Skinny bundles have been around a while: as we publish this WatchTV review, we’re posting it on a site that has already reviewed plenty of competitors, peers, and similar services – and even another service from the same parent company, AT&T. It’s all part of the growth of a space that, from the start, promised the kind of innovation and competition that have been so long absent in the world of cable.
But as skinny bundles have grown in reach and popularity, they’ve also grown in uniformity. These days, skinny bundles are starting to look very similar: they almost all start off by pitching a basic package of 50- or 60-something channels channels that will cost you $40. Even AT&T’s DirecTV Now service, which once undercut the competition with a $35-a-month price tag, is now the typical $40. This uniformity has reduced the appeal of the once uber-cheap skinny bundles – and opened up an opportunity for their successors in the budget space.
Enter the even-skinner bundle. Philo was among the first services we saw to fit this mold: with a channel lineup that ignored the local affiliates of major networks like CBS and NBC, and with a total lack of sports programming, Philo was able to offer extremely cheap live streaming TV. Now AT&T is looking to do the same thing with its WatchTV service, a budget brand that slots in below AT&T’s existing DirecTV Now brand.
Despite the division in brand, WatchTV looks unmistakably like its big brother in a lot of ways. But can it measure up to a service that is one of our favorite skinny bundles? Hey, glad you asked: we’re about to find out. This is our WatchTV review.
WatchTV will look pretty familiar to fans of DirecTV Now. There are some cosmetic differences between the apps, but in terms of layout and function, they’re quite similar. That’s not a surprise – AT&T owns both, and the divide between the two seems to be more a creation of deliberate branding than an indication of any deep dissimilarities. They’re presumably built in similar ways and perhaps even on the same basic technology – it’s just that WatchTV is the cheaper brand.
WatchTV offers a quite pleasant user experience; it’s the content (which we’ll talk about later), not the app, that really reveals its inferiority to its better-branded big brother. It’s easy enough to check out live TV and on-demand content, mark favorites, and access a TV guide.
WatchTV does a decent job at allowing you to swap channels and switch up what you’re watching. That sort of “channel surfing” ability has long been a feature I’ve valued in skinny bundles, and it seems particularly important in this case: since it offers channels that mostly air dramas, comedies, reality TV shows, and other content that isn’t necessarily “live” in the same way that live sports or live news broadcasts are, WatchTV presumably has to add something to the user experience to make it a better choice than, say, Hulu’s on-demand service. Being able to channel surf and just watch “whatever’s on” offers at least something of a value proposition relative to those on-demand services. For the lazy among us, channel surfing is the ultimate content discovery feature.
This isn’t to say that WatchTV’s channel surfing is flawless – I still prefer Sling TV’s, for instance – but it’s manageable enough to allow for some semblance of flipping around, which can’t be said of some skinny bundle competitors.
WatchTV allows you to watch live TV on a few different platforms (more on platform support later on in our WatchTV review), but not at the same time: you get one stream at a time on this service, which is fewer than you’d get from the mainstream skinny bundles in the $40-ish club. But, hey, this one’s $15 a month. I’m not getting too worked up about the single stream.
All in all, the WatchTV user experience is pretty pleasant, if not overwhelming.
Editor’s note: between the writing and publication of this review, WatchTV added Comedy Central and other Viacom channels, raising the service’s total number of available channels 31 to 37. The text below has been updated to reflect that.
WatchTV is an affordable service that makes cuts to its channel bundle in order to keep prices low for customers. That means that, as of this writing, you’ll get
31 37 channels. There are a few key network channels missing, including some Viacom channels like Comedy Central – though, to be fair, WatchTV says that channel is “coming soon.” There are other key omissions that are notable because they are missing by design: sports and local channels are nowhere to be found. That merits a bit more discussion.
The settling of skinny bundles at the $40 price point is a bit frustrating to those of us who had hoped to see super-skinny bundles at the $20 and $30 marks (which were more common in the early days of the services) become the norm. The arrival of WatchTV (and competitor Philo) should be happy news, then, to those same people. But, in some ways, seeing how services like WatchTV work only drives home the depressing reality that skinny bundles that offer key live channels are always going to be a bit pricier than we’d like.
Services like WatchTV have to cut costs, of course, before they offer lower prices. One obvious way to do that is to look for the most expensive channels and slash those. Cutting those channels gives services like WatchTV the most cost-effective possible bundle: lower prices, more channels.
But the channels that go when you make cuts this way tend to be some of the ones that are most crucial to cord cutters. Take the major networks, for instance. A glaring omission from early skinny bundles, major networks have become industry standard as skinny bundle prices have come to hover around $40. That’s probably not a coincidence: ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox don’t own all of their local affiliate stations outright, and cutting deals with all of the organizations that run these stations is a costly project. So when costs are cut, these channels go: WatchTV is missing all four major networks.
