As the US continues to face financial uncertainty, one good way to save money is by cutting the cable TV cord. Thanks to streaming services, you can get rid of cable while keeping the live TV channels you love. Live news from both local and national TV channels is more important than ever, and live sports including the NFL are back. And you can watch them all using a low-cost streaming device, no cable box or antenna required.
Prices of streaming TV services start at $10 per month with no extra fees or contracts. In place of a cable box and the monthly fee to rent it, you can use streaming apps on your smart TV, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV or game console. You can watch at home or on the go via a tablet, phone, other mobile device or even a web browser. And setting one up doesn’t require a stranger visiting your house — something to consider during these times of social distancing.
Read more: Free live TV news to watch now: Stream ABC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and more
Now playing: Watch this: Live TV streaming services for cord cutters: How to choose…
The downside? The prices and services themselves are in constant flux. In December, for example, Hulu increased its price to $65 a month, shortly after dropping certain regional sports networks. YouTube TV also went up to $65 in July while adding a handful of channels, and FuboTV put its price up by $5 and altered its channel lineup, too. Change can also mean that competition is squeezed out — our former cheap pick AT&T TV Watch TV has stopped accepting new customers and Sony shuttered its streaming service, PlayStation Vue, back in early 2020.
With all of that in mind, here’s a guide to the brave new world of live TV streaming over the internet, as well as other cord-cutting options available today, starting with our two Editors’ Choice winners for the best TV streaming service, Sling TV Blue and YouTube TV.
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Top live TV streaming services compared
|AT&T TV Now||FuboTV||Hulu Plus Live TV||Sling TV||YouTube TV|
|Base price||$55/month for 45-plus channels||$60/month for 100-plus channels||$65/month for 60-plus channels||$30/month for 30-plus (Orange) or 45-plus (Blue) channels||$65/month for 85-plus channels|
|ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC channels||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets||Yes, in many markets||Fox and NBC only in select cities||Yes, in many markets|
|Simultaneous streams per account||2 ($5 option for 3)||2 ($6 option for 3)||2 ($15 option for unlimited)||1 (Orange), 3 (Blue)||3|
|Family member/user profiles||No||Yes||Yes||No||Yes|
|Cloud DVR||Yes (50 hours, 200 hours for $10 a month)||Yes (30 hours, 500 hours for $10 a month)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Fast-forward through or skip commercials with cloud DVR||No (Yes with $15 option)||Yes||No (Yes with $10 option)||Yes||Yes|
At $30 Sling TV Blue may cost more than Philo ($20) and TVision ($10) but it has better channels, more options and a comparatively better interface, so it’s worth the extra money in our opinion. And it’s still dirt-cheap compared to most other streaming services, let alone cable.
Sling is cheaper than premium services like YouTube TV and Hulu Plus Live TV because it has very few local stations. Confusingly, Sling offers not one but two s$30-per-month channel packages, Sling Orange as well as Sling Blue. While some channels are available on both Sling Orange and Sling Blue, the two differ significantly with other channel offerings: Orange is basically the ESPN/Disney package, while Blue is the Fox/NBC package and offers more channels overall.
Top channels not available on Sling Blue: ABC, CBS, Animal Planet, Disney Channel, ESPN, Nickelodeon. Fox and NBC are only available in select major cities.
Top channels not available on Sling Orange: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Animal Planet, Bravo, CNBC, Discovery Channel, Bravo, Fox News, Fox Sports 1, FX, MSNBC, USA Network. Read our Sling TV review.
With eight new channels and the addition of NFL Network and optional RedZone in time for the 2020 football season, YouTube TV has more top channels than any competitor — and it’s still the only one with local PBS stations. YouTube TV has the best cloud DVR of the bunch, including unlimited storage and a generous nine months to watch recordings (most are 30 days). The streaming platform interface is no-nonsense, if a little drab, and yet it offers most of the features a cable service can give you. And unlike Sling and others, it’s dead simple: one package, one price, done.
If you want the best service available and don’t mind paying for it then YouTube TV is the one to get. However, if you just want to save money over a traditional cable subscription then Sling TV is the superior bargain.
Top channels not available: A&E, History, Lifetime. Read our YouTube TV review.
