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Mossberg: Streaming TV is beginning to look a lot like cable

What happened to Netflix-style choice?

A Verizon FiOS TV DVR Remote

Streaming TV shows, movies, and other types of video over the internet to all manner of devices, once a fringe habit, is now a squarely mainstream practice. Even people still paying for cable or satellite service often also have Netflix or Hulu accounts. Nearly every traditional TV network, sports league, or video service — even those still primarily grounded in cable or satellite — has a channel or app for playing video on everything from set-top boxes and “smart” TVs to mobile phones.

Until recently, however, almost all of these streaming apps and services followed what you might call the Netflix / Hulu model. You paid a fairly modest monthly fee for a large library of shows and movies which you could watch anytime, as many times as you wanted, in whatever order and frequency you wanted. You didn’t need to record anything, because it was there, waiting in the cloud. Sometimes, you had to prove you had a cable subscription to enjoy this a la carte approach at no extra cost. Sometimes, there were commercials, sometimes not. But the basic idea still applied.

In other words, streaming video wasn’t simply different because it was delivered via the internet, versus a cable TV box or satellite dish. It was different because you didn’t pay for large, non-configurable bundle of channels that played shows in linear fashion and required you to use a digital video recorder built into the box (often for an extra fee) if you wanted to create your own collection of programming to watch on your own schedule.

But that’s changing, and it bothers me. Two big new streaming services, both owned by satellite TV services, have made a splash in the last couple of years, and, when you cut through all the hype about them, they are pretty much just old-style, linear TV services delivered via the net.

I’m talking about Sling TV, which is owned by Dish Network and came out last year, and a new competitor, DirecTV Now, which is owned by AT&T, also the owner of the DirecTV satellite service. Both are built mainly around two things carried over from the old system: bundles of TV networks, and linear programming — what’s on now.

I’ve been watching both, on an Apple TV and on a laptop, and I feel like they are a giant step backwards by an industry that’s trying to hold onto customers from an outdated system. It’s as if streaming music services like Spotify or Apple were priced based on how many and which record labels you wanted to access. And you could mainly listen to songs only as albums, in the original order, instead of using playlists you made from different albums, artists, and genres, or which the services offered you based on your listening habits.

The general idea is that each of these TV services will appeal to cord-cutters and cord-nevers who merely consider old-style cable and satellite TV too costly. To overcome that, each offers what are called “skinny bundles” of channels, with fewer choices, at various prices.

On Sling, for instance, you start at about 30 channels for $20 a month. On DirecTV Now, it’s 60 channels for $35 a month. Both offer other, costlier plans, with more channels, or add-on plans for HBO, or for specialized programming such as sports, or kids’ shows. Both are working on DVR offerings.

In other words, while the bundles may be cheaper and skinnier, they’re still bundles, not unlike the tiers of programming offered by traditional cable and satellite services. And you can’t assemble your own custom bundle. For instance, on DirecTV Now, if you’re on a budget and opt for the $35 a month “Live a Little” bundle, you’ll get Bravo, even if you hate it, but not the Cooking Channel, even if you love it.

Also, unlike in the Netflix / Hulu model, the emphasis here is on networks, not shows. Yes, each of these services has ways to find specific shows and some even highlight them. But both are built around networks and their linear presentation of shows throughout the day.

As with cable TV, both do offer the opportunity to watch some past episodes, but often with controls like fast-forward disabled — just like on cable.

And, even if you want to think of them as cheap cable / satellite replacements, and you’re fine with that (unlike me), they can’t guarantee you’ll get your local TV channels and all the broadcast networks they offer. For instance, it might depend on whether a network owns your local affiliate, which isn’t true in most cases, and hard to figure out ahead of time in almost every case.

Sling is even encouraging people to buy an antenna to integrate local channels with its offerings, via a $130 set-top box called AirTV (though you can also use it without a Sling subscription).

There may be hope for something that better balances old-style linear cable with Netflix-style a la carte functionality. Hulu is planning a subscription service that appears to preserve its current a la carte features with live-streaming. If it really does have all of Hulu’s current freedoms (including the costlier commercial-free option) plus the live stuff, it might be a decent combination. At least two cable boxes — the TiVo and Comcast’s X1 — already are doing a similar merging, with Netflix on the X1 and several a la carte services on TiVo.

However, I’d rather just have a better version of the entirely on-demand Netflix and Hulu we have today, with more power in the hands of viewers, and less in the hands of network programmers. I’d even settle for fully user-configurable bundles and unfettered access to past episodes, with local TV included.

The last thing we need is to just port outmoded cable and satellite services to the internet.