The Best TV Providers
When cable makes you want to stream
It’s not a new story: Bundle your TV with internet and maybe a landline; spend extra to rent a box that can record your favorite shows; and wind up paying more than you want for a ton of stuff you don’t. The best TV providers should be reliable and user-friendly when you’re finding shows to watch, and hassle-free when you’re doing anything else, but we’ve all heard enough about lousy customer service and second-year pricing tiers to know it’s more American Horror Story than Happy Endings. Too often your only option is to subscribe to the status quo or stay out of the loop. If status quo is okay with you, your least worst option is DirecTV.
But with the growth in availability (and popularity) of streaming options, traditional TV is no longer a non-negotiable. Take a look at a recent list of Emmy and Golden Globe nominees, and you’ll see that some of the best television is only available on streaming and premium channels. But can streaming really take on Big TV?
Our Picks for the Best TV Provider (and the Best Streaming Device)
OK, full disclosure: We ultimately recommend most people cut the cord and vive la vida streaming. But we get that not everyone’s quite ready to break up with what’s been (kind of) working for so long, so we started by taking a look at the largest providers in satellite, cable, and fiber optic to see which had the most to offer at the best price. We kept our search simple, only comparing providers that had nationwide reach (or as close to it as possible). Streaming and satellite have solved the problem of nationwide availability — the internet is basically everywhere — but cable companies and fiber optic networks still require a cable or a cord leading down your block and into your living room wall. They’re either in your neighborhood or they aren’t.
Least Worst Traditional Provider (and Best for Sports Lovers)
DirecTV If dipping below 100 channels just isn’t going to happen, DirecTV satellite is your best option.
DirecTV offers six different two-year package plans, plus individual premium channels you can add on or remove at will. The smallest channel package (145-plus channels) starts at $50 a month for a year, then bumps up to $55. The most comprehensive (and expensive) option is $125 a month for 315-plus channels for two years. But DirecTV’s ace in the hole is its sports offerings: exclusive sports-centric packages like NFL Sunday Ticket, comprehensive search functionality, and features like Picture-in-Picture.
DISH Network, the other satellite provider, lets you lock your introductory price ($50 a month for 190-plus channels) for two years, and overall its packages are a bit less expensive. But in our experience, DirecTV lives up to its good customer service reputation — it has a policy for offering deals and special rates for long-term customers, rather than continually hiking up the price if you’re not ready to fight (ahem, Comcast). Plus, in mid 2015, DirecTV merged with AT&T, making bundling discounts available for the first time.
DirecTV receivers can store over 200 hours of programming, can record five shows at once, and allow you to watch shows that aired in the last 72 hours, even if you didn’t record them. And while DISH can boast about the Hopper, which conveniently auto-skips commercials, DirecTV remotes offer multiple fast-forwarding speeds and 30-second jumps. The DirecTV interface is smooth; the recording makes sense; and if you want to make the most out of having all those channels by, say, automatically recording everything Steve Buscemi has ever been in, you can program that pretty easily too.
Satellite television is truly the only nationwide provider (Comcast cable, the next closest thing, only offers service in 41 states), but because DirecTV requires you to install a satellite, it’s really only an option if you own the place in which you live, have your landlord’s permission, or live in a building that already has a dish hooked up.
Best If You Can Get It
Verizon FiOS Fios is better cable: crisper quality and faster download speeds, even during winter storms.
Verizon Fios is currently the only provider to offer 100 percent fiber-optic digital television to its customers, and even though it’s only available in a whopping 13 states, it trounces AT&T U-verse and CenturyLink Prism in reach.
The best way to describe Fios is “better cable.” Better because of crisper quality, faster download speeds, and imperviousness to winter storms. Cable because, while its Premium Service plan can record up to 12 shows at once and store more than 200 hours of programming, the standard Fios TV and DVR options closely resemble a standard cable package: similar channels, a similar interface. The most interesting thing about Verizon Fios is its $65 customizable TV package — for $10 less than its 245-channel plan, you can have as few channels as you want!
