AT&T TV is launching nationwide today after initially rolling out to over a dozen markets last year. The subscription TV service — not to be confused with AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now) — is contract-based, which is a departure from the freedom you get with month-to-month streaming TV apps like YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, and Sling TV. Signing up for a two-year agreement gets you an Android TV set-top box and a very cable-like remote control (with a Google Assistant button).
AT&T is trying to position AT&T TV as its premium streaming TV experience; it’s more for people seeking a better cable / satellite alternative than a cheaper one. This is basically AT&T’s next play as it moves on from DirecTV, which continues to bleed subscribers each quarter as more consumers cut the cord. Alongside live TV, you can install apps like Netflix, Disney Plus, and others from the Google Play Store or control smart home devices with the Assistant-enabled remote. Chromecast support is built in, too.
You can watch AT&T TV on the box when in front of your television, and there’s also an AT&T TV app for iOS, iPadOS, and Android. Setup is pretty simple. You plug the box into your TV’s HDMI port, enter your Wi-Fi info, sign in with your AT&T TV credentials, and then start watching. Everything will feel familiar to cable/satellite converts: the remote has number buttons, with a channel guide that sticks closely to DirecTV’s listings. But here, everything is streaming over the web.
The “home screen” of AT&T TV’s custom Android TV experience is always live TV. Whenever you turn it on, it’ll pick up from the last channel you were on. Again, very cable-like, and that’s actually a touch that I appreciate. Having to seek out live TV can make things feel disjointed.
On its own, AT&T TV starts at $49.99 per month. Here’s the company’s channel lineup so you can see what’s offered in each package. The base “entertainment” package includes local broadcast channels, ESPN, AMC, HGTV, FX, USA, and a decent selection of other cable networks. Sports fans will want to step up to the middle-tier “choice” channel package ($54.99), which adds regional sports networks — like all the ones that YouTube TV nearly just lost — and others such as the YES Network. The company is promoting a bundle offer that includes gigabit home internet (where available) and AT&T TV for a combined $80 per month. With all plans, HBO is included for free for the first three months, but you’ll have to pay up after that to keep it.
Those prices would be fine (or at least competitive) if they stayed that way. But… they don’t.
AT&T TV pricing goes up dramatically after 12 months of service. Entertainment goes from $49.99 to $93; Choice goes to $110; Xtra to $124; and Ultimate to $135. You also have to contend with an activation fee and early termination fees if you cancel service before your service agreement is up. (The ETF is $15 for each month that is still on your contract.) If you’ve got YouTube TV or something similar, these might strike you as ugly memories of the cable days. And since you’re stuck in that two-year agreement, there’s really no way to avoid the substantial price hike.
So then what’s the point? Well, AT&T is pushing a message of simplicity. You can search across live TV, on-demand content, and streaming apps from one central place without having to switch HDMI ports or juggle remotes. “For example, you can easily switch between a live basketball game, Netflix, YouTube, or listen to music on Pandora or Spotify,” the company wrote in its press release. Unfortunately, there are holes in that app selection, with Amazon Prime Video and Hulu unavailable on the box. So right off the bat, AT&T isn’t quite delivering on its vision.
The included cloud DVR lets you save up to 500 hours of shows and movies, though content gets deleted after 90 days. AT&T TV allows for up to three concurrent streams, so a couple people can be streaming live TV outside the home when someone’s also watching on the couch. I’ve been testing the box for the last several days, and I’ve had a pleasant enough experience with the service so far. The overall interface and menus are straightforward to navigate, and there’s an old-fashioned channel grid if that’s your preference for channel surfing. When you don’t want to bother pulling up the guide, you can just tell Google Assistant to tune to a certain network by name, which works decently for the most part.
I’ll be spending more time with AT&T TV over the next few weeks, and the company has said that HBO Max will see deep integration into the experience once it launches in May. But does AT&T TV make sense if you’re already happy with a different internet TV service on your Roku or another streaming device? Certainly not. It’s especially hard to justify those post-promotion prices compared to other streaming TV apps, which hover around $50 monthly right now. AT&T is hoping that AT&T TV will come off as a next-generation replacement for cable and satellite and help stem its video losses, but price-conscious consumers might not ever give the service any serious consideration compared to the cheaper competition. AT&T has done well in making live TV the central piece of AT&T TV, but fundamentally the end result isn’t that far off from subscribing to YouTube TV on an Nvidia Shield.