Author(s): Paolo Pescatore
After a rocky start, AT&T's online video service DirecTV Now is beginning to make some inroads. In a crowded US market, the provider has chosen to focus on premium content, which I believe is a shrewd move. Customers are willing to pay to access the content they want, whenever and wherever they want. This plays to AT&T's strength, particularly in the wake of its acquisition of DirecTV and, most recently, Time Warner — subject to regulatory approval. DirecTV Now is available on numerous platforms including Amazon Fire TV, Android, Apple TV, Chrome OS and Chromecast devices. In my opinion, it offers a very good mix of live TV and on-demand video as well as some local stations.
The lowest-priced package, at $35 a month, covers about 60 channels and includes most of the popular ones, such as ESPN, Cartoon Network and MTV. This sets the service apart from rivals like PlayStation Vue, which doesn't offer Viacom channels such as MTV. Later in 2017 AT&T will add support for cloud-based recording, which is fast becoming the norm for online video services in the US. Other services like Hulu TV, Sling TV and YouTube TV already support this feature.
AT&T provided me with free access to the premium package, dubbed Gotta Have It, which offers a whopping 120 channels for $70 a month. I didn't need all these channels, but the sheer number aligns with one of my predictions for the US market: that the move to Internet delivery of TV programming will see a return to large bundles of content (see CCS Insight Predictions for 2017 and Beyond). There's been a rush toward online video services and so-called "skinny" bundles, accompanied by a proliferation of separate apps for each provider. But in reality, customers will not want to sign up to numerous services, receive more bills and be forced to open several apps to find the content they want. In my view, the disparate and disjointed nature of these apps will lead frustrated customers to reengage with big content bundles delivered over Internet connections.
I'm conscious that the very existence of these offerings is thanks to the high prices of traditional TV services, which have pushed households to cut cords and look for alternatives.
DirecTV Now is pretty flexible: users can sign up on a monthly basis without a contract and can cancel at any time. Since its launch, I've noticed numerous promotions for the service and, consistent with other offerings, customers can try it free for a limited time.
The user interface could be improved. Scrolling through the TV guide on an iPhone 7 proved cumbersome as it was difficult to view programme information. However, I found the ability to search through the carousel and features such as the Watchlist and the Continue Watching list particularly useful. The service also allows you to search for content by channel name rather than number, which people often don't remember, and by network name, for example ABC.
DirecTV Now offers HBO and Cinemax for $5 a month, which is much more inexpensive than PlayStation Vue and Sling TV. Subscribers of certain premium packages also benefit from free access to HBO content. The bundle I tried allowed me to watch a wide range of on-demand material from different genres. However, all this choice led me to think it would be far simpler to search for content using voice. This represents the next wave of innovation for mobile-centric online video services.
I didn't try casting the stream to a Chromecast device or Apple TV. However, I did notice a wealth of content for children, live TV and on-demand material, which should keep my kids entertained. I particularly enjoyed watching Premier League football and the F1 Russian Grand Prix, both on NBC Sports Network.
One of the main distinguishing features of DirecTV Now is that AT&T wireless subscribers can access the service through zero-rated data, meaning their consumption does not count against their monthly data limits.
Although it's hard to provide a true comparison with other services without fully trying them, DirecTV Now gets the thumbs up from me. For my thoughts on recent moves by US providers in the online video space see Battle for Living Room Intensifies in US.