Comcast’s packages are standard, 140 channels at $45 a month for the first year, and 260 channels at $100 a month for the first year.
Its newest gadget, the X1 DVR, has 500GB of storage (enough for hundreds of shows) and the ability to record up to five shows at once. Its remote features voice search, which will crawl live TV, On Demand, and your recordings for whatever you want to watch. Coolest of all, it boasts the ability to make recommendations based on what you watch frequently, and claims you can ask it, “What should I watch next?”
The downside: X1 DVR is only available when you bundle it with internet — and a home phone. Who wants a home phone!? The price for all three is $90 a month for a two-year contract — but you only get the X1 for one year at that price. These kinds of stipulations won’t be a surprise for anyone aware of Comcast’s less-than-shiny reputation.
If you want to go straight into streaming cold turkey, the Roku 3 is the best way to do it. With traditional TV, you can usually do one search and it will tell you if that program or movie is currently playing, scheduled to air, On Demand, or available for purchase from your provider. Streaming devices should make searching just as easy — if not more so.
The Roku 3 searches across all your streaming apps to help you find if the program you want to watch is available for free anywhere. The Roku 2 does this as well, but the 3 features voice search functionality: no more scrolling around an alphabet grid with only the remote’s directional pad. That being said, Apple TV’s Siri has Roku’s voice search beat — we tried searching Sister Act and the Roku 3 always thought we said “restaurant” — and allows for episode-to-episode specificity and questions like, “Who’s in Sister Act?” One thing Apple TV won’t do though: search Amazon Instant Video.
What makes Roku so easy to recommend? It doesn’t have (as much of) an agenda. Unlike most other devices out there, it isn’t part of an existing mobile ecosystem. Die-hard Apple fans may find it easiest and most aesthetically satisfying to invest in the Apple TV. Android users tend to prefer the Chromecast, as it automatically refers you to the Google Play store to make purchases. If you’re an Amazon devotee, its Fire TV seems like a no-brainer. We think the Roku 3 beats them all — it searches every streaming service with a cool carte blanche.
Granted, the Roku remote has four easy buttons that go to Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Rdio (now Pandora), and Hulu (although some remotes have a Sling button). If a movie is unavailable for free, it defaults to suggesting you rent or buy it from Amazon (or its pre-loaded M-Go app); but it won’t ever fail to tell you when there’s a way to watch what you want for free. The other slight hiccup is that you can install the app for HBO’s standalone subscription, HBO NOW, but the device searches and pulls from the HBO GO app, which requires you to log in through a traditional TV provider. Not a deal breaker by any means, but it adds an extra step of having to search HBO GO to see if the movie you want is available first, before you switch to the HBO NOW app to watch it.
Another cool feature unique to the Roku 3 (and 4) is the remote’s headphone jack. It might seem silly, but it comes in handy if you can’t sleep and really need to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation without disturbing anyone else. It would make sense for the Chromecast to have this feature — your phone or tablet acts as the remote — but the audio automatically “casts” to your TV.
Roku has five device options in a range of price points: from $40 for the Streaming Stick to $120 for the Roku 4. The extra features on the $90 Roku 3 are worth the investment, but only step it up to the Roku 4 if you anticipate a lot of 4K Ultra HD movies in your future — or you really want a remote finder.
Now is a great time to cut the cord.
The future of digital television is cordless. In fact, Neil Landau, associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA and author of TV Outside the Box: Trailblazing in the Digital Television Revolution, notes, “For those under 30, the notion of ‘cord cutting’ is irrelevant because most never even had a cord. They’re known as ‘cord nots.’”
As recently as six or seven years ago, though, deciding to give up on traditional TV providers meant watching movies on your laptop while trying not to burn your lap. But then tablets and gaming consoles started offering ways to stream. And as streaming apps gained momentum, those tablets and consoles begat devices specifically designed to stream. And here we are: at the brink of the end of cable, staring into a future of streaming.
