While Netflix creates a new way to watch TV online, regular live TV languished for years in an old distribution model. YouTube TV is the closest I’ve found to bridging the gap between the old ways and the new.
Live television is one of those curious fragments of life in the 20th century that was too engrained to leave behind, and yet fundamentally resistant to the revolution that the internet brought to the way we watch things. If you were already an adult by the 90s, you probably remember watching TV when the TV Guide told you to, and if you missed it, you missed it. You could record it to a VHS tape, but that was your only back up plan.
Meanwhile, if you were born after the year 2000, all you’ve ever known is a world with YouTube and Netflix. In this world, you could watch videos whenever you want, you can search for a show or movie by its name, and the idea that you could “miss” an episode seems foreign. Once it’s released, it’s out there, right?
I grew up right in between these two periods. I was young when YouTube was new, but I can still recall the pain of setting up the VCR to record my shows. It’s through that lens that I decided to take a look at YouTube TV—and if live 24 hour TV stations will continue to existence, I’m glad they can take this form.
Channel Surfing Is Way Easier In the Future
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge channel surfer. I fell out of the habit years ago and even then I tended to stick to a few channels I knew I liked. As soon as I hit the Live section of YouTube TV, however, it all started coming back to me. Scrolling through the list of available channels has a certain charm that browsing Netflix doesn’t. You’re not seeing the same list of shows tailored specifically to you. You’re just seeing what’s on.
If you’re old enough to remember the TV Guide channel, the Live tab will feel just a little familiar to you. On the left side of the screen you’ll see the channel name and icon; the rest of the screen is dominated by a grid with a schedule of what’s on now, and what will come on over the next hour or so. If you’re browsing on the web, you can even hover over a channel to get a thumbnail preview of what’s playing right this second.
While you’re watching live TV, you get all the features you’d expect from a DVR-equipped cable package. You can pause live TV and rewind past moments you’ve watched (though you can’t scroll back to moments you haven’t watched yet in this session. You can even fast-forward past ads, as long as you’ve paused to let the live broadcast get ahead. If you’re in sync with the broadcast, naturally you can’t skip the ads.
The number of available channels varies based on where you live, but generally there are around 60 available channels, not including regional sports channels. This is an improvement over the relatively meager offerings the service launched with last year. You can also add on Showtime, Shudder, Sundance Now, or Fox Soccer Plus for an extra fee. It’s worth checking to make sure the channels.
DVR Has Taken Its Final Form
When you stop and think about it, DVR is a really weird technology. It was invented in 1999, which only gave it a few years to gain popularity before YouTube came out and showed us what streaming video can look like. DVR is a feature that lets you record live TV as it airs so you can watch it later, but in an era dominated by Netflix and Hulu, why do you need to “record” anything? Why can’t you just stream the file from the network’s server somewhere?
YouTube TV has the answer to this. Instead of using old (but not that old) school terminology like DVR to describe following a show, you can click a button to add a show to your library. From that moment on, every new episode will be added to your collection for you to watch whenever you want. They’ll be available immediately after they air.
More importantly, however, you’ll also be given access to all past episodes that are available for a show. So, if you hear about a show on Tuesday that aired on Monday and decide to add it to your library, you can watch Monday’s episode even though you didn’t “record” it ahead of time. It’s a system that, mercifully, makes sense in the internet age instead of unnecessarily adding the same limitations of older technology.
Of course, there’s a catch. You can only get access to the older episodes that a network has decided to make available. It’s a bit like how Hulu sometimes has whole seasons of shows, but other times it only keeps the last few episodes. If you add a show to your library you’ll still record any future episodes (which you can keep for up to nine months in your unlimited storage space), but in general you won’t have to wait for a rerun to catch an episode that aired just last night. If you’re lucky, you’ll immediately get access to entire seasons.
This is the perfect blend of the old ways and the new guard. Of course it would be nicer if networks just put up a server with every episode of every show we want to watch and you didn’t have to “record” anything at all. But licensing is a thing, so we’ll likely never get the free-for-all future we want. In the meantime, getting instant access to a bunch of old episodes (while still being able to save future episodes as they air) is the happiest middle ground we’ll probably ever get.
The Biggest Downside Is the Same As Always: The Ads
YouTube TV costs $40 a month so you’d think you would get to have an ad-free experience, right? You would if you’ve lived in Netflix’s ad-free garden your whole life and haven’t yet tasted the horrors of the real world. Despite the relatively high price tag, you’re still getting ads with YouTube TV and they’re awful.
For starters, they’re TV ads. If you’re used to watching cable, that probably goes without saying, but if you’re like me and you’ve spent a lot of time watching Netflix, the idea of ads interrupting your shows can feel out of place and jarring. Worse yet, I personally subscribe to Hulu’s No Commercials plan, and even YouTube Red so I rarely see any ads at all when watching TV. To go from that to several minutes of ads every few minutes borders on nauseating.
Even if you accept TV ads, though, there’s a minor catch. If you record shows as they air, you can skip past the ads in the episodes you recorded. However, if you’re watching the backlog of shows that were already available before you started recording, there will be unskippable ads, not unlike the ones that some YouTube videos have in the middle. Again, if you’ve resigned yourself to seeing ads in the middle of your shows, this isn’t a huge deal. If you can’t stand even more ads, though, YouTube TV is going to make your skin crawl.
YouTube TV isn’t for everyone. As I said at the start, live TV just doesn’t appeal to me and I’d rather pay money for a service that skips the ads, let’s me just search for a show, and pick any episode I want. That said, YouTube TV still managed to feel accessible to my spoiled modern sensibilities, while successfully repackaging the live TV experience in a more convenient and cheaper (or at least cheaper than cable) package.