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YouTube TV review: a DVR to rule them all

Yet another way for cord cutters to get a taste of traditional TV

Young people in the United States have already made the switch from traditional television to streaming services. The amount of time these folks spend watching TV has been dropping steadily for at least six years, while consumption of streaming video has been growing at a torrid pace. And this group is increasingly unlikely to pay for television or own a TV set. 

Into this world comes YouTube TV, an attempt to marry the world’s most popular platform for streaming video with the programming of traditional television. For $35 a month, subscribers will get access to the four major broadcast networks and a bundle of over 40 cable channels, including key sports properties like ESPN and Fox Sports 1.

The service is starting in just five cities

Of course, there are plenty of big gaps in YouTube TV’s current offering. While the goal is to capture the attention of fickle youth, the service won’t carry Viacom channels like MTV or Comedy Central, at least not for the time being. Showtime is available for an additional charge, but HBO isn’t yet. At launch, the service will only be offered in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area, with the promise of more to come soon; YouTube is still working out deals with local affiliates in cities across the US.

Like all the options in the world of streaming television, YouTube TV is a compromise. But if you’re in the market for an alternative to cable and need to have the big four networks and live sports, this is definitely one of the strongest options available.  

Setting aside the exact selection of channels, which is likely to change quickly, the experience of YouTube TV on a smartphone is impressive. When you open the app, the home tab automatically displays a carousel of live programming. You swipe through to find something you like and click to start watching. If you’ve favorited a particular show, say SportsCenter or NCIS, it will automatically record to your cloud DVR. That means you can easily scrub back to the beginning of an episode if you don’t start watching until it’s halfway through.

Christian Oestlien, product management director at YouTube TV.
Christian Oestlien, product management director at YouTube TV.

If you prefer a more traditional channel guide approach to browsing, you can swipe over the “live” tab. This gives you a menu of channels to scroll through; click on any channel to start watching and you get a menu of related programming below as well as recently watched content. Flip your phone from vertical to horizontal to go fullscreen. If you decide to cast the stream to your TV, your phone will shift from a viewer to a controller. “One of the great things about casting, now your phone can transform itself into a remote,” says Christian Oestlien, YouTube TV’s product management director. “While you’re casting you can minimize the player and start browsing again.”

The DVR offering is best in class

Youtube TV’s DVR function offers an unlimited amount of cloud storage and will save recordings for nine months at a time. This is a compelling offer when stacked up against some of the other streaming services in the market. Sling TV charges $5 per month for 50 hours of cloud DVR storage and Sony’s Vue service offers unlimited storage, but only for 28 days. DirecTV Now currently has no cloud DVR option, although it’s said something will be announced in the near future. Hulu has said it will offer a cloud DVR with its streaming service, but still hasn’t set a firm date for the launch. Since there is no reason to limit yourself, adding items to your DVR becomes kind of addictive; I found myself adding almost everything that seemed remotely interesting, just in case.

“A lot of people talk about it being the golden age of TV programming, and I would agree with that,” said Kelly Merryman, YouTube’s VP of content partnership. People of all ages love TV, but when folks between the ages of 18 and 34 look at television today “by and large the distribution of it doesn’t meet their needs. The result of that is we see more ‘cord nevers’ and a few more cord cutters.”

Kelly Merryman, VP of content partnership, YouTube.
Kelly Merryman, VP of content partnership, YouTube.

Building a solid mobile app solves one part of that problem, and the unlimited DVR tries to shift TV to a more on-demand experience. The other big selling point for YouTube TV is its powerful search capabilities. This is a technology that Google and YouTube have been perfecting for over a decade — and it shows. You can do your typical search for a TV series, film, actor, or genre, but you can also do a broader query, like “time travel,” and the service is smart enough to show you all the programming it has access to that features that theme.

YouTube invested heavily in sports

Sports is one of the big draws of traditional television, and YouTube TV has placed a special emphasis on organizing this content. You can select your favorite teams or leagues and the service will bundle these into folders so you can easily hop in and find recent matches. Once you let YouTube TV know your favorite league or team, it will also save all games to your DVR, no matter what channel it appears on. Since a lot of the experience is personalized around what you save and search for, YouTube TV offers six individually personalized accounts and three concurrent streams with your monthly subscription. That’s about the middle of the pack: Sony Vue offers five concurrent streams, DirecTV Now offers two, and Sling offers between one and four streams depending on the package you purchase.

Like all streaming services, YouTube TV is hobbled a bit by blackout restrictions that keep you from watching live programming if you’re not in the area. You have to set your home address when you sign up and you can’t use the service without GPS enabled. You can watch your favorite sports teams live when you’re home, but not when you’re on the road. Luckily, the service will still save everything to your DVR, and once it’s stored in the cloud, you can watch the programming no matter where you are.

You can watch stuff on mobile, but the app is really designed to work with a Chromecast or Cast-enabled television. As with any other Cast-enabled app, once you push stuff to the big screen, your smartphone or tablet becomes your remote. That lets you do simple things like search with your voice instead of typing things out. You can also scroll through other programming without changing the channel from what you’re watching. This works best with stuff on the TV, but if you’re mobile, the app offers a picture-in-picture mode so you can browse for something better without leaving the show you’re on. I have a first-generation Chromecast, and the app warned me of performance issues. But over 48 hours of use, I didn’t experience any beyond a bit of a delay when starting a stream.   

It’s easy, from that perspective, to understand why the television studios signed on for this partnership. They get paid to license content they are already run ads against and a chance to connect with young people who are addicted to YouTube and mobile. But why is YouTube getting into this business? It’s hard to imagine that it sees it as a big money-making opportunity. It has to pay to license all the content and probably won’t make money from the ads that have already been sold against TV shows. True, it might introduce some new people to its own original programming, but those shows definitely don’t get top billing in the app.

The best answer I can think of is that YouTube sees this as a chance to establish a paying relationship with users who have always thought of the service as a place to get free entertainment. YouTube gets to own the data about usage and viewing patterns that can be leveraged to better attract and target future customers. Not to mention, it becomes the primary interface for your living room — a powerful position to occupy.

Photography by James Bareham

Video by Phil Esposito and Matty Greene