“Broadcast networks and basic cable will continue to offer both SVOD (subscription) and AVOD (advertising) options. I foresee an on-demand world in which you turn on your TV and see a whole bunch of apps. The viewer chooses when, how, and what to watch. But the networks will also offer an autoplay option, meaning that when you click on their app, something will be automatically streaming. You can just stay and watch what's on, or choose what you want to watch.”
You alone have to decide which pieces of the Old World you’re willing to sacrifice, but streaming is better than it’s ever been and only looking up. You can watch your shows on a wide range of devices, from the Siri-powered Apple TV experience to the minimalist, phone-controlled Chromecast. Apps are improving, with Sling TV as one of the first apps to stream live TV (unfortunately without the pause-and-rewind flexibility of traditional TV’s DVRs). And shockingly, CBS now has CBS All-Access, a streaming-only option to view its content. It won’t be long before other network channels adapt.
You only need four things to cut the cord.
All it takes: reliable internet, a TV with HDMI ports, a streaming device, and subscriptions to the apps you want. Depending on your device, you might also need an HDMI cable.
These are the big ones, plus some worth noting:
Amazon Instant Video
Lifetime Movie Club
But cord cutting is all about having access to the shows you care about. We’ve compiled a few of the cheapest cord-cutting bundles for common TV-watching habits.
- Movie Lover
Verdict: Cut the cord $33–$37/month for Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, HBO Now, and Lifetime Movie Club
- Sports Fan
Verdict: Don’t cut
Depending on your sport, there are some apps that don't require provider logins, but feature monthly or annual subscription fees. And even subscription services are sometimes subject to complicated blackout policies. If you’re looking to make cord-cutting work, the best bet here is to add on an indoor antenna and snag a Sling subscription starting at $20/month.
Verdict: Cut the cord
$24/month for Netflix and HBO Now, which has Sesame Street. Augment with the free shows from PBS Kids, Nick, and YouTube Kids.
- Classic Television
Verdict: Cut the cord
$18/month for Netflix and Amazon Instant Video
- Trend Watcher
Verdict: Toss up
$45/month for just about everything: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, commercial-free Hulu, and HBO Now; add in a la carte shows from Amazon and the price might rival DirecTV or cable.
- Reality TV Junkie
Verdict: Don’t cut
$8/month for Hulu might get you some shows, but there aren’t many relevant apps that don’t require a TV provider login, yet.
- Binge Watcher
$18/month for Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, and watch older seasons of HBO in long stretches using the Amazon subscription.
There are pros to cutting the cord.
The shows that are winning awards and generating buzz are mostly originals, exclusive to streaming apps.
Landau explains, “The word ‘hit’ has changed from the widest possible demographic to buzz-worthy niche shows that are provocative and encourage a ‘global water cooler conversation’ via social media.” If you care at all about what’s current (as well as what’s good), chances are you’ve already got one foot streaming.
There are now enough options available to make cord-cutting feasible.
And just in time, because the cost of cable and satellite is steadily climbing: Most major providers bumped up their rates between $2 and $10 a month in 2016, bringing the average monthly cost of TV to $99. Even with the price of internet, subscribing to a couple of streaming apps and purchasing select shows a la carte (typically about $30 per season) will usually net out less. Having a robust option to pick and choose makes sense — Nielsen reports that we only watch an average of 17 channels, leaving about 120 in a cable package we just ignore.
There are no commercials.
This isn’t news — but beyond dollar bills, commercial-free viewing is the most tangible difference between streaming services and traditional television. Landau says networks have no choice but to fall in line. “I call it Digital Darwinism,” he explains. “Can ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox remain relevant and competitive? Sure — if they have shows worth watching that are also available without commercials for a subscription fee. Once you grow accustomed to ad-free and having the option to binge a whole season, it’s hard to go back to the old-school method of once a week, constant commercial interruption, and censorship via Standards & Practices.”
And there are cons, too.
There’s still one cord: the internet.
