YouTube has launched a $35 streaming TV service designed for cordcutters, but it has some irritating limitations.
YouTube TV is not a VOD service like Hulu, but rather a set of streams of around 40 “real” TV channels. It’s made up of the major networks; some of the most prominent cable channels such as USA, Syfy and Fox; and perhaps most importantly for the service’s success, some of the key sports channels such as the various ESPN and Fox Sports channels. However it doesn’t include some of the major standalone premium channels such as HBO, while Showtime carries an extra fee.
While there’s no VOD as such, the service does include a virtual PVR in which you can pick programs in advance to be “recorded” and stored for future viewing. The shows are stored online and there’s no limit on how many shows you can store, though they’ll only be accessible for nine months after “recording.”
The $35 fee covers viewing on up to three devices at a time (with different programming on each if you like), though it’s $5 extra if you sign up via iTunes. While only three streams (or recording playbacks) are allowed at a time, you can have up to six users on the account, each with their own virtual PVRs. At the moment it’s largely browser based, so Chromecast is going to be the best bet for watching it on a TV. There’s a 30 day free trial to start off with.
On the face of it, it might be a decent cable alternative for most people: chuck in HBO Now and you’re effectively getting a basic tier cable package with sports and HBO for $50 a month. The big problem is that many of the main restrictions that affect cable and broadcast TV are still in play.
For example, YouTube’s licensing for the major networks is regionally-based, so at launch it’s only available in Chicago, LA, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco and adding new cities will be a case-by-case basis. Once you’re signed up, you’ll be able to watch outside your home city but will likely lose access to the network affiliates until you get back home.
There’s also going to be a series of blackouts: not just regional ones for sports games with local teams, but also some national non-sports shows which maintain separate TV and digital rights. The YouTube TV program guides will make it clear which shows are blacked out, but it may be tricky to work out in advance if blackouts will be enough of a problem to make the service not worth your while.
To make things even more complicated, there’ll be a few shows with device-based blocks such as not being able to watch on a mobile device (eg NFL games) or not being able to cast.