The world of television entertainment has changed dramatically in the past few years. After decades of remaining mainly the same (our only options were free antenna TV or paid cable), we now have more choices than ever.
Traditional cable is still very much an option. And you can still get free TV by using an antenna. Most people don’t realize this is still available, but it very much is.
However, in addition to these services, we now have streaming. If we go back in time just a decade, streaming wasn’t really an alternative to cable, but oh how things have changed! Now, many people are ditching their cable subscriptions and are getting all of their television services online, claiming it is cheaper and better than traditional cable TV.
But is this really the case?
While streaming appears very different on the surface, there are many ways in which streaming is actually exactly the same as cable TV. And because of this, switching to an all-streaming setup might not be the best option in the end.
To try and figure out what is indeed the best, we’re going to take a look at the many different angles of today’s television world to find out how these services really differ, if they do at all.
Before we can accurately understand if streaming is actually different from cable TV, we must first determine what it is we mean by streaming, for there are a few versions.
For most of its history, streaming referred to on-demand services such as Netflix or Hulu. As you already know, these platforms work on a subscription basis. You pay a certain amount each month and get unlimited access to the content on the platform.
In the past few years, a new service has emerged: live TV streaming. The biggest name in this world is YouTube TV, but Hulu is also making some noise, and there are other options, such as Fubo TV and Sling TV.
These services deliver many of the same channels you used to get on cable TV, but they do so through an app, one that you install on either your phone or smart TV.
In this way, they look a lot like the other streaming services, but they also look a lot like cable TV. We’re going to dive into exactly how they are similar and different so that you can have a better idea of what these services are and if they are right for you.
On-demand streaming services are, generally speaking, quite different from cable TV. Here are some of the main differences:
The biggest difference with on-demand streaming services such as Netflix is that the content is available to you whenever you want. All you need to do is log in and press play. You don’t need to wait for a specific time.
While the constant availability of content is a major perk of these on-demand video services, the other side of the coin is that none of their content is delivered live. It’s all prerecorded. In fact, when it comes to series, what many of these platforms do is release an entire season at once. This makes it possible (and very tempting) to binge the entire thing in just one sitting. But it also takes away from some of the drama that comes from waiting for a new episode to come out each week.
Plus, it also means that, if you only use these services, you will not be able to access any live programming. For most, the biggest loss will be sports. There is no way to watch live sporting events with on-demand video services.
For many of these services, another big difference is that there are no advertisements. Since you are paying a monthly fee, the services do not need to sell time to advertisers, and so you can watch your shows and movies without interruption.
One notable exception to this is Hulu, which offers a basic version of its service for just $5.99. But this price is only possible because there are ads. Typically, there aren’t as many as there would be on a traditional cable broadcast, but the experience still somewhat mimics what you would have with cable.
To compete with cable companies, most of the big on-demand streaming services have been investing heavily in original content. So, while the stuff you watch on cable can be found elsewhere, a lot of what’s available on streaming platforms can only be found on that platform. On the one hand, this is good, as it means there is a lot of new stuff to watch. On the other hand, it means that in order to get access to all that is out there, you need to subscribe to several different services.
On their own, on-demand streaming services are much cheaper than a traditional cable package. The most expensive service out there – Netflix – costs just $17.99 per month, which is less than one-fifth of what most people pay for even a basic cable plan. Because of this massive price difference, it gives us the impression that streaming is always cheaper. But if you take into account that you typically have to pay for multiple streaming services, these savings often disappear rather quickly.
When you sign up for cable, you typically have to sign up for a service contract. The most common one lasts two years. This locks you into paying for a period of time, and there are often fees if you decide to cancel early. With on-demand streaming services, you can sign up and cancel whenever you want, and this freedom is one of the more attractive components of these services.
Because they are so different, it’s really not fair to compare cable TV to on-demand streaming services. Yes, they both fall into the realm of television. But when we think about what cable TV is and always has been, it’s really not the same. This is why most people choose to use these services as complements to something else, either a live TV streaming option or a traditional cable plan.
