can only hope that someday it will.
Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.