Your Guide To Choosing The Perfect Virtual Cable Package

Post by: Rick Ellis

When most people discuss the cost of cable television, the conversation focuses on a comparison between traditional cable and satellite TV options vs the newer virtual cable television alternatives. The so-called "skinny" cable services have struggled to stay skinny, because the major media companies have increasingly insisted on bundling all of their networks into one take-it-or-leave it package. So these new services are being forced to take it all - local broadcast networks, scores of minor and little-watched niche networks as well as a complete suite of sports networks. And since "favored nation" clauses in these deals ensures no service can get a discount on any of the networks, the result has been an increasingly large and expensive cable alternative.

But this is 2021 and a lot of people are out of work or dealing with other financial challenges. And they still want some sort of television subscription that includes some live networks as well as next-day on-demand options. It's possible to do that on a budget, with a couple of caveats. First of all, this only works if you're not a big sports fan and are not expecting to be able to watch every major cable network live. In most cases, you're also going to have to make alternative plans for your local television stations, which is relatively easy with a decent television antenna. Thanks to the channel bundling, it's also almost impossible to see the news channels CNN. Fox & MSNBC on a budget. But there are several places to watch highlights of your favorite cable television programs and both ABC and CBS offer 24/7 news channels that are available for free.

One note: unless you have a smart television that already supports some of these apps, you'll need a streaming stick to use them. If you're on a budget, both Roku and Amazon Fire sticks are solid choices. Apple TV is another option, but it generally costs 2-3 times as much as Roku or Amazon Fire. And owning one of these streaming sticks also gives you access to lots of free programming, ranging from the Roku Channel and IMDb TV to Pluto and YouTube.

Editor's Choice: Philo ($25 per month)

Philo bills itself as an "entertainment-only" service and it delivers on that promise. You get 60 live channels for $20 per month and they offer a pretty wide range of familiar names - everything from Hallmark and AMC to Food and MTV. All of the Discovery-owned networks, all the Viacom channels, all the Hallmark nets as well as the AMC Networks. Along with lots of smaller niche networks like AXSTV and INSP. The downside is that because Philo won't carry anything but entertainment networks, they can't get access to entertainment networks owned by the big media companies that also own sports networks and local affiliates. So you won't find any of the networks from NBCU (Syfy, Bravo, USA, MSNBC), Turner (TNT, TBS, CNN, Cartoon Network) and Disney (Freeform, Disney, NatGeo). That's an issue if you specifically want one of those networks live. But if you just want a number of familiar networks, Philo is a great place to start. Philo also offers an unlimited DVR, which is another upside. If there is a downside, it's that you can't use your Philo subscription to authenticate TV Everywhere apps.

Runner-up Choice: Frndly ($5.99 a month)

This newer service only offers 18 channels. But if you mostly just want the Hallmark networks, this is a solid choice. You get all three Hallmark Networks, along with some weather (Weather Channel), outdoor sports (Outdoor Channel, Sportsman Channel & World Fishing Network), along with the Game Show Network, QVC and some other smaller networks. 

Editor's Choice: Sling Blue or Sling Orange ($35 a month)

Sling has a really screwy set of programming tiers and it all gets down to its initial deal with Disney. Disney demanded restrictions on things like the number of concurrent streams (Disney wanted just one) as well as what programming subscribers could record. Those restrictions were much more customer-unfriendly than the terms set by the other major media companies, so Sling's solution was to create two separate but not-so-equal programming packages. 

Sling Orange includes the Disney-owned channels such as Disney, Freeform and the various ESPN nets. Along with a number of other networks. Among other things, you can only have one person streaming at a time with this package. Sling Blue contains a bunch of NBCU networks, but omits the Disney-owned channels. With Sling Blue, you can have three concurrent streams. And there are some additional networks that are included as part of both packages.

