Want to spend less on cable television? Don’t expect much help from the Internet.
Once Netflix got us into the habit of streaming TV shows and movies for $10 a month, it was easy to imagine broadband video services as a low-cost alternative to the cable monopolies. Streaming individual channels on an “a la carte” basis didn’t make much sense; it would cost even more than a standard cable subscription.
But what if somebody offered “virtual cable” services, by streaming bundles of popular cable channels over the Internet? Instead of buying TV from the local cable company, users would just buy raw Internet access, then stream TV shows from the provider of their choice. If enough companies offered such a service, it might drive down the cost of cable.
Well, the virtual cable services are here. And while they work pretty well, they’re not much of a bargain for most video-hungry consumers.
I wrote about the first of the virtual services, Sling TV, when it premiered over a year ago. Developed by satellite TV provider Dish Network, it delivers 20 familiar cable channels, including CNN and ESPN, for $20 a month. Now comes Sony Corp., with a more lavish offering called PlayStation Vue, which offers 55 cable channels for $30 a month, as well as higher-priced tiers with still more programming.
To sign up for PlayStation Vue, you must own a Sony PlayStation 3 or 4 video game console, or an Amazon.com Fire TV set-top device. While the current PS 4 costs about $350, a Fire TV Stick runs about $40. Installation is painless, and the first week is free.
Vue offers more than Sling TV, and not just more channels. Sony has included a digital video recording feature that stores favorite TV shows in the Internet cloud. Just add a show to your favorites, and the service will save each episode for 28 days.
In addition, Vue provides on-demand access to ABC, NBC, and Fox prime time shows. Forget to record last night’s episode of “Empire”? No sweat.
Many TV streamers fall back on old-school rabbit-ear antennas to view live local stations, but Vue is working to change that. In several cities, it offers streams of live broadcast TV channels. This feature isn’t available in Boston yet, but it’s probably a matter of time.
Vue’s video quality is at the mercy of your home broadband service. If you’ve got a slow connection, don’t expect much. Even on my very fast home network, the picture was decent, but not quite up to cable standards. And whenever I changed channels, it would take a few seconds for the on-screen images to fully sharpen up.
With its attractive features and moderate price, Vue might seem like a bargain, but not if you dig deeper. Remember that before you can sign up, you’ll need a broadband subscription from your local cable company, which will try to sell you its own TV services. Try not to interrupt; there’s a good chance the cable company’s deal is just as good as Sony’s.
For instance, in Boston Comcast Corp. charges $40 a month for the first year and $69.95 a month thereafter for a reasonably fast 25 megabits per second Internet connection and no TV. Add a 55-channel Vue subscription and you’ll be paying $70 a month to start and $97 later. Meanwhile, Comcast now offers a package containing 45 cable channels including HBO, 75 megabits of Internet speed, and a $50 prepaid Visa card for $55 a month in Year One, and $75 after that.
Why can’t Vue, or Sling TV for that matter, charge less? Because the real driver of high cable TV costs are the channels themselves — the ESPNs and CNNs and all the various Foxes. Year after year, they boost the fees they charge cable companies to carry their shows. Now the virtual cable carriers must go along for the ride. Whatever option you choose, you lose.
Americans are saving money on cable by purchasing less of it. According to Leichtman Research Group, 83 percent of US homes have cable, down from 87 percent in 2010. And a survey from the video recorder company TiVo found that in the first quarter of 2015, 45 percent of us downgraded to a cheaper cable package.
Meanwhile, Sling TV’s been around for over a year, but only about 600,000 people have signed up, probably after having done the math. I expect Vue to fare about as well. When it comes to saving money, these virtual cable services are practically pointless.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.