Cable TV vs. Streaming Costs (in 2021)

We now have more ways to watch television than ever before. In addition to traditional cable, there are now many different streaming services available, each offering its own unique combination of content.

As a result, more and more people are "cutting the cord" each year, saying goodbye to their paid cable TV subscriptions forever.

For some, doing this is partially an act of defiance. The cost of cable TV has been going up far faster than the rate of inflation for some time. Also, cable companies aren't exactly known for their stellar customer service.

This gives us plenty of reasons to want to leave, as well as many alternatives.

However, is cutting the cord truly the best option? At first glance, it might seem that way, especially if you're frustrated with your current provider. Yet, cutting the cord comes with its own set of expenses, and you also need to decide if this truly is the best move for you.

To help you answer this question, we've put together a detailed comparison of cable TV vs. streaming costs in 2021. Here's what we found:

Cable vs. Streaming at a Glance

Since cable is the incumbent, they have a distinct advantage. Most of us stick with it because it's what we have, and we can't be bothered to change. To find out if this approach is the right one, here's a full breakdown of what's good and bad about cable.

Advantages of Cable TV

Nowadays, cable TV has a pretty bad reputation, but it's not all terrible. Here are some of the main advantages to sticking with or choosing cable over streaming services:

  • Have everything in one place. There's nothing easier than switching your television on and having immediate access to all the channels and shows you want. When streaming, you often need to switch between different platforms. This isn't an issue for most people, but it is an added inconvenience to consider.
  • Bundled packages. Cable TV allows you to have your phone, internet, and cable all in one place, which can help when something goes wrong, and you need some support. It may be difficult dealing with cable companies, but you only need to make one phone call.
  • Cable-specific channels. There are still some channels that you can only get through paid cable TV because of licensing agreements. This includes some premium subscriptions and 24-hour news networks, but local channels also have restrictions. Some streaming services give you access to these, but not all, so this may be something you want to investigate before making your final decision.

Disadvantages of Cable TV

Of course, cable TV has its disadvantages. That's why so many people are dropping it for something else. Here are some of the main ones to consider:

  • Rising costs. We all know that cable TV has gotten considerably more expensive over the years, and it isn't easy to find the added value we're getting by paying more. In recent years, cable companies have come down a bit as they face competition, but as you'll see, it's still difficult to justify the high price of cable.
  • Equipment rental. On top of your actual subscription, you also need to pay to rent equipment from the cable company, such as a cable box and digital converter. These are usually inexpensive (around $10/month), but this adds up quickly and can make your bill unmanageable.
  • Contracts. Most cable companies require you to agree to a service contract, meaning you're committed to your plan for a set period. Of course, you can still cancel anytime, but they may subject you to an early termination fee. Also, cable companies frequently lock you into a long-term deal with a promotional rate, and when that period ends, the rate goes up. This is a strange practice because they are essentially punishing you for being a long-term customer, but it's a tactic the cable companies have been using successfully for years.
  • Advertisements. Although we pay a high price for cable, almost all channels still rely on advertising for revenue. The money you give to the cable company is just for access, and all these advertisements can quickly become annoying.

Average Cost of Cable

The price of cable varies depending on the company you use in your area. However, a vast majority of people subscribe to one of the following three cable companies: Comcast, AT&T, and Charter.

To help you understand the actual cost of cable TV, we've put together an overview of the different packages available from each. We've focused mainly on internet/TV bundles because the internet these days has become so essential that it's difficult to imagine a reason why you would subscribe to TV without internet. Plus, it is often cheaper for you to bundle with one company than it is to try and mix and match services.

However, it's important to note that the exact channel packages available to you will depend on where you live and the promotions running at the time. We will do our best to give you a snapshot of your options.

Comcast

As a full-service telecommunications company, Comcast, under the brand Xfinity, offers cable TV and internet bundles. Here's a summary of what's available:

Option 1: Preferred TV + Internet

  • $89.99 month without taxes and equipment fees ($89.99 per month after one year)
  • Internet speeds of up to 200 Mbps
  • 130+ channels, including ESPN, Bravo, NBC Sports Network, TBS, etc.
  • 2-year service commitment
  • Total cost for two years is approximately $2,400 (assuming roughly $10 per month extra for taxes and equipment fees)

Option 2: More Channels and Faster Internet

  • $89.99 per month ($109.99 per month after the first year of contract)
  • Internet speeds up to 400 Mbps
  • 205+ channels including NBA TV, NatGeo, Disney, and StarzEncore
  • 2-year service agreement
  • Total cost for two years is approximately $2,600 (assuming roughly $10 per month extra for taxes and equipment fees)

AT&T

AT&T offers cable TV plans under its brand "U-Verse." Like Comcast, AT&T offers a few different bundles that combine internet service and cable TV. Here's a summary of these different plans:

Here's a summary of the different U-Verse plans available:

Option 1: AT&T Internet + Entertainment Package

  • $114.99 per month plus taxes and a $10 per month equipment fee.
  • Internet speeds up to 100 Mbps
  • 190 channels
  • 2-month service agreement (prices may increase after this period ends)
  • otal cost over two years is approximately $3,000

Option 2: AT&T Internet + Choice Package

  • $129.99 per month plus $7.99 per month broadcast fee
  • Internet speeds up to 250 Mbps
  • 495 channels including ESPN, Fox Sports, cable news, Starz, and Showtime
  • 12-month service agreement (prices may increase after this period ends)
  • Total cost for two years is approximately $3,400 (assuming approximately $10 per month extra for taxes and equipment fees)

Spectrum

Spectrum, which was once known as Charter, is another major cable TV provider in the United States. They offer a few different cable TV and internet bundles. Here's a summary of each:

Double Play Select

  • $85 per month
  • Internet speeds up to 100 Mbps
  • 125 channels including ESPN, Fox Sports, and cable news
  • 12-month service agreement (prices subject to change after initial period)
  • Total cost for two years is approximately $2,200 (assuming approximately $10 per month extra for taxes and equipment fees)

Double Play Silver

  • $125 per month
  • Internet speeds up to 100 Mbps
  • 175 channels, including HBO and Showtime
  • 12-month service agreement (prices subject to change after initial period)
  • Total cost for two years is approximately $3,200 (assuming approximately $10 per month extra for taxes and equipment fees)

Double Play Gold

  • $150 per month
  • Internet speeds up to 100 Mbps
  • Up to 200 channels, including HBO, Showtime, Starz, Encore, and NFL Redzone
  • 12-month service agreement (prices subject to change after initial period)
  • Total cost for two years is approximately $3,800 (assuming approximately $10 per month extra for taxes and equipment fees)

Streaming

Streaming television is the best alternative to paid cable TV. It's a more flexible way of watching TV, and it also gets you away from pesky cable companies. However, the big question is whether it's actually cheaper, which depends heavily on which and how many subscriptions you choose to purchase.

Advantages of Streaming Services

If you're not already familiar with the advantages of streaming, here are some of the main reasons why so many people are choosing to ditch cable and watch TV on the internet:

  • Watch anywhere you want. So long as you have an internet connection, you can stream TV from pretty much anywhere you want. Most streaming services also have apps for your phones and tablets, which means you can access them while on-the-go as well. However, if you don't have WiFi, be aware that streaming over cellular data can pretty quickly eat up your monthly allowance, but it's still nice to have the option.
  • Unlimited recordings. If you subscribe to streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu, there is no need to worry about recording space as the videos will be available to you whenever you want them. If you use services such as YouTube TV or PlayStation Vue, you will have unlimited cloud storage space, meaning you can record your favorite TV shows and movies and keep them forever so that you can watch them whenever you want.
  • No contracts. You can sign up for a service, use it for a few months, and then if you decide you don't like it, you can cancel at any time. This is perfect for those who want to try something out, but it's also nice to know you always have the freedom to choose.
  • Multiple accounts. Most streaming services allow you to have multiple accounts, which means you can share your subscription with friends and family to help spread the costs. A popular thing to do is to get a group together, and everybody signs up for a different service. Then, you can share login information so that each person has access to multiple streaming services although providers are getting wise to this cost-saving method.

