Cable TV finally has real competition delivered over the internet


And AT&T’s DirecTV Now will kick off a wave of new streaming TV services.

AT&T finally took the wraps off DirecTV Now, its new streaming TV service, and it’s just what it said it was going to be: The base package, for now, is $35 a month for more than 100 channels.

That’s a lot cheaper than a traditional pay TV service — and a lot cheaper than DirecTV’s own satellite TV service.

Of course, there are strings attached. Or more precisely, there are things that aren’t attached to DirecTV Now. WSJ’s Shalini Ramachandran helpfully summarized them in 140 characters:

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And if this is something you’re thinking about buying, I have some notes at the bottom of this post.

For the rest of you: The most important thing about DirecTV Now isn’t the list of features, or lack of them.

What’s important about DirecTV now is that it’s the first time a deep-pocketed company has pushed out a streaming TV service designed to appeal to a big swath of U.S. customers.

Which means traditional pay TV services, which have operated regional fiefdoms, with very limited competition, for years, are now going to have to contend with a national rival. And more are on the way.

DirecTV Now is not the first national TV streaming service. Dish’s Sling led the way last year, and Sony’s PlayStation Vue followed up.

But Sling is more of a streaming sampler platter: You can pick ESPN or Fox, plus a couple dozen other channels, but it’s not supposed to get you everything. PlayStation Vue is meant to be a full-fledged service, but Sony hasn’t really leaned into the launch, and the service’s initial tether to Sony’s game console meant it excluded lots of potential customers.

DirecTV Now, even with its limitations, is meant to appeal to people who want to pay for TV, but for whatever reason don’t want to get traditional cable. Maybe they don’t want a contract. Or maybe they don’t want to deal with a set-top box, or installation, or whatever.

So now it provides real competition for Comcast (which is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this site) and Charter and the rest of the regular pay TV guys. (That includes DirecTV itself, which is by design: AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson would be happy to move some of his traditional DirecTV customers over to his digital service, figuring it’s better to cannibalize them himself then lose them to somebody else).)

And it’s just the start. Next year Hulu, the streaming service owned by three of the big TV netoworks, will launch its own live TV service, which should look quite a bit like DirecTV. Google’s YouTube is working on a version that’s supposed to include a much smaller bundle of traditional TV networks, along with a lot of YouTube stuff.

And now that AT&T’s in the market, expect more of the traditional TV guys to join suit. Comcast, for instance, has been mulling a service like this for years. I’d be surprised if it let new competitors enter its existing markets without trying to branch out with a nationwide service of its own.

None of these services will be mind-blowing on their own: They’re all going to offer a bundle of TV networks you can watch live or on demand.

But they will start to vary in terms of what they offer, and how much they sell it for. And if you’re used to little or no choice at all, that’s going to seem like a big deal.

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