YouTube TV is the vMVPD (virtual multichannel video programming distributor), owned by Google and with YouTube branding, that launched nearly four years ago, in February of 2017. However, the service was only available in a handful of markets at first, and it didn’t launch nationally until January of 2019.
Like its vMVPD competitors, which include Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, and Fubo TV, YouTube TV offers users a value proposition: they can pay less than they do for cable, and get something that kind of looks like cable, while giving them most, but not all, of what cable does. It’s for people who know they don’t want to stick with cable or other traditional pay TV, but aren’t quite ready to depend entirely on streaming services. And YouTube TV, like other services of its kind, does not require a contract, making it much easier to cancel than cable is.
And it appears, many people are interested in what YouTube TV is offering. Google said in November that it had reached three million subscribers for YouTube TV, which represented an increase of about 500,000 from three months earlier. The company did not announce a new subscriber number when it released its fourth quarter earnings on February 2.
That’s still much lower than the subscriber totals of the top two cable companies, as Comcast had twenty million at the end of the third quarter and Charter had 16.2 million, while DirecTV and Dish had 13.6 million and 8.9 million each, per figures reported by Leichtman Research.
The three million subscribers for YouTube TV is about a million fewer than Hulu + Live TV. However, that total is ahead of that of the much older competitor, Sling TV. Moreover, YouTube TV isn’t that far behind Verizon Fios, which had four million video subscribers at the end of the third quarter (and was down to 3.92 million by the fourth quarter.) If YouTube TV were a cable company, it would have more video subscribers than every major cable system besides Comcast, Charter and Cox, while pulling about even with Altice. But YouTube TV is adding subscribers all the time, while most of the traditional providers are losing them.
So, what reason is there not to sign up for YouTube TV?
For one thing, Google raised the price of the service back in June of 2020. The subscription price was hiked 30 percent, from $50 a month to $65, an uncommonly large price increase.
“We don’t take these decisions lightly, and realize how hard this is for our members,” Google said about the price increases in a blog post last June. “That said, this new price reflects the rising cost of content and we also believe it reflects the complete value of YouTube TV, from our breadth of content to the features that are changing how we watch live TV.”
The hike put YouTube TV in the range of what some cable subscriptions cost, albeit at the lower end of that range.
The website Decision Data reported last June that the average household cable package is now $217.42 a month and that for the average household, that exceeds the average amount spent monthly on all utilities combined. That bill, however, likely includes Internet access.
“I mean 65 bucks a month? Think about it. You add that to your internet bill and you’re probably sitting around 140 bucks a month now,” reviews.org said in reaction to the price hike news. “If you have a normal cable internet bill or whatever between 50 and 70 bucks a month, you’re probably sitting between 120 and 140 if you’re subscribed to that plus YouTube TV. Congratulations. You’ve all just rediscovered your cable TV bundles. Here we are again, right?”
Cable bills differ wildly, depending on the location, provider, the size of the package, and other factors. But it’s also worth pointing out that the price of cable isn’t staying static while that of YouTube TV increases. Several cable providers, including Comcast, have raised prices as well of late. Both vMVPDs and more traditional pay TV providers are under similar pressure to raise prices, as programming continues to get more expensive.
Another reason to resist signing up for YouTube TV is that the service has been losing channels of late. Despite gaining the ViacomCBS channels that had been missing since the service first launched—something that was given as a reason why the service had to raise prices—YouTube TV lost several other channels from its lineup later on in 2020. These included, perhaps most notably, the regional sports networks formerly known as Fox Sports, but since re-banded as Bally Sports. YouTube TV also lost another sports network, The Tennis Channel, in late 2020.
This is potentially a blow for YouTube TV, since part of its value proposition is that sports fans can watch local teams, without having to keep cable. The dispute with Sinclair, which has kept local sports channels off of YouTube in twenty-one different markets, cuts off that possibility for those who would subscribe for that reason. Hulu + Live TV also lost those same channels last October.
But once again, just having cable or satellite TV is no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen. Both DirecTV and Dish Network had long disputes last fall that kept dozens of channels (or in Dish’s case, over 100) off the air for subscribers. And while those disputes were eventually resolved, DirecTV now has another, with Cox Media Group.
So whether or not YouTube TV is worth it depends a lot on what you value, and if you’re a hardcore sports fan and your favorite team is on a Sinclair/Bally channel, it might not be for you. But in many cases, YouTube TV provides price and quality advantages over standard cable packages.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.