Choices, Choices, Choices

OTT Streaming TV viewing options

By Wayne Porter

One of the chief complaints of cable and satellite TV customers is that the bills are too high, and there are a lot of filler channels they don’t watch. This is due to the fact that many television content providers insist that a cable company must buy all of its channels - or none at all. Consumers, meanwhile, have been requesting smaller packages, or a la carte choices.

In response to consumer demand,  a new kind of company began to take shape - one that provided streaming video options, so viewers could choose which shows and movies to watch. The most well-known industry pioneer is, of course, Netflix. Since the creation of Netflix, a number of other providers have jumped on the streaming service bandwagon. Some of them are new companies that developed around the streaming video trend, and some of them are TV service providers that are trying to adapt to a changing marketplace. Some of them are big tech/ internet companies rushing to take advantage of what they see as an opportunity to profit from the streaming video content craze.

Over The Top

Over-the-top (OTT) programming is content that is delivered over the internet but not through a traditional cable box or satellite. Until recently it has been primarily streamed on demand but recently, more and more of it is being delivered live. Since it is delivered over the Internet, an Internet connection is required.

Some of the content is delivered straight to the customers’ computer, device, or Smart TV, and some with the aid of a piece of hardware, like a Roku or Chromecast box. Some providers can deliver their content both ways.

Changing Channels

Unfortunately, the same factors that led to the increase in OTT programming keep it in a state of flux. As mentioned earlier, the owners of most of the television content want to sell all their channels, so they make it a requirement for cable companies to buy their less popular channels in order to carry their most popular channels.

Due to contractual negotiations and renegotiations, some OTT services might lose the right to carry one or more channels for a while. This sometimes happens to cable and satellite companies, too. The channels  in your package subscription might change without notice.

Content Delivery Services

Video content like movies and TV shows are licensed by cable, satellite, and OTT companies who then deliver it to viewers who pay money for a subscription. This is either on a per view basis,  or an “all you can watch” basis. Sometimes it's even a combination of the two, and there is some free or “included in the price” content, with premium programming available for an additional fee.

Netflix

Netflix is currently the number one paid streaming service. It got its start mailing DVDs for sale and rent in 1997. The company began streaming content 10 years later in 2007. There are currently about around 98 million subscribers with just over half living in the United States.

Netflix has a growing catalog of original movies and shows, plus feature films, past seasons of TV shows, and documentaries. Packages run from $7.99 to $11.99 per month with no commitment. The first month is free.

PlayStation Vue

PlayStation Vue starts at $30.00 a month for 45 channels and goes up to $65.00 per month for 90 channels which includes HBO and Showtime. Network viewing is limited to Fox, ABC, and NBC on demand unless you live in a select number of cities where it is available live. HBO, Showtime, and other premium packages are available for an additional charge.

Channel availability and what you can record seems to vary with the show, channel, and even your location, so you would need to check for each show to see if you can record it and how long it will be available.

You might think that you need a PlayStation console to watch Vue, but that is not the case. You can watch it on a number of other devices including Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Roku and online.

Sling TV

Sling TV streaming plans from Dish Network start at $20.00 per month. Sling Orange offers 30 plus channels for $20.00 per month, Sling Blue has 40 plus channels for $25.00, and the All channel Orange and Blue package includes 49 channels for $40.00 per month. With Sling TV, you do not need the satellite dish and you don’t have to sign a two-year contract. You can get a free one week trial.

Sling TV Blue offers Fox, ABC, and NBC in some markets, but CBS is conspicuously absent.

A compatible device is necessary to watch Sling TV. These include supported Smart TVs, Chromecast, Xbox, Amazon Fire, Roku among other devices.

Currently, Sling TV has a cloud DVR with a limited amount of recording time, and full DVR functionality is not available for all channels.

DirecTV NOW

DirecTV Now is AT&T/ DirecTV’s streaming option, and packages start at $35.00 month and go up to about $70.00. Live programming from Fox, ABC, and NBC is available in some markets, but CBS is again absent.

Requires Smart TV, Amazon Fire TV or Fire Stick, Apple TV, Chromecast, iPad or iPod. Premium channels, HBO, Starz, and Cinemax are available for an additional fee.

YouTube TV

YouTube TV is being rolled out only in five US cities at first. It does have live TV streaming from ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and other popular cable networks. Customers get a cloud DVR with no storage limits, and six accounts per household are included.

Showtime can be added for $11.00 per month, and Fox Soccer can be added for $15.00.

Currently, you can watch it on your smart phone, tablet or computer but to watch it on your TV you need either an Android TV or Chromecast. YouTube TV offers a 30-day free trial, and you get a free Google Chromecast after your first payment. Both YouTube and YouTube TV are owned by Google.

Hulu

Hulu currently offers on-demand programming only, but in the very near future, Hulu has said it will be releasing its live TV package. The pricing is expected to be about $40.00 a month. It is expected to come with some limited recording features, and might include an add-on DVR package with unlimited recording. It is scheduled for release before summer arrives.

