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Cable vs streaming: Does traditional TV still have something fresh to offer?
Everything old is new again! Disney CEO Bob Iger turned heads with recent comments about the company loosening its stance on streaming, leaving more room for its shows on both traditional TV channels like ABC and Hulu and Disney Plus along with licensing movies for longer theatrical runs. With the future of streaming services constantly in flux, it’s worth asking whether traditional cable might offer something of value. In a cable vs streaming showdown, is streaming still the obvious winner?
So, is cutting the cord really the answer? Can you save money with old-school TV? Is there a happy medium? Below, we break down what’s at stake, where to find savings, and how to navigate your options to find what’s right for you.
Which is cheaper?
It’s hard to compare cable and streaming exclusively at the level of price. You could easily say, “Well, Tubi and Pluto TV are free, and cable can cost over $100,” or, “If I subscribe to all the good streamers, I’m looking at a $200 monthly bill. Basic cable can be around $20.”
It’s way too easy to compare apples to oranges and create whichever narrative suits you. But let’s dig down and see how cable and streaming prices compare more broadly.
Looking at a few of the bigger cable providers in the US, you’ll find that basic cable packages start around $60 a month when you check websites. This can be misleading, as these are usually cable packages with 70 or more channels. You can often get much slimmer packages by phoning and speaking to a representative. These unadvertised basic cable packages can easily run you closer to $20 per month.
Let’s get more specific with a few examples of what you can get. Now, availability and pricing will vary depending on where you live, so you’ll want to double-check whether these numbers apply to you, but they give a general sense.
At AT&T, you can get the Entertainment package, with over 75 channels, for $74.99 per month. Packages go up to more than 150 channels for $154.99 per month with the Premier package, which includes premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz.
You can take advantage of savings through your internet provider too. With Optimum, for example, you can start with Basic TV at just $30 per month. That gets you over 50 channels. You can go all the way up to Premier TV, with over 420 channels including premium brands, for $115 per month.
Over on the streaming side, you have a lot of customizability. You can combine services in just about any configuration, so we obviously won’t list them all here. Prices range from free to $4.99 to over $20 per month per service.
One popular option is to go with a Disney Bundle. Disney is one of the bigger entertainment companies with a streaming service. Or streaming services, rather. With control of Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus, the company lets you bundle your subscriptions to save money. For as little as $9.99 per month, you can get Disney Plus and Hulu with ads, or add ESPN for a total of $12.99 per month. Going ad-free for all three is just $19.99.
Ad-supported services are a money saver generally. You can get Netflix for just $6.99 per month, for example.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s look at some of the standard, mid-tier subscriptions you’re likely to want and what kinds of costs you’d be looking at for a few common DIY bundles. Below are a few configurations along with their price tags.
- Netflix Basic ($9.99) + Hulu with ads ($7.99) — $17.98 per month
- AMC Plus ($8.99) + Paramount Plus Premium ($9.99) + Discovery Plus ad-free ($6.99) — $25.97 per month
- Netflix Basic ($9.99) + Hulu with ads ($7.99) + HBO Max with ads ($9.99) — $27.97 per month
- Disney Plus ad-free ($10.99) + Peacock Premium Plus ($9.99) + Apple TV Plus ($6.99) — $27.97 per month
- Hulu with ads ($7.99) + Criterion Channel ($10.99) + Shudder ($5.99) + Apple TV Plus ($6.99) — $31.96 per month
- Netflix Standard ($15.49) + Disney “Trio Basic” Bundle ($12.99) + HBO Max with ads ($9.99) — $38.47 per month
- Netflix Standard ($15.49) + Disney “Trio Premium” Bundle ($19.99) + Apple TV Plus ($6.99) — $42.47 per month
- Netflix Premium ($19.99) + Disney “Trio Premium” Bundle ($19.99) + HBO Max ad-free ($15.99) + Apple TV Plus ($6.99) + Peacock Premium Plus ($9.99) + Paramount Plus Premium ($9.99) — $82.94 per month
These are just a few examples of how you might combine your favorite streaming services, all while supplementing them with free services like Pluto TV, Freevee, Tubi, the Roku Channel, and more.
If you want all the big players, you can see how you’ll easily get up near $100 per month in no time, especially if you want ad-free versions of services. Start adding niche streamers to the mix like Shudder and the Criterion Channel, and you’ll blow right past the $100 mark.
Live TV streaming
One huge advantage of the current streaming landscape is that it allows you to bridge the gap between cable and streaming. Viewers used to have to choose between live broadcasts and on-demand libraries. That’s not the case any more thanks to live TV streaming.
You can effectively recreate cable via your home internet with a number of services. These give you access to a selection of channels. Unlike Pluto TV, which creates “channels” of content from its library, these services offer you existing cable channels. You can watch local TV stations, major networks like NBC and CBS, live sports, and plenty more.
Such services vary in price but. In general, they are more expensive than a traditional streamer, but some are remarkably cheap. FrndlyTV offers you 37 channels for just $6.99 per month. Some of the best options are DirecTV Stream, Fubo TV, Hulu Plus Live TV, SlingTV, and YouTube TV.
Hulu’s live TV option is pricier, starting at $69.99, but it includes the Disney bundle. So on top of 75 channels, you get Hulu, Disney Plus, and ESPN Plus.
Cable vs streaming: Programming options
Cable and satellite continue to dominate on the level of sheer quantity. Even compared to live TV streaming services which tap out around the 80-channel mark, cable TV can offer over 200 channels if you’re willing to pay for it.
With home recording technology, you also have the option to watch all of that content on demand, though that requires some foresight and effort.
Compared to a more traditional streamer like Netflix and Hulu, though, the comparison becomes trickier. There’s more stuff on cable. More channels, more shows, more movies, certainly. But that can be bad too. If you shell out big bucks for a cable package with hundreds of channels, you surely won’t watch all of them. Some may feature content you have no interest in at all.
This is one of the big advantages of streaming, where you can zero in on what you want. If all you’re looking for are classic and important films, cable won’t be great for you, but the Criterion Channel or Mubi might. Or if you’re a horror fan, you can just head straight to Shudder.
If you like channel surfing with endless options, on the other hand, streamers might be a bit limiting.
At the end of the day, you’ll need to make some hard choices unless you plan on signing up for everything. Each streaming service has its own original films and TV shows available nowhere else. If you want to watch Stranger Things, you’re stuck with Netflix. If it’s Star Wars shows you need, then Disney Plus is a must. The same goes for cable. Not everything you’ll find on live TV makes it to the streaming space.
Cable vs streaming: The final verdict
The fact is that there’s no ultimate winner in a cable vs streaming showdown because they’re far more different than one might imagine. And they’re both endlessly variable. What is clear, however, is that the longstanding belief that streaming is the obvious successor to TV, that it will replace cable outright, is wrong.
Cable still has legs. Whether everything eventually moves online remains to be seen, but the limitations of the on-demand streaming model have begun to show.
For those with more targeted tastes or a tight budget, however, streaming is a terrific choice. You can try new services from month to month without being tied to any contracts, choosing just your favorite options.
We’re very curious to see how the future of TV will shake out. For now, there are some great options across the board.