YouTube TV subscribers can now watch Comedy Central, but they may not be laughing about that development. The Google-owned live TV service announced Tuesday that as part of this deal, its monthly rate would jump from $49.99 to $64.99.
That hike already hit new subscribers, while current customers will see it on their bills starting July 30. It’s the third such increase at YouTube TV, from $35 a month at its April 2017 launch to $40 in February 2018 to $50 in April 2019.
This inflation has brought more stuff to watch, which today consists of eight ViacomCBS channels: BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Paramount Network, TV Land, and VH1.
“While content is likely driving the move, a 30% increase seems really big,” emailed Brett Sappington, vice president at the research firm Interpret. “Anytime you have an increase, it is a trigger for consumer evaluation.”
Will this cost YouTube TV some of the more than 2 million paid subscribers that Google CEO Sundar Pichai cited during its Q4 2019 earnings call? Comparing YouTube TV with rivals suggests the answer may depend on a viewer’s Downtown Abbey dependency.
To see what a typical customer might pay, I looked for TV bundles that included all of the non-standalone offerings in Solutions Research Group’s annual list of “Must Keep TV” brands.
That Toronto firm conducted 1,400 interviews with U.S. consumers from May 22 to 26 to rank the top 15 accordingly: Netflix, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, ESPN, PBS, CNN, Discovery, HBO, Disney+, Food Network, and History.
Then I checked the sites of the major streaming-TV services—YouTube TV would rank as third biggest after Hulu + Live TV and Sling TV, but ahead of AT&T TV—for the channels you can’t buy separately.
At AT&T TV, the base service costs $55 but lacks PBS, Discovery, Food Network and History, as does its $80 tier.
With Sling TV, the $30 rate for the Sling Blue package covers all the must-keep channels except the big four networks and PBS.
Hulu + Live TV comes closest to matching YouTube TV: $55 gets you all of the must-keep channels besides PBS—plus Hulu itself.
(As for cable, the $67.27 monthly rate I saw for a Comcast Xfinity Digital Starter bundle with all the must-keep channels left out the fine-print additions of a $14.95 broadcast TV fee, a regional sports fee of “up to $8.95,” and a minimum of $14.95 in HD cable-box fees unless you own a TiVo or other CableCard-compatible device.)
Live PBS has been a YouTube TV streaming exclusive since December, when it became the first online TV service to carry local public broadcasters after a long campaign to make PBS affiliates fully digital.
The average viewer, however, probably isn’t that hung up over access to Downton Abbey, NewsHour and other PBS fare.
“PBS barely gets selected,” emailed Jason Cohen, co-founder of the TV-service-search site MyBundle.TV. He said visitors to the site only include it in their channel picks “.6% of the time,” although that may reflect it not appearing among the top 75 channels and therefore requiring a search.
Cohen noted that even with the new channels, YouTube TV still lacks other channels on some people’s must-see lists.
“While adding Viacom helps for some people, the lack of A&E or Hallmark is a major hole and we think will swing many people to Hulu,” he said. He also cited FuboTV as another alternative after its just-announced addition of ESPN and other Disney channels—although that may entail a rate hike at that service.
The entire recent history of pay-TV inflation suggests YouTube TV subscribers shouldn’t get too comfortable paying $65, although Sappington suggested that the size of Tuesday’s hike could push the next such bump into “early 2022.”
Google’s post offered a vague hint of a wider set of bundles that might offer viewers cheaper choices—“we are working to build new flexible models for YouTube TV users”—but Google PR did not answer a request for comment sent Tuesday afternoon.
And by then other streaming services could have inflicted their own rate hikes. As Sappington noted: “Content producers, like everyone else, are feeling the financial crunch, which always translates into increased content fees.”