What is livestreaming TV?
Livestreaming TV is a television channel, or a group of channels, you watch over the internet instead of traditional cable or satellite. It’s the same programming that’s happening live right now on your favorite networks, just delivered through different wires.
The channel grids look mostly the same as those of cable and satellite, but livestreaming TV simply uses an app on a streaming device (like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV) instead of a physical receiver or DVR box. One less piece of equipment on the shelf is a definite plus.
Except for local TV stations, there are also no channel “numbers” in livestreaming. Initially that’s the weirdest difference when cutting the cord in favor of streaming, but you get over it. TNT is still TNT, numbered or not.
Though no single service covers every base for every viewer (yet), CableTV.com has reviewed 15 of the best livestreaming and on-demand TV services currently available to potential cord-cutters.
Top 5 live TV streaming services
|Provider||Price range||Channels||Multiple streams||Cloud DVR||Free trial|
Hulu + Live TV
|Best for sports|
|$25–$40/mo.||30–45||1–4||50 hrs. ($5/mo.)|
|$20/mo.||58||3||Unlimited (30 days)|
|Best cloud DVR|
|$49.99/mo.||60||3||Unlimited (9 months)|
|Free HBO included|
AT&T TV NOW
Data effective as of 12/19/19. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
Streaming power-players like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video (more on them later) have only dabbled in live programming; the following services have gone all-in replicating the familiar look and feel of cable TV while also maintaining the ease and convenience of streaming.
They’re also mostly cheaper than cable or satellite. That got your attention, didn’t it?
Best streaming services
- Hulu + Live TV – Best overall ($54.99/mo.)
- Sling TV – Best for sports ($25–$40/mo.)
- Philo – Cheapest ($20/mo.)
- YouTube TV – Best cloud DVR ($49.99/mo.)
- AT&T TV NOW – Free HBO® included ($65–$135/mo.)
- Disney+ – Best for families ($6.99/mo.)
- Apple TV+ – Good for Apple fans ($4.99/mo.)
- Netflix – Best original programming ($8.99–$15.99/mo.)
- Prime Video – Best movie selection ($12.99/mo.)
- CBS All Access – Exclusive network content ($5.99–$9.99/mo.)
- HBO NOW – Every HBO original series on demand ($15/mo.)
- fuboTV – Plenty of soccer coverage ($54.99–$79.99/mo.)
Hulu + Live TV
- Full Hulu on-demand experience
- ESPN and Fox Sports channels
- Spotty entertainment channel lineup
- No MLB, NBA, NFL, or NHL networks
When you think of Hulu, you probably think of The Handmaid’s Tale or maybe Rick & Morty if you’re a little too into Szechuan sauce.
Beyond original dystopian dramas and acquired dystopian cartoons, Hulu has also taken a swing at livestreaming TV with its imaginatively titled Hulu + Live TV. Despite the name, the crew here at CableTV.com likes it so much we’ve named it our best overall streamer.
Channels and pricing
For $55 a month, in addition to the regular on-demand Hulu experience, Hulu + Live TV gives you around 55 live cable channels and, depending on your area, a near-complete local network lineup. The CW is mostly MIA, but its shows are available through Hulu’s on-demand library (also check out The CW’s app—it’s totally free).
That all sounds good until you scan the cable channels and notice favorites like Comedy Central, VH1, AMC, Animal Planet, Discovery, and Nickelodeon are nowhere to be found. Several other streaming services lack these channels, too—we recommend making up the difference with Philo, which carries them all for just $20 a month.
Sports fans, on the other hand, are treated to ESPN, ESPN2, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, and NBC Sports Network, plus TBS and TNT.
Hulu + Live TV also offers a generous number of regional sports networks and a handful of college sports channels. However, MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL pro sports networks are unavailable.
Hulu + Live TV’s cloud DVR affords you 50 hours of space—but you can record only entire series, not single episodes, and can’t fast-forward (unless you pony up an additional $14.99 for the Enhanced Cloud DVR).
Still, we think Hulu + Live TV provides the best livestreaming TV experience for the price. Access to all of that cool Hulu content definitely seals the deal.
Hulu + Live TV is available on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Nintendo Switch, Roku, and Xbox.
Best for sports
- Major sports networks
- Budget packages
- Weak local channel lineup
- Extra charges for some channels
In terms of easy interface and channel options, Sling TV is similar to Hulu + Live TV. Its basic plans are cheaper if somewhat confusing, but Sling is highly customizable with multiple available add-on packages.
