The cheapest way to get live, local TV channels, for news coverage and sports, is with a digital antenna. But that’s not a solution everyone can use: Sometimes you’re out of range, sometimes the signal in your home just sucks.
If that’s the case, you can now get local channels over the web as part of a live TV service. Local channel selection differs based on your area, but in the US, you can usually get at least one local affiliate for the “big four” (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox), plus a few more like The CW, included in live TV packages.
In this roundup we’re giving priority to services that offer live local television and sports, since those are pretty much the only things you can’t find a la carte on alternate online platforms. The article is also tailored for the US market, because frankly, crossing international borders for any kind of entertainment service is a headache.
Update: Soon after this guide was published, two of my three picks changed their prices, upending the value proposition and basically making this article useless. You can read my
scathing lament editorial on the shifting nature of streaming TV value here.
The Best Overall Value: Hulu + Live TV
Update: After this article was published, Hulu + Live TV raised its price to $55 a month. I’d still pick it over YouTube TV for total value, given its much better selection of original series and on-demand content, but it’s no longer the cheapest option on this list.
At just $45 a month with local TV channels and live streams for the biggest names in cable, Hulu + Live TV is hard to argue with. It also includes, well, Hulu, the stand-alone system that competes with Netflix, offering a wide variety of TV seasons and movies, plus its own original content like The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s simply the most content, from the widest variety of sources, for the least amount of money. That includes access to ESPN and Fox cable sports channels. The price adds up if you want to throw in extra packages, like ad-free streaming (which doesn’t take the ads off of live broadcasts) or premium access to HBO, Showtime, and Starz.
Hulu includes some basic DVR functionality along with the live TV options, but its interface is somewhat scattered and confusing. It doesn’t help that the service’s future is in a state of flux, since Disney now owns a huge chunk of it and is setting up its own premium streaming service, Disney+ (which has no live TV options at the moment). But as of late 2019 and early 2020, Hulu is still the best deal around in terms of total TV content.
The Best Deal for HBO fans: AT&T TV Now
Update: After this article was published, AT&T raised the price of Now TV to $65. That’s now about the same as other services with HBO added on top, tanking its relative value and
ruining my work because AT&T hates me and making its competitors seem more appealing.
AT&T now owns DirecTV and HBO, which means its all-digital TV service (formerly DirecTV NOW) includes the latter at no extra charge. AT&T wants $50 a month for its live TV service, including live local channels, plus movies and original series from the HBO stable. Adding HBO to other services as a separate package will put you over that mark from any alternative. Whether or not you find that valuable depends on which specific HBO shows you want to watch. Note that even with HBO added on, the selection of base channels and original programming isn’t quite as wide as Hulu. Additional channel packages are more expensive, too.
Note: AT&T TV Now shouldn’t be confused with AT&T TV (sans Now), which is a conventional cable TV system offered in some limited markets.
The Best Streaming Apps: YouTube TV
Why is it so hard for everyone to come up with an app for a TV service that actually makes sense to humans? I don’t know, but among the various choices, YouTube TV has the most user-friendly options. Its $50-a-month package price without premium channels or much in the way of original programming is lacking in value, but its collection of apps on phones, smart TVs, set-top boxes, and in the browser are the best around. If a decent user experience is your biggest priority, it might be worth a few extra bucks and a more limited collection of on-demand shows and movies. YouTube TV’s unlimited DVR option also beat out the competition.
Services to Avoid: Sling TV and PlayStation Vue
Sling proudly proclaims itself as the cheapest streaming TV option around, and that’s technically true. But its anemic selection of cable-only channels, in two confusing $25 packages (or all channels for $40), isn’t a very good value. It doesn’t include any local TV options, a lack that it tries to make up for with discounts on digital TV antennas . . . which you can get for yourself with no recurring charge. And what of Sony’s PlayStation Vue service? After a few years of confusing branding and middling performance, it’s shutting down completely in January 2020. Keep away from both of these options.