It was too good to be true, and we all knew it.
YouTube TV, previously CNET's favorite live TV streaming service, just announced its latest price hike, and it's a doozy. It went from $40 to $50, a whopping 25 percent jump.
I say "previously" because "favorite" is based primarily on value -- namely, channels for the money. In boosting its price YouTube TV added a handful of channels it had lacked before, including Discovery, HGTV, Food Network and Animal Planet. But it's also a bigger bundle, precisely the kind of thing most cable TV cord cutters are trying to avoid.
The main reason to cut the cable TV cord is to save money, but at $50 per month for TV service, that's a tall order. You'll still need broadband internet, likely provided by a cable company. Changing your cable plan to "just internet" -- dropping the cable company's TV service -- allows you to add a streaming TV service such as YouTube TV. But if "just internet" costs $50 per month, for example, adding another $50 for TV brings your bill to $100, a level that many cable providers bundle with their own TV service. There goes your savings.
Read: Best TV antennas for cord-cutters, starting at just $10
If a broadband + TV bundle costs the same as a broadband + cord cutter TV service, what's the point?
Et tu, DirecTV Now and Hulu?
All of these services have to pay for the rights to carry channels like ESPN and Fox News, and those programming costs are always going up. And yes, that's also true of CBS, the owner of CNET -- and CBS Sports, Smithsonian and Pop, too. YouTube TV isn't the only such service to increase pricing, and it won't be the last.
Pretty much the exact same thing happened last month to DirecTV Now, one of YouTube TV's many competitors. It also went up to $50 (from $45), but in doing so dropped a bunch of channels and added HBO. Now it has roughly 20 fewer of the top 100 channels than YouTube TV, but if you want to stream Game of Thrones this weekend, YouTube TV's hike suddenly makes DTVN a lot more attractive.
But wait, there's more! Hulu with Live TV also jacked up its price to $45 (from $40) in January and didn't add any channels. It does give you the second-most channels after YouTube TV, however, and includes full access to Hulu's massive on-demand streaming library. Those factors make it a better value for most people than either of its $45 competitors, PlayStation Vue and Fubo TV, right now.
Sling TV does live TV for just $25
The biggest "winner" from YouTube TV's price hike is the original skinny bundle, Sling TV.
At $25 it's half the price of YouTube TV and cheaper than any of its major rivals. Just as appealing to cord cutters is Sling's tiered pricing structure, which allows you to choose what you want to pay for. With its two base tiers (Orange and Blue, with Disney/ESPN and Fox/NBC channels respectively), its myriad $5 and $10 add-on channel packages and its optional $5 cloud DVR, Sling TV comes as close to the dream of pick-your-own-channels as you can get today.
Sling also best leverages the cord cutter's secret weapon: An over-the-air antenna. Sling can charge less because unlike the other four, it doesn't stream your local TV stations -- namely ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC (yes, Sling Blue has NBC and Fox but only in select cities). If you have good reception you can watch those local stations (and more) for free using an antenna and the tuner in your TV.
And if you buy Sling's AirTV player ($120) you can see those over-the-air channels right next to the streaming channels in Sling's guide and stream the local channels to multiple TVs and devices. You can even add a hard drive for DVR action. CNET's favorite over-the-air DVR, the Amazon Fire TV recast, does the same thing albeit without integrating into Sling's app.
Of course the two cheapest live TV streaming services, AT&T Watch TV ($15) and Philo ($16), have yet to go through a price hike, and could be solid alternatives if their narrower channel selections work for your family. They lack local TV, sports and news channels however, with the exception of CNN on AT&T Watch TV.
Live TV streaming ain't dead
What's the point, I asked? Well, it's worth remembering that even if a live TV service plus broadband has the same monthly cost as cable's broadband plus TV bundle, streaming has some big advantages.
There's no early termination fee for breaking a contract -- because there are no contracts. You can cancel, and switch services, anytime. You can stream live and recorded TV to phones and PCs as well as TV both inside and outside the home. There's no extra recurring costs, such as cable box and DVR rental fees, no installation and you don't have to use the cable company's box or DVR.
The best thing about all of these services, however, is the competition. If you call up your cable company and tell them you're planning to drop their TV service and switch to Sling TV -- costing them $50 or $100 every month -- maybe they'll be willing to negotiate and give you a discounted bundle, perhaps even one without a contract.
And if you do cut the cord and go with a live TV streamer, you can cancel it when the next price hike rolls around and choose another. Right now, Sling TV is looking pretty good, while Hulu could be worth a closer look too if you want local channels. At least until their prices go up too.