Both packages include A&E, AMC, AXSTV, BBC America, BET, Bloomberg, Cartoon Network, Cheddar, CNN, Comedy Central, Comet, EPIX Drive-In, Food, HGTV, History, IFC, ID, Lifetime, Local Now, Newsy, TBS, TNT, Travel Channel and Vice. Sling Orange also includes Disney Channel, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN 3, Freeform, Motor Trend and Stadium. Sling Blue doesn't include any of those networks, but it does include Bravo, Discovery, E!, the local Fox affiliate in some markets, Fox News Channel, FS1, FX, HLN, MSNBC, National Geographic, NBC Sports in some markets, the local NBC affiliate in some markets, Syfy, TLC, TruTV & USA. 

So the final count is 33 networks on Sling Orange and 44 networks on Sling Blue. Either package runs $35 per month. The biggest disadvantage is that Sling only includes 50 hours of free DVR space, otherwise an unlimited DVR costs $5 per month.


Editor's Choice: Hulu Live TV ($64.99 a month)
Even after a recent rate hike, Hulu Live TV is still substantially cheaper than a traditional cable or satellite TV subscription. And as a bonus, subscribers to Hulu Live TV also get all the features of the traditional Hulu subscription, which saves $5.99 a month. It takes a bit of getting used to Hulu Live TV's distinctive interface and to be honest even after subscribing for more than a year, I'm not sure that I'd describe it as "intuitive." But you get used to it and as someone who has tried out all of these services, Hulu Live TV is the best deal financially and the best choice overall as a virtual replacement for a traditional cable or satellite TV subscription. The baisc Hulu Live subscription includes 50 hours of DVR space with unskippable ads. For an additional $9.99 per month, you get a 200 total hour DVR and full fast forward capability. You are also limited to 2 live streams and six profile accounts.

There are also a couple of add-on options you can consider. For $70.99, you get Hulu Live TV as well as a mostly ad-free version of basic Hulu. But given that you'll still have ads on the live television part of the service, I'm not sure this is worth $5 a month. 

There are also separate add-on entertainment or espanol programming tiers. The Entertainment add-on costs an additional $7.99 per month and it includes 16 second-tier channels from Discovery, NBCU and Viacom: American Heroes Channel, BET Her, CNBC World, Cooking Channel, Crime+Investigation, Destination America, Discovery Family, Discovery Life, DIY, Great American Country, Military History Channel, Nicktoons, MTV2, MTV Classic, Science and TeenNick.

The Español Add-on costs an additional $4.99 per month and includes 7 Spanish-language networks: CNN en Español, Discovery en Español, Discovery Familia, ESPN Deportes, FOX Deportes, History Channel en Español and NBC Universo.

RUNNER-UP: YouTube TV ($64.99)
Hulu's recent rate hike has made both services an identical price and like Hulu, YouTube TV has an interface that takes a bit of getting used to. The primary differences between the two services are modest. Hulu Live TV bundles the traditional ad-supported Hulu into its package and YouTube TV is the only streaming service that currently offers PBS. They each also have slightly different sports packages. So really the best suggestion is to compare both services side-by-side and see what is the best fit for you. The biggest difference between the two right now when it comes to programming is that unlike Hulu Live TV, YouTube TV includes the NFL, NBA, and MLB networks.

YouTube TV also offers a better deal on DVR space when compared to Hulu: unlimited cloud DVR storage space and rewind, fast forward, and pause capability. It also offers three simultaneous streams.


Editor's Choice: Fubo TV ($64.99)

If you're a sports fan, there is no better choice than Fubo TV. This service began as a sports-centric streamer and over the past several years it has been forced to expand its non-sports offerings to get some of the bigger sports networks. But now it offers the best of both worlds-a solid lineup of traditional networks as well as a huge selection of major and minor sports networks. It's in the middle of some programming turmoil right now, since it recently lost the carriage rights to all of the Turner Networks. But on the upside, it is adding a wide variety of Disney-owned networks in early August. Sports viewing-like any other programming niche-is really dependent on personal taste. If you love Big Ten Football, then you're going to subscribe to the vMVPD that carries the Big Ten Network. But if you just love sports of all kinds, then Fubo TV by far has the best selection of sports programming on the market. 

Some other things to consider about Fubo. The basic subscription includes two simultaneous streams. You can add an additional stream for $5.99 per month. 

Have any other questions? Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or send me a message on Twitter at @aysrick.

Last modified on Friday, 25 June 2021 12:30