With that December price hike, Hulu Plus Live TV falls from being our top premium pick to (once again) second banana to YouTube TV. Its channel selection is still robust compared to everything but YouTube TV, however, and Hulu’s integration of live TV with its significant catalog of on-demand content, including exclusive titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, give it a content advantage no other service can match. Its interface and DVR lag behind competitors, however, and you’ll still have to pay another $10 a month to get the ability to skip commercials on Hulu’s cloud DVR (the base cloud DVR, which is included, doesn’t permit skipping ads). In short, for the same base price, YouTube TV is now better than Hulu.
Top channels not available: AMC, BBC America, Comedy Central, MLB Network, MTV, NBA TV, NFL Network, NFL Red Zone, Nickelodeon. Read our Hulu Plus Live TV review.
There’s a lot to like about FuboTV — it offers a wide selection of channels second only to YouTube TV, and its sports focus makes it especially attractive to soccer fans in particular. It’s also a great choice for NFL fans since it’s the only service aside from YouTube TV with NFL Network and optional RedZone.
In August 2020 Fubo TV added a bunch of channels including ESPN and Disney channels, but at the same time it dropped Turner networks including CNN, TNT and TBS — the latter two also carry a lot of sports content, in particular NBA and MLB. Those programming holes, and the $60 price tag, make it less attractive than the others. (Note to get the $60 price, go to Add-ons & More, then scroll down to Fubo Standard.)
Top channels not available in base package: Cartoon Network, CNN, MLB Network, TBS, TNT, TruTV. Read our FuboTV review.
Until recently AT&T TV Now bundled HBO into its base package, but now it’s an optional $10 extra. With or without it, the service is still missing more top channels than any premium competitor (although you can pay extra to get most of those channels if you want). Its DVR is also a step behind those of our top choices. The traditional-style interface is good, however, as it includes the flipper-friendly ability to swipe left and right to change channels.
Top channels not available in base package: A&E, AMC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, HGTV, History, Lifetime, MLB Network, NFL Network, Travel Channel. Read our AT&T TV Now review.
How to shop for cord-cutting live TV services
Each of the services above offers a different mix of channels, so your first step should be choosing one that carries your “can’t miss” cable channels and shows. And some of the most important channels are locals, namely ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Not every service offers all of them in every area.
Read more: Top 100 channels compared across Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube TV, FuboTV, AT&T TV Now and Philo
The services can be broken down into two main groups: Budget, with prices ranging from $10 to $30 and few or no local channels, and Premium, with prices from $55 and up and include locals and often other extras like a supercharged cloud DVR. That’s right, all of the services allow you to record and play back shows, just like a traditional cable or satellite DVR, but they often come with restrictions.
Then there’s the multistream issue. If you want to watch more than one program at the same time — for example, on your living room TV and on a bedroom TV, or the main TV and a tablet or other devices — you’ll want to make sure the service you’re watching has enough simultaneous streams. Sling Orange only allows one stream at a time, and if you try to watch a second, it’s blocked. Other services have higher simultaneous stream limits.
Keep in mind that, especially if you do have more than one person watching at once on supported devices, you need to make sure you have fast, reliable broadband internet. A 100Mbps download service will cost around $50 to $60 a month, and that’s where the savings of cutting cable can get swallowed up.
Here’s a live TV streaming shopping list to consider:
Hulu Plus Live TV.
What streaming TV services won’t give you
Streaming TV services are great, but there are some things they can’t do compared to a traditional cable box.
First, it’s worth looking at the channels that you can’t get with any of these services. For example, only one of the services offers PBS — YouTube TV — and this is because the broadcaster reportedly hadn’t acquired the streaming rights to all of the shows that it airs.
With sports returning from hiatus, fans will want to make sure they can follow their teams. Most services carry ESPN and local channels for NFL football, but if you follow a professional baseball or basketball team, you might need their specific channel — called an RSN, or regional sports network — to watch regular season games. RSN coverage varies widely for each service.
Every live TV service’s video streaming is a few seconds to a minute or more behind the “live” stream you’ll get from your local cable or satellite provider. That means you could get a preview of scores or big plays from Twitter, phone alerts or phone calls from friends slightly before you see the action on screen.
If you’re used to 5.1-channel surround offered by cable or even OTA, then you’ll probably be disappointed that all of the services only include stereo sound on live broadcasts. 5.1 audio is available on some on-demand material, though.
Other live TV options
Price: Starts at $10 a month
T-Mobile introduced its own live TV streaming service in November, and prices start from $10, making it one of the cheapest. It’s only for T-Mobile customers right now, however, and its channel counts are much lower at each tier than competitors’.