Disadvantages of Streaming Services

When fed up with cable, most people automatically assume streaming services are better. However, there are a few drawbacks to having only streaming services, such as:

  • Requires an internet connection. To be able to stream, you must have an internet connection. In most cases, this isn't a big deal, as nearly everyone has internet anyway. This does end up inflating the costs of streaming services because you need to make sure you have a fast enough internet connection to enjoy your subscription.
  • No one-stop viewing. Each streaming service has a different set of licensing agreements, which means it's likely there is not one service with everything you want to watch. This means you may need to subscribe to multiple services to get everything, which can become annoying and possibly even costly.
  • Changing landscape. Because streaming is becoming the most desirable option for watching TV, more and more entertainment companies are coming out with their own streaming services. For example, Disney launched its streaming product in Fall 2019. This means Disney programs available on other services are longer be there. We can expect things like this to continue to happen as streaming grows in popularity, and this makes it difficult to rely on any single service to meet your needs completely.

Average Cost of Streaming Services

Understanding the costs of streaming services is slightly more straightforward than cable, which is one of the reasons why people tend to like it so much. You don't need to deal (too much) with promotional prices (sometimes there are free trial periods and rate increases are not unheard of), and there are also no contracts or service commitments.

However, as mentioned before, each streaming service offers a different combination of programming, which means you will need to do some research before committing to one, or you may need to subscribe to more than one.

Below we will outline the cost of each service and a summary of its benefits and drawbacks.

High-Speed Internet

Before going into each service's cost, to truly understand their cost, it's important to remember that you need a high-speed internet connection to use these services.

"High-speed internet" is defined for our purposes as a connection with at least 100 Mbps. You don't need this much for streaming, but since it's common for households to have multiple devices streaming at once, it's a good idea to go with more than what you need.

Here is a summary of what this costs if you go with one of the big three companies listed above. There are other options, but this will give you an idea of what to expect in today's market.

  • Comcast – $49.99 per month plus modem rental
  • AT&T – $44.99 per month plus modem rental
  • Charter – $50 per month plus modem rental

Live TV Streaming

Within the world of streaming, there are two different products. One serves as a replacement to cable in that it provides many of the same channels and live TV, and the other offers on-demand video service. The first part of our analysis will deal with TV replacement plans. Specifically YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, and Sling TV.

 

YouTube TV

  • Cost: $64.99 per month (there used to be multiple packages to choose from, but this is no longer the case.) This subscription includes local channels, cable news, live sports, and movies, and more. You can add premium channels such as Showtime and Starz for $7 and $9, respectively.
  • Benefits: Unlimited DVR space, no contracts, stream on multiple devices and with multiple accounts (up to six).
  • Disadvantages: Local channels are blocked in some areas, and there's no option to include HBO. Also, FOX regional sports networks are no longer available on YouTube TV.

YouTube TV is an adequate replacement for cable TV in that it provides a great core of popular channels for half the price. However, when you add in the price of your high-speed internet connection, it ends up being similar to the cost of cable (approximately $100) a month. However, you have the added benefit of no service contract.

If you can share the subscription with someone, it becomes considerably more affordable and introduces you to some exciting savings.

Hulu + Live TV

  • Cost: $54.99 per month for more than 60 channels. This price also includes a subscription to Hulu's ad-based streaming service (around a $7 monthly value).
  • Benefits: A nice compliment to Hulu's streaming service, and there is a good mix of sports, movies, and local channels.
  • Disadvantages: The DVR is limited to 50 hours, and you can't fast-forward through recorded content. Plus, you can only have two simultaneous streams.

Hulu + Live TV is a more than adequate live TV streaming service. It doesn't have some of the features, or as many channels, as YouTube TV, but it costs less money. For many, having access to the Hulu Library will be a nice bonus that makes this package worth it.