Hulu’s current on-demand programming packages come with a 30-day free trial. Like Netflix, Hulu has started developing its own original programming.

It looks like Hulu will feature all four major networks, but ironically, the last to join the lineup was NBC, which is owned by Hulu co-owner Comcast. At launch, Showtime will be available for an additional $8.99 per month, with other premium channels to be added at a later date.

Hulu is owned jointly by Disney, Fox, NBCUniversal, and TimeWarner.

Amazon Prime Video

Amazon Prime Video is Amazon's version of Netflix. Amazon Prime gives subscribers access to thousands of movies, TV shows, and Amazon original programming. You can get Prime Video for $8.99 a month, or full Amazon Prime for $10.99 and month which includes free two-day shipping, unlimited free ebook reading on Kindle, and free unlimited music streaming.

To use Amazon Prime Video, you must have a compatible smart TV, Roku, Xbox, PlayStation, Amazon Fire TV, or smartpone.

Vudu

Vudu is a content delivery service that is owned by Walmart. There isn’t a monthly fee, you just pay for what you watch. You can rent OR purchase movies. It is available through smart TVs or hardware like Roku, Xbox, and PlayStation. Vudu has thousands of movies and TV shows to view.

Vudu also lets you scan your DVDs for an additional fee so that they are stored in the cloud and can be viewed on your android or ios device, smart TV, gaming console or other connected device. This service is through UltraViolet or through Disney Movies Anywhere. Vudu also lets you share your movies with other Vudu members.

Standalone Channels

HBO, Showtime, Starz and other channels are available for purchase by themselves, and are viewable on many of the hardware solutions below.

Hardware

Smart TV

Most TVs sold recently are already capable of being connected to the internet. These are called “smart” TVs. Not only do they have the ability to surf the web, they also have a number of apps preinstalled for streaming services like Netflix, Pandora, YouTube, and Hulu.

ChromeCast

Chromecast is a piece of hardware made by Google that plugs into your TV to watch additional programming. You can use a mobile device like an iPhone, iPad, Android device, laptop or notebook as the remote.

Chromecast has apps for Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, HBO, ESPN, Showtime, CBS, YouTube and more.

Roku

Roku is also hardware that you plug into your TV, enabeling it to receive channels and channel packages. Many of the packages require a paid subscription, but some do not. Most popular tv services are available through Roku. Prices start at around $30.00 for a Roku component to plug into your TV, to upwards of several hundreds of dollars for TVs with Roku hardware factory installed.

Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and Sling TV are some of the paid services available on Roku.

TiVo

Tivo is a DVR box you can use for your cable and several OTT services like HBO GO, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Hulu. It can perform searches, and organize programming across various installed apps so you could, for example, create a watchlist with season one of a show from Netflix, season two from Hulu, and the current season recorded on Tivo’s DVR.

Amazon Fire

Amazon’s foray into the OTT hardware arena not only works with Amazon Prime Video,  but also with Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, YouTube, NBC, WatchESPN, Disney, and more. Like TiVo, it can search and organize across multiple apps. It also has Alexa voice command, so you can just tell it to find, say, a horror movie or even to order pizza.

Prices start out pretty reasonable, starting at $40.00 for the Fire Stick, and the Fire TV going for about $90.00. Fire TV is not a TV, but a streaming Media Player. There is also the Fire TV Gaming Edition. As this article is being written, the Gaming Edition is currently unavailable, and Amazon can't say when it will be back in stock, so one would guess there could be some changes coming down the line for this product.

AppleTV

Like Fire TV, the Apple TV is of course not a real TV. It is a piece of hardware that is connected to a television. Apple TV can play content straight from the iTunes stor,e or from other OTT apps like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and Vevo. DIRECTV NOW, PlayStation Vue or Sling TV can also be viewed from the Apple TV interface.

Using AirPlay you can access content on your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch on your TV. You can also use your compatible ios device as a remote. It can also be a major part of your Apple connected smart home.

Pricing for Apple TV starts at around $150.00.

Software Media Players

iTunes Store/Google Play/Microsoft Store

Google, Apple, and Microsoft all offer a free media player and sell content as well. You can get music, movies, and TV shows from each. Typically,  you buy or rent a video and  then watch it. They don’t offer unlimited streaming like some of the other services discussed in this article. The content can be played on various devices with their software installed.

Kodi

Kodi is an open source media player that supports most video, audio, and image formats. Kodi has many add-ons available where Kodi supports content such as YouTube, MLB Bases Loaded, Soundcloud, and much more. You can download a Kodi Remote app to your Apple or Android device.

Content can be played from local and network storage media as well as the internet. Kodi is open source, so it is free.

Too Early To Call It

The Over The Top market is still very young, and there are a lot of players vying for a position. The rules are still in a bit of flux, and the stations available even on one format seem to change from city to city. With the low cost of the hardware, free trial, and no contract with the streaming services, you could try several before settling on one (or perhaps two).

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