However, because these on-demand platforms have become so popular, and also because they are so different from traditional cable TV, space has opened up for a new type of service: live TV streaming.
Because of the popularity of streaming, as well as people’s overall dissatisfaction with traditional cable TV options, several companies have combined these worlds so that you can now stream live TV.
This helps people get access to the content they used to watch on cable without having to have a cable TV plan.
At first glance, this might seem revolutionary – it’s cable TV that you can watch through the internet! However, after many people sign up for these services, they begin to realize that the two aren’t quite as different as they once were.
Let’s discuss the many ways this new service is the same but also different from what it hoped to replace.
One of the main reasons live TV streaming services exist is because people wanted to be able to access content that they used to get on cable without having to pay for or commit to a cable subscription.
For many, the biggest loss was live sports and local channels. Without access to cable, you couldn’t watch your favorite NFL or MLB team, and you wouldn't be able to keep up with the local news or tune into yearly programs such as the Oscars.
However, with a live TV streaming service, this programming is now very much available to you. The major providers – YouTube TV and Hulu – give you access to all of your local channels, and they also have deals with most of the major sports networks – ESPN. NBC Sports, FSN – so that you can catch all of the latest games. In addition, these services also have deals with local sports stations (which let you watch basketball, hockey, and baseball) and they also give you access to premium sports channels, such as the NFL Network. Depending on which service you choose, you may need to spend a few extra bucks each month to get access to these more premium channels, but the point is that you still can get them if you want.
However, no matter which way you look at it, while streaming services provide you with access to much of the content you used to get on cable, cable TV plans still have more content overall.
To give you an idea, the base YouTube TV subscription has 70 channels. Most standard cable plans will have more than 100, and you can get packages that will deliver up to three or four hundred.
Now, the argument here is that having all these additional channels doesn’t really offer much value since few of us watch all the channels we have (or had) on cable. But, when talking in cold hard numbers, cable does offer more.
Is there a clear winner here?
No, not really. This is because it will all come down to your personal preferences. If there are channels on your cable plan that you want access to that aren’t available to you via streaming, then cable is the better option. But if you can find what you want/need on streaming, then you probably don’t need cable.
In the end, when it comes to the amount of content available, streaming and cable TV are actually quite different.
After content, the next thing to consider when comparing cable and live TV streaming is the experience.
In terms of what you are watching, the experience is pretty much exactly the same. Watching a baseball game or news program on Fox or NBC is going to be identical no matter if you’re watching it on cable or via a streaming service.
Beyond that, though, there are some differences. But how different this will be will depend slightly on your setup. For example, if you have a smart TV or a smart TV device, such as an Amazon Fire or Roku stick, then the experience of streaming live TV might not feel all that different.
To watch, all you need to do is turn on your TV and then use your remote to choose the channel you want to watch. On these platforms, you will be able to access a guide that looks relatively similar to the one you are used to on cable.
One instance where things will be different is if you decide to go the phone/Chromecast route. In this scenario, you choose what you want to watch on your service’s phone app, and then you cast the content to your TV. It’s the same content, but the major difference is that you need to navigate everything through your phone, which is definitely a change from what we’re used to doing with cable.
One major difference between the two services is that streaming services let you watch TV pretty much wherever you want. With cable, you obviously need to be home, sitting in front of the television hooked up to cable, to be able to watch TV.
However, since all streaming apps either run through or have a phone app, this is no longer a concern. This means you can not only move around your home and continue watching TV no matter where you are, but it also means you can travel and still have access to TV.
So, if you’re on a business trip and want to catch a game, or if you’re visiting family and need a little bit of a break, all you have to do is call up the content on your phone or tablet and you can start watching.
Some cable providers are now allowing you to access DVR content wherever you are. And you may be able to use your cable subscription to access live streams of sporting events through other apps, such as the NFL Mobile app. But, in general, if you want to watch live TV on cable, you will need to be home.
Another major difference between the streaming and traditional cable experience is the DVR. But just how different depends a little bit on which streaming service you decide to use.