Channels and pricing
The Sling Orange (30 channels for $25 a month) and Sling Blue (40 channels, also for $25 a month) packages aren’t bad for casual TV viewers. But more-demanding viewers will likely want Sling Orange & Blue (45 channels for $40 a month), since it’s the most complete base package Sling has to offer.
The Orange & Blue package has all the major sports networks and a smattering of regional and college sports channels. Another plus is the inclusion of the NFL Network, with the option to add NBA TV, NFL RedZone, and NHL Network for an additional $10 monthly with the Sports Extra add-on.
All in all, Sling TV’s cable channel lineup is strong, probably because it’s owned by satellite giant DISH. But the add-on options can also nickel and dime you to death if you’re not careful. For example, you’ll have to pay an extra $5 a month each for add-on channels like MTV and Paramount Network.
Of course, like other livestreaming services reviewed here, Sling TV doesn’t have everything. Local channels are lacking; many markets get only FOX or Univision affiliates.
But, Sling TV scores as a livestreaming sports leader, and it’s also an inexpensive and intuitive service for newbie cord-cutters.
Sling TV is available on Air TV Player, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Roku, Xbox, and Xiaomi.
- Inexpensive pricing
- Carries channels unavailable elsewhere
- No sports or local channels
- No add-ons or upgrades
Don’t care about sports or local channels? Upstart Philo—named after television inventor Philo T. Farnsworth—might be the budget livestreaming answer for you.
Channels and pricing
Philo offers just one package: 58 channels for $20 a month. It includes A&E, AMC, BBC America, Comedy Central, Discovery, Food Network, HGTV, and Hallmark, among many others.
You might recognize some of those as the popular channels missing from other services. Also, in several of CableTV.com’s livestreaming TV reviews, we recommend Philo as a supplemental service to fill in other livestreamers’ channel gaps. What gives?
Connecting the red conspiracy strings on the corkboard: Philo is co-owned by the four major media companies that own the channels usually absent from other livestreaming TV services. With a few exceptions, those companies keep their channels exclusive to Philo for livestreaming. An inconvenient racket, for sure.
The very things that keep Philo’s subscription rate low are also its biggest minuses: no sports or local channels. Both are expensive to carry, so Philo decided to be the outlier among livestreaming services and just go with lifestyle and entertainment channels—if you want more, you’ll have to sign up for a second livestreamer.
Also, Philo isn’t as customizable as most of the competition when it comes to channel grids and overall presentation, and its cloud DVR is only “unlimited” for 30 days. Compared to livestreamers like Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV, Philo is a bare-bones affair.
But, for only $20 a month, there’s plenty to like about Philo. Also, a clarification on sports programming: Philo does carry AXS TV, which is fast becoming a new destination for pro wrestling, so there’s that.
Philo is available on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, and Roku.
Best cloud DVR
- Unlimited DVR
- Simple interface
- Limited pro sports networks
- Some missing entertainment channels
That’s right—YouTube has branched out into live TV.
YouTube TV, the company’s livestreaming service, combines the most familiar interface on the planet with an impressive array of entertainment and sports channels. All hail our new Google overlords!
Channels and pricing
YouTube TV offers just one package, a $49.99-a-month deal that delivers mostly complete local lineups in over 100 markets and on-demand capability where select networks are absent.
As for sports, ESPN, ESPN2, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, NBC Sports Network, TBS, and TNT are all included with YouTube TV. It also carries plenty of regional and some college channels, in addition to MLB Network and NBA TV.
That’s solid coverage, but YouTube TV’s cable choices are a bit more limited. It lacks necessities like A&E, Comedy Central, and Paramount Network. Is a life without Live PD, South Park, or Bar Rescue even worth living? We’re asking for a friend.
Upsides to YouTube TV include unlimited—yes, unlimited—cloud DVR storage that keeps recorded shows for up to nine months. You also get access to YouTube Premium content (like Liza on Demand and Cobra Kai).
YouTube TV is available on Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Roku, and Xbox.
AT&T TV NOW
Free HBO included
- Decent channel selection
- Free HBO included with cheaper packages
- Expensive packages
- Clunky interface
Like many legacy media providers, DIRECTV leapt into the streaming boom quickly. It mostly stuck the landing.
After a rocky rollout, AT&T TV NOW (formerly DIRECTV NOW) has since evolved into a decent streaming version of its satellite TV service, complete with cloud DVR—but not without a few lingering problems.
If you’ve used DIRECTV before, AT&T TV NOW will seem comfortingly familiar. No learning curve here.