That saves money. But, uh, it’s also bad! The major networks are, well, major. They have the biggest shows and the biggest sporting events. They’re home to your local news stations. They’re broadcast (over-the-air) channels and basic cable channels because they are the most important channels around. Omitting them is a big blow to WatchTV’s usefulness.
You know what else is expensive? Sports. ESPN is responsible for a much larger chunk of a typical cable bill than, say, HGTV is. It’s not even close. So here, again, services like WatchTV make cuts: you won’t find a single sports-focused channel in WatchTV’s lineup.
But here, again, we should step back and ask if this sacrifice is worth it. After all, why is it that sports are expensive? It’s because they are one of the last bastions of what is called “appointment TV.” They’re relatively “DVR-proof” because people want to watch them live, so they are much more valuable to advertisers. WatchTV, then, is a live TV streaming service that doesn’t let you watch the most popular kind of live TV.
To put this another way, cord cutters become cord cutters in part because it’s easy to replace so many channels with on-demand streaming, while those who hold onto cable tend to do so because there are a few key things – sports and local TV, for instance – that Netflix and the gang don’t offer. WatchTV (and competitors like Philo) have created a service that deliberately offers only those channels that have been most effectively rendered obsolete by on-demand streaming.
To be fair, there are people out there for whom WatchTV fits the bill perfectly. For a certain type of viewer – one who doesn’t need sports or local TV, and who strongly desires the the decision-free bliss of just letting live TV determine “what’s on,” WatchTV has some decent stuff: you’ll get AMC and CNN and HGTV and blah, blah, blah. But it’s hard to imagine that the audience for this is huge. Who out there is really dying to get a live TV service that almost exclusively airs stuff that doesn’t really need to be live?
I was not particularly impressed by WatchTV’s streaming quality. It was passable in some cases, but clearly lagged behind the quality we’ve come to expect from DirecTV Now. I saw prolonged streaming in subpar resolution, and I even had some streams crash on me (“looks like you’re having network problems,” WatchTV explained, but the app’s confidence was misplaced – it was the app, not my network, that was not pulling its weight). Even using a wired connection wasn’t enough to bring things up to snuff. It did seem to work a bit better on iOS than it did in my browser, for whatever that’s worth, but it wasn’t amazing on any platform.
To be clear, it’s not like WatchTV is unwatchable. And it’s also not unusual for new services to have some growing pains. Still, it was disappointing to see WatchTV stumbling out of the gate – AT&T has plenty of experience in making services like this thanks to DirecTV Now, and as the business space matures it’s hard not to demand more of newcomers. There are plenty of skinny bundles available that stream like a dream these days, and WatchTV’s debut has not put it among them.
WatchTV has pretty limited platform support. It works on Fire TV, Apple TV, Android and iOS mobile devices, and within the Chrome browser. The glaring omissions here are Roku and (native) Chromecast support. WatchTV is pretty new, and its not unusual for new services to launch with limited platform support, but hey – if you don’t want to get dinged in early reviews for poor platform support, then don’t launch before you have platform support.
Realistically, there’s one reason why WatchTV exists: it’s cheap.
At just $15, WatchTV is as cheaper than all major skinny bundles – only the $16-per-month Philo, a similarly designed sports- and local-channels-free bundle, is close. The $20-per-month “Sling Orange” from Sling TV is next up, though it arguably provides more value: it includes some big channels like ESPN, though the selection is notably incomplete (only combing Sling Orange with “Sling Blue” will get you the full set of skinny bundle staples, and that combo will cost you – you guessed it – $40 a month).
It’s impressive to see how much you can get for $15 a month. 31 channels is just about half of what you’d get from a typical $40-per-month bundle. On the other hand, if these are the channels that cost $15 a month, perhaps it would make sense to invert the calculus: from the perspective of a cord cutter who already pays for, say, Netflix, a $20- or $25-per-month bundle with ESPN, FS1, and local ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC stations might be a more appealing deal.
But we can only deal with what we’ve got, and we already complained about this in the content section, so let’s just say this: whatever else WatchTV is (or isn’t), it’s one heck of a cheap way to watch live TV.
WatchTV has some nice features, and it does solve the problem that it sets out to: it provides cheap live network TV, complete with lots of shows and movies from channels like AMC, HGTV, and the rest.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that WatchTV has solved the wrong problem. Sure, cable dramas, comedies, and reality shows take a little while to reach streaming services. But in the age of binge-watching, the virtue of catching a network TV show “live” is limited. The must-have live TV programming that is most effective at stemming the tide of cord cutting – sports and local TV – is precisely the programming that WatchTV leaves out. It’s as if AT&T heard that a friend who moved from California to Arizona was missing the beach, and sent them a box of California beach sand to cheer them up. It’s a nice thought, but they’ve gotten things backwards.
Throw in frustrating problems like weak in-browser streaming, missing network channels (unlike the sports channels, channels like MTV do not seem to be absent by design), and limited platform support, and you have a rather inauspicious debut for a service that’s backed by a massive company with streaming experience. It’s disappointing, but – for now, at least – I wouldn’t recommend this service.
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