For example, one of YouTube TV’s big selling points is that it offers you an unlimited cloud DVR. This means you can record as much or as little as you want and access it at any time. Cable does not offer you this, usually. Their DVRs have a limit as to how much you can record, which, depending on your habits, can be a real inconvenience.
In this sense, the YouTube TV DVR experience is not only different, but it’s a little better. But one difference that might not be so great is that sometimes YouTube TV requires you to watch ads on recorded content. Many of us save things to our DVR to avoid having to watch commercials, but sometimes YouTube TV will force ads on us. With cable DVRs, this is never the case. For many, though, this is a small price to pay for the additional storage space.
However, if you go with another service, such as Hulu or Sling TV, you might find that the experience is not only different but also worse. Not only do both limit how much space you have for recordings, but they also don’t allow you to fast forward through the ads when you’re watching recorded content.
For many, this defeats the whole purpose of having a DVR in the first place.
Of course, with Hulu, you can choose to pay more so that you can not only have more (or unlimited) space but also so that you can skip through ads. But, for some, this is too frustrating.
As far as using the actual DVR, the experience is very much the same with streaming as it is with cable. You can sort through recorded programs by date, name, category, etc. And then once you’re in the recording, you can control it with your remote just like you would normally do.
In addition to the experience of watching live TV on cable as compared to streaming, the next major difference is cost.
If you’ve been a cable subscriber at any point over the past few decades, you know that one thing has remained true: cable companies continuously raise their prices. It’s effectively the backbone of their business model: they get you to sign up and then over time they continuously raise prices so that they can extract more value from you.
This is not only super frustrating but it also has helped make cable very expensive, much more so than other monthly bills.
As a result, many people have been drawn to streaming as a cheaper alternative to cable. They look at the sticker price of a live TV streaming service and think, “Wow! What a deal1!”
Yes, it’s true that when we compare them directly, streaming is much cheaper. But if we do a bit more thorough analysis, then the difference isn’t actually that big.
Here are some things to consider:
If we do a bit of math, $50 (live TV streaming) + $50 (Internet) + $20 (two or three on demand services) = $120 per month for live TV streaming.
With cable, $80 per month + $50 per month for internet + $20 (on-demand streaming) = $150
When we do this analysis, we can see that while streaming is “cheaper,” the difference isn’t as massive as people think. It’s not like they can take their $150 per month cable bill and reduce it down to $50. However, there are savings to be had. And depending on which type of experience you want, these savings may or may not be worth it.
But, in the end, while the cost of the two services may at first seem to be dramatically different, the reality is that they are more or less the same.
Besides cost, another major difference between live TV streaming is the way the subscriptions work. With cable plans, this means service contracts.
Typically, cable companies want you to lock into a certain period of time, usually two years, and they impose hefty fines if you decide to cancel early. They get you to agree to this by offering you a nice promotional price, but you can’t get that price unless you sign up for the contract. For most, this seems like a good deal, but it often ends up not being so sweet.
This is because these contracts usually come with a fair amount of small print, which usually says that you will pay a certain price for the first part of the contract and another, a higher one for the second part. And when the contract runs out, the price usually goes up as well.
For most people, this is obviously quite frustrating, but it’s one of the primary ways in which cable companies make their money. But with streaming, you don’t have contracts. You can sign up when you want, and when you want to cancel, all you need to do is cancel.
Streaming services technically don’t have promotional pricing, but this doesn’t mean the cost of a subscription won’t go up over time. For example, when YouTube TV first hit the market, it was just $50 a month. Today, it’s $64.99, and it’s possible it will continue to go up. They figure that once you sign up and enjoy the service, you will not want to cancel and will pay the higher price.
A lot of people are willing to deal with this inconvenience in exchange for no contracts. But, again, it really comes down to personal preference.
In the end, streaming and cable TV are different. But, in reality, they aren’t all that different. There are differences in content, slight differences in cost, and modest differences in inexperience. So, in the end, there is no choice that is better or worse. It depends on what it is you want from your television service. But now that you are clear on what each one offers you, we hope it will be much easier for you to make an informed choice.