Channels and pricing
The AT&T TV NOW live channel guide is nearly identical to its DIRECTV satellite counterpart and, more importantly, a majority of the channels and on-demand movies you’d expect are there.
AT&T TV NOW doesn’t deliver the best bang for your buck on its budget packages: most TV obsessives will want the MAX package, which gives you 60 channels for $70 a month and includes HBO and CINEMAX®.
Compare that to DIRECTV’s bottom SELECT package, which offers 155 channels at $59.99 a month, and you can see the issue.
In the negative column, the interface is a bit clunky, with latency issues and herky-jerky scrolling that you don’t get with DIRECTV’s smooth satellite menus.
AT&T TV NOW isn’t a bargain, but if you’re determined to sidestep contracts and ditch the dish (scraping snow off a satellite receiver in the dead of winter sucks—we feel you), it’s a relatively painless gateway into the world of full-time streaming TV.
Other top streaming services
Best for families
Disney’s long-awaited streaming service arrived like a digital Deathstar in November 2019, dropping a handful of new originals (like the Star Wars-adjacent Mandalorian) and thousands of legacy shows and movies from the Disney, Star Wars, and Marvel vaults. If you haven’t heard of Disney+, where ya been?
Considering the sheer volume of content available, most expected Disney+ to cost more than other services like Netflix and Prime Video. Nope: at $6.99 a month, Disney+ is one of the cheaper on-demand streaming services—chalk one up for the Mouse (and Baby Yoda).
Disney+’s low price tag, generous multiple-streams allowance (up to 4), and overall kid-friendly vibe made it an instant gotta-have for families. You can’t argue with 10 million subscriptions on month one.
Good for Apple fans
A week before Disney+ blew up the streaming world, Apple TV+ debuted with more subdued buzz and little understanding of what exactly it was. Would AppleTV+ stream any of your favorite old shows? Would it it be typically Apple-pricey? Would it work on non-Apple devices?
The answers: Apple TV+ only carries new, original content (like The Morning Show and Servant); no previously-released shows or movies from outside sources. Also, the monthly subscription rate of $4.99 is pretty sweet, and it’ll work on most non-Apple streaming devices.
Apple TV+’s performance and picture is as gorgeous as you’d expect from an Apple product but, right now, the platform is far ahead of the content. Going the all-original route means there’s only a little over a dozen in-house Apple TV+ series and movies to choose from, and they’re a mixed critical bag, at best.
Best original programming
You know it, and you probably already have it—or at least a pal’s password.
Streaming king Netflix has established itself as a relentless firehose of original programming and curated outside favorites, but live TV is nowhere on its radar.
If it ain’t broke, crank out 50 more Ozark episodes.
Best movie selection
Amazon may be doubling down on original programming ambitions (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Jack Ryan are a power couple to reckon with), but live TV, not so much.
Prime Video does offer livestreaming of select NBA and NFL games (including Thursday Night Football), but it’s still largely an on-demand service.
Still, if you like on-demand movies to go with your Amazon Prime free shipping, Prime Video is tough to beat: there are over 18,000 movies available on Prime Video, and most of them stream free with Prime membership.And you thought you were overwhelmed with Netflix (which carries around 4,500 movies, for comparison).
CBS All Access
Exclusive network content
Beyond streaming exclusives Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight, and Why Women Kill, the draw of CBS All Access is its deep library of CBS broadcast originals and, in most markets, a livestream of local CBS affiliates.
That means live access—get it?—to CBS Sports, CBS News, and CBS programming like Survivor, NCIS, and Young Sheldon. You can also attempt to keep up with Stephen Colbert’s nightly political takedowns on The Late Show, though we wouldn’t recommend it—it’s exhausting.
Every HBO original series on demand
Like CBS All Access, stand-alone service HBO NOW offers livestreams of its TV programming—you probably heard the reports of how the final seasons of Game of Thrones crashed the system with “dragon” latency. (No more GoT puns going forward, promise.)
But HBO NOW is primarily an on-demand service—and a rich one, at that—for original content and blockbuster movies. There’s also no wait time for those originals, as shows like Watchmen and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are available to stream on HBO NOW at the same time as they appear on cable or satellite.
Best of all, you don’t even need a cable or satellite subscription to enjoy HBO NOW (not to be confused with HBO GO, which does require a standard cable or satellite subscription).
Plenty of soccer coverage
fuboTV promises “live sports and TV without cable,” delivering “the perfect mix of sports and entertainment.” It’s an expansion on the service’s initial mission to be “the Netflix of soccer,” which still fits.