Price: Starts at $20 a month
A cheap service with no sports or local channels, Philo offers bread-and-butter cable channels like AMC, Comedy Channel, Nickelodeon and BBC America. It also includes a cloud DVR and add-ons from Epix and Starz. We think most people are better off paying another $10 for Sling TV’s superior channel selection, but if Philo has every channel you want, it’s a great deal.
CBS All Access
Price: $6 a month, or ad-free $10 a month
CBS All Access stands offers live TV (in some cities) from CBS, CBSN and ET Live in addition to a healthy selection of video-on-demand from ViacomCBS properties. CBS All Access also offers exclusive originals such as Star Trek: Discovery, Picard and the Good Fight.
Don’t care about live TV? More cord-cutter staples
Nicknamed Baby Yoda, this might be the cutest Star Wars character ever, from The Mandalorian on Disney Plus.
Disney/Screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET
Plenty of heavy hitters have entered the on-demand fray recently, including Apple with Apple TV Plus and Disney with Disney Plus, both of which debuted in late 2019. In 2020 streamers have even more choices, including NBC/Comcast’s Peacock and AT&T’s HBO Max. All of these services lack traditional live channels — focusing instead on back catalogs and new original programming — but they can still eat into your entertainment budget.
Netflix: One of the first streaming TV services and it’s so popular that it’s become a catch-all term in the same way as “Magic Marker” or “Coke” in the South. And then, of course, there’s the ever-popular “Netflix and chill.” High-definition plans start at $13 a month, and the service covers thousands of TV shows and movies, including original TV series like Daredevil and Orange Is the New Black.
Amazon Prime Video: The “other” major streaming service, which is included as part of a $99 annual Prime Membership or $9 a month. The interface isn’t as user-friendly as Netflix, but the service also offers shows not on its rival, including original content like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon Prime also has the ability to add premium channels (HBO and Showtime and more), making it a potential one-stop shop.
Disney Plus: One of the biggest streaming services to launch in some time, Disney has gathered a mix of movies, TV shows and exclusive content, including the Star Wars show The Mandalorian, for $7 a month. Read our Disney Plus review here.
Vudu/Movies Anywhere: A digital library (or locker) that incorporates legacy UltraViolet content and streaming movies and TV that are only available for purchase, like new releases.
Peacock: Live now nationwide, Peacock is NBC’s answer to CBS All Access. Its main claim to fame is that its basic tier, with 7,500 hours of content, is free.
It’s also worth investigating free, ad-supported services such as Roku Channel, IMDB Freedive, TuBi TV, Pluto and Crackle, which offer a wealth of content. Read CNET’s roundup of free TV services here.
Now playing: Watch this: How to cut the cord for $10: installing an indoor antenna
Is an indoor or outdoor antenna a viable option?
If you have a TV in your house — that is, a screen that incorporates a tuner — you’re part-way to cutting the cord already. An affordable indoor antenna hooked up to your TV will let you watch free TV over the air from any channel you receive in your local broadcast area. Antennas cost as little as $10. See our comparison of indoor antennas here.
You can also add a DVR such as the Amazon Fire TV Recast or TiVo Bolt OTA if you want. Then you can record those live TV antenna channels, play them back and skip commercials, just like on a standard cable TV DVR. Here’s CNET’s roundup of the best OTA DVRs for cord-cutters.
A solid, lower-cost alternative to live TV streaming services is the combination of an antenna for live local channels and an on-demand service such as Netflix or Hulu (which is now only $6 a month). That way you’ll still be able to watch live programming and also have a choice of on-demand content.
Amazon’s Fire TV Recast DVR is a cord-cutting antenna user’s friend.
Conclusion: Try it yourself
Streaming live TV services are still in flux. Since launch, every service has increased its prices by at least $5 a month, channel selections and cities with local channel access are changing all the time, and reports persist about some services losing money, or even closing in the case of PlayStation Vue. While streaming is undoubtedly the future, it will be some time before both prices and the services offered settle in.
That said, if you want a cable-like experience both at home and for on-the-go devices, without the dead weight that a cable subscription brings, then a streaming service is worth a look. There’s no contract to sign, and if you don’t like the service you’re on, you can easily switch. So whether you’re looking for a basic package such as Sling TV or want to pay more for a deluxe experience from the likes of YouTube TV, there should be a streaming TV service to suit you.