Landau reminds us that, “Cord cutting is kind of a misnomer because, even without a digital or cable service provider, you still need a cable connection to connect to the internet.” And internet costs are likely to adapt alongside the increase in streaming. Amanda Lotz, a professor and television and media scholar at the University of Michigan, says, “The margins are much better on internet service. Providers have begun to try to shift to a usage-based billing norm (like most mobile phones have), which will allow them to charge more for internet for those who are watching TV that way.” Streamers will have no choice but to face the costs — internet that can keep up with what you want to stream without pausing to buffer is a necessity.
Streaming costs can add up.
If you want it all, you could end up paying a lot for a la carte shows without realizing it: HBO NOW for Game of Thrones, a Starz add-on for Outlander, an Amazon Prime subscription for Transparent, Hulu for Broad City, a Sling TV app for sports, Netflix for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, CBS All Access for the current season of Survivor, and YouTube Red because, at this point, why not? Tally it up and you’re up to about $70 every month — not including the cost of internet.
“Honestly, the cost savings of the new services aren't fantastic if you subscribe to many. The gain in accessing over broadband is more the ability to view ‘on demand’ and without commercials.”
Sports lovers get a raw deal.
So do awards show-lovers and reality TV-lovers, but Landau says it’s really because of live events that ad-based television will survive. “Nobody wants to watch a sports event after the fact,” he says. “It’s meant to be viewed live. There will be more online viewing options in the future, but even this year the Super Bowl was available to watch live online. However, the vast majority of viewers watched on broadcast TV. Most of us actually look forward to those commercials.”
But generally, streaming is cheaper in the long run.
Plus, it’s easier to change your options to more of what you want, and less of what you don’t want, even on a month-to-month basis. Once you nail down a good monthly rate for internet, streaming subscription services cost $8 to $20 each per month, and buying a show to download (and own) from iTunes, Amazon, or the Google Play Store costs about $30.
For sports fans and big, multi-viewer households, it may still be cheaper — and a better viewing experience — to go with a provider like DirecTV and bundle with internet. Plans average $99 a month, but can swing as low as $50 a month.
Hybrid plans (a little from column A, a little from column B) are also an option and a way to ease the transition. We recommend you purchase an indoor HD antenna for about $10, or nab one in a package with a streaming device like Chromecast. This will give you (sometimes fuzzy) access to local channels and thereby a lot of live TV events you’d miss streaming. A local-channel-only package from a TV provider costs about $10 a month, plus the cost of renting a receiver, but reception is likely to be more reliable.
The Bottom Line
Old habits die hard, but for most of us, cutting the cord is the best option looking forward. If your TV is mostly tuned into sports — or if you need to satisfy lots of viewers with different tastes — you may want to stick it out with DirectTV or your local cable option until streaming options catch up.
Best TV Providers: Summed Up
Best Traditional TV Provider
DirecTV DISH Network, the other satellite provider, lets you lock your introductory price ($50 a month for 190-plus channels) for three years, and overall its packages are a bit less expensive.
Audit your channel habits. Take a one- or two-week inventory of which channels and shows you’re watching, and how much you’d miss them if they were gone. It’ll make the choice to keep or cut the cord super clear.
Use streaming free-trial periods to offset the cost of a new streaming device. Amazon Prime add-ons and free trials for Hulu (seven days), Sling TV (two weeks), and HBO NOW (first month) — these little extras can help fund the one-time purchase of our top streaming device, the Roku3.
Go month-to-month. Have a specific show in mind? Sign up to stream, binge it, then cancel. It’s a great way to sample a little of everything without cashing in for a full year.
Cut costs. TV providers are not in a position to turn down your business. If you’re under a contract and can’t get out (or don’t want to), call to find out what deals are in play. Ask if you can lower your bill, reduce channels, or rent a receiver with fewer bells and whistles.
More TV Provider Reviews
We’ve been digging deep into TV Providers for several years now, and have published a few more reviews. We haven’t finished updating them so they’re consistent with our latest round of research. Be on the lookout for updates to the following pages in the upcoming weeks: