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Article: DirecTV (Now) Not So Much

by on October 29, 2018

For those who regularly read this site, you may recall that I covered the launch and provided some updates a few months later on AT&T’s streaming service, DirecTV Now. I realized that with many things in the technology world, it’s easy to write about something, share opinions and experiences, and then move on. Since this had the makings of a long-term test, I thought it was best to check in again and share my current streaming setup.

A Refresher

I signed up for DirecTV Now on the first day it was available, due to the relatively complete channel lineup, free Apple TV incentive, and discounted pricing. The service worked reasonably well, but there were a handful of annoying little issues. A large 2.0 update was released, bringing a very basic cloud DVR and new interface, but it seemed buggier overall. An issues since launch, regional sports networks (especially those with the Fox Sports Something branding) were a bit inconsistent, forcing you to watch games in the respective apps with your DirecTV Now credentials. If there were general service issues, you’d get some sort of generic error message, sometimes blaming your internet connection (which was just plain false).

A Thousand Papercuts

I had been beta testing the 2.0 app and in return, AT&T gave me a 100-hour DVR (up from the standard 20-hour one). While I never expected this to stick around, it did a few weeks after the beta program ended. It was finally taken away with about a week’s notice to clean everything off or lose it—I had wondered why they could not have kept it around through the end of the billing period instead. Logins were migrated to the heavy-handed AT&T account management portal, like their wireless, home Internet, and traditional TV services, and that also coincided with a $5 price hike.

A little voice in my head started asking if AT&T was going to start pushing bundles with DirecTV Now like their traditional TV services. Back in 2015 and early 2016, you couldn’t do anything from a customer service standpoint without answering a bunch of questions why you didn’t have DirecTV Now and weren’t interested in it. As my apartment didn’t support the installation of a dish (no view of the southern sky), that typically was a valid excuse, but I was waiting for the day when someone would suggest I moved so I could bundle. By rolling DirecTV Now into the normal AT&T account management system, it seemed that a move to push services together would make a lot of sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still getting quite a bit of content for a good price and $5/month (or $60/year) more wasn’t going to break the bank. It’s more the inconsistencies and sloppiness that made it an annoying experience and that despite the service starting out feeling as noncommittal and easy to manage as Netflix or Hulu, became just like AT&T’s other TV products. Others have seemed to been feeling the same thing, too (Jared Newman for Fast Company):

DirecTV Now gained just 49,000 subscribers in Q3 2018, while AT&T’s traditional TV business (including DirecTV and AT&T U-Verse) shed 346,000 subscribers. That adds up to a net loss of 297,000 customers last quarter. Two quarters ago, AT&T gained 80,000 TV customers, with 342,000 new DirecTV Now subscribers offsetting a loss of 262,000 subscribers in traditional TV.

Shopping Around

At that point, I decided it may be worth looking at alternatives, even if I lose a few channels. Between lineups and features, Hulu Live TV and YouTube TV were my two frontrunners—both had all the local stations in my area except the CW, both had all the applicable regional sports networks, and then the basic variety of other networks I’d expect. Viacom channels were absent, but I could live with that. Despite fewer hours of DVR and a clunkier interface, Hulu won out on price and because the service included the “regular” Hulu product, as well. I lost the ability to stream on an Apple TV outside of my house, but could still use an iPhone/iPad and HDMI adapter.

Account management is straightforward and works any time I need it, and I can sometimes buy discounted Hulu gift cards at retail stores to pay for a month or two of service ahead of time and save a few bucks. The service can also be suspended and picked back up as opposed to a complete cancellation, a nice option if I need a break. I did this with the “regular” version of Hulu for just about the entire time I had DirecTV Now.

The most notable thing has been the reliability and overall care that has gone into the app. While Hulu has an interesting view of how live TV fits into today’s world with a minimal guide and shoehorning recordings into your existing favorites, it feels like every update is intended to fix things and there is the feeling of progress. Anyone playing in this space should be doing that.

Other Streaming Odds & Ends

About a week ago, my old TiVo HD started having some issues—random reboots and freezes, indicating a possible hard drive failure, so I disconnected it to potentially mess with when I was feeling up to it (I had replaced the drive once before). During the DireTV Now tenure, it had handled most of the recording of programs on local stations and also was the default “live TV” source for those. By removing it, I’ve decluttered my TV shelf and have gone all-in on just streaming. Not much has changed, especially since my over-the-air viewing had been decreasing anyway.

Outside of Hulu, I have Amazon Prime Video and have gotten ESPN+ for specific stretches. Live or almost-live TV is still my default, so Hulu gets the first spot on the Apple TV. With Hulu’s smaller lineup, I have given up a few things, but I still have more content than I could ever watch. Still, the nice thing about all these services is that if you are unhappy or even just a bit annoyed, switching to a competitor is easy.

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