Sling TV

  • Cost: $30 per month for the base package. You will likely add on more than one plan, bringing the plan's total cost to around $40-$50 per month.
  • Benefits: Most sports channels are on a live streaming service, and it's also the most customizable.
  • Disadvantages: Few local channels have signed licensing deals with Sling TV, meaning you may miss out on regional sports and news coverage. Also, the standard DVR only allows you to record 10 hours' worth of content.


On-Demand Streaming

Understanding the costs associated with on-demand streaming services is much easier than cable and cable replacements. Here's a quick summary of each one as well as what it's best for:

Netflix

Cost:

  • $8.99 per month for single-screen streaming and standard definition.
  • $13.99 for two-screens-at-once streaming and high definition (most popular)
  • $17.99 per month for 4K and HD streaming on up to four devices at once.

Netflix is such a popular choice because it has an extensive library and a large amount of quality, original programming. If you were to buy just one streaming subscription, you'd be wise to get Netflix.

Hulu

Cost:

  • $5.99 with ads
  • $11.99 without ads

Hulu is slightly cheaper than Netflix, especially if you can deal with advertising (but what's the point of that?) Its main advantage is that it has a much larger selection of current TV programs, so it's a great option if you want to drop cable but keep up with your favorite network shows. It also has some original programming, but it's still slightly behind the content currently being produced at Netflix.

Amazon Prime

Cost: $12.99 per month

Amazon Prime has a relatively extensive library along with some original programming. However, it does not give you access to newer television shows. Amazon Prime Video is part of your Amazon Prime subscription, giving you access to free shipping and other Prime benefits, which makes this subscription much more valuable.

HBO MAX

Cost: $14.99 per month

HBO has an excellent reputation for producing high-quality television shows, ranging from The Sopranos and The Wire to Game of Thrones. HBO MAX is a "free" streaming service for those who already have a cable subscription. For those who don't, HBO Now allows you to access original HBO programming for just $14.99 per month.

Disney+

Cost: $7 per month

One of the newer services in the streaming world, Disney+ has quickly made a name for itself primarily because of its original programming. For example, The Mandalorian, which was the first-ever live-action Star Wars show, has been a huge hit, leading Disney to order a ton more shows like it.

Disney+ is also the home for all things Disney, which includes not only its many animated shows and movies but also content from Marvel, Lucas Film, and ESPN. All of this means there is a lot to watch on Disney+.

Others

But wait! There's more. Just when you thought you finally understood the streaming world, new stuff has come out. There's NBC's Peacock, CBS All Access, Paramount, and many, many more. All tend to cost around $10 per month, so if you're thinking of adding one of these services, plan accordingly for the expense.

The Final Verdict: What's Cheaper?

The final cost of your television services will change based on how many services you need/want. For example, if you want to cancel your cable subscription and skip a streaming replacement, but you need/want all the on-demand subscriptions listed above, you will still end up spending more than $100 a month for TV. This is because you need to factor in an internet connection which costs about $50 per month.

If you stream cable with YouTube TV or Hulu + Live TV and have no streaming services, it's still going to cost about $100 per month.

Both of these monthly expenses are the same as what you would pay if you stuck with cable.

As a result, the only way to escape this $100/month price tag is to limit yourself to just one or two streaming services. For example, Netflix and an internet connection would be about $65/month. Add Hulu, and it's only about $77. These are pretty good savings.

However, if you're able to share the costs of these streaming services with even just one friend, you can get all of them and an internet connection for just $75 per month. If you share a cable TV replacement plan, you can get cable, internet, and on-demand for around $100 a month, which is considerably more value than if you just paid for cable on your own.

Furthermore, when you cut the cord and go for just streaming, you escape long-term contracts and variable pricing, which is an attractive prospect. As a result, streaming ends up being a great choice, but the savings aren't as dramatic as we would like since we still need to pay for an internet connection. We could argue that you were likely to pay for internet access anyway, as it's generally considered essential in 2021. In that case, you could discount the internet cost as just another utility, and then streaming really makes sense financially.

In the end, you'll have to do some research on your own, and perhaps some bargaining with the cable companies, to come up with the right combination of subscriptions that will get you what you want at a price you can afford.


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