The fubo Standard package, at $54.99 a month, offers over 103 livestreaming channels, including cable staples like FX, TBS, Syfy, and Cartoon Network/Adult Swim. Local channels, on the other hand, are harder to come by.
fuboTV’s niche sports programming is where it’s at, especially if you’re really, really, really into soccer (you know who you are). That impressive 103 channel count is mostly fútbol networks that even hardcore fans might not recognize.
It isn’t quite the “perfect mix of sports and entertainment” it claims to be, but fuboTV still offers a lot for the price—not to mention add-on tiers (mostly sports, no surprise) and 30 hours of free cloud DVR space.
Top free streaming services
Pluto TV is a free, ad-supported streaming app that features hundreds of “channels,” most of which are just loops of older programming from MTV, Comedy Central, Animal Planet, Investigation Discovery and many others. There’s even a 24/7 Baywatch channel!
Pluto TV is broken up into scrollable tiers for movies, drama, comedy, sports, news, science, music, Spanish content, and other genres. Some of the news and weather channels are live; others are on 24-hour delays from the original broadcast.
If you don’t mind ads, Pluto TV offers a ridiculous amount of free programming, much of it also available on demand. It seems like there should be a catch, but there isn’t one . . . yet.
The CW is usually the hardest-to-find local channel on any livestreaming TV service, a real letdown if you want to catch the new Batwoman series or keep up on all (like, 75?) seasons of Supernatural.
Fortunately, The CW knows its audience: younger viewers who’d rather stream shows on their own schedule. The ad-supported CW app makes all of its new episodes available for next-day viewing after airing, as well as select older shows. It beats setting up an antenna.
With over 50,000 licensed movies and TV shows available on demand for free, it’s easy to get past the cutesy name. Streaming app Tubi is an unassuming little powerhouse that blows away both Netflix and Prime Video in terms of sheer content.
Of course, most of that content is older catalogue material, and Tubi forces ads on you (if anything is “free” in streaming, assume there’ll be ads). But a lot of the movies and shows at least look familiar, making Tubi the closest thing to browsing the aisles at a good ole Blockbuster Video store as you’ll get in 2020—and it doesn’t cost a thing.
What to look for in a streaming TV service
One of the ever-so-wonderful perks of streaming TV services is the free trial period. Unlike cable or satellite, streaming TV services don’t have installation appointments or contracts, so taking a service for a spin is simple and costs nothing. The trial windows are brief (usually seven days) but adequate.
Most streaming TV services that offer live TV also include cloud DVR storage with the package. Like a physical DVR, though, they do have limits on space and time. Some give you as little as 20 hours, while some “unlimited” options will save your Hoarders backlog for only a month or so. Ironic.
You may not think about local affiliates, but they carry the shows you love from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and The CW live. If a streaming TV service doesn’t carry local affiliate channels, you could miss out on those shows, as well as area sports, news, and weather. If these are important to you, check the availability of local affiliates on streaming TV services. If they’re not available, a simple digital antenna can make up the difference.
As we mentioned above, setting up and trying out a streaming TV service is as easy as downloading an app—but is that app available on your set-top box or mobile devices? Most services reviewed here are available as smart TV apps, though we recommend devices like Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku for better stability and performance.
Livestreaming TV FAQ
What’s the difference between livestreaming and on-demand streaming TV?
With livestreaming, the operative word is “live”—programming that’s being broadcast right now on TV networks. It’s the same as cable or satellite, just streamed through the internet.
On-demand means shows and movies called-up whenever you want to watch them—as with Netflix, the biggest on-demand platform on the planet (well, that and YouTube). Shows recorded with a physical or cloud DVR could also technically be called “on demand.”
Do I need a fast internet connection for livestreaming?
Whether it’s on-demand or livestreaming, most services recommend a bare minimum of 7 Mbps of internet speed for streaming. But that speed is only adequate for a single stream and assumes that no one else is using the network at the same time—an unlikely scenario.
We recommend at least 25 Mbps of internet speed for smooth, non-buffered streaming; at least double that for 4K resolution or a household of multiple users (especially gamers).
Do sports blackouts apply to livestreaming TV?
Unfortunately, blackouts for games in certain regions apply to livestreaming TV just as they do for cable or satellite. It’s an understandable rule to protect local broadcasters and franchises from major network competition, but it still sucks come game time.
You can, however, get around local blackouts with livestreaming TV—if your service and apps function with a location-masking VPN (virtual private network). It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, but it will work in most cases.