Testing the new internet cable service among friends, family and acquaintances ends with not-so-winning results.
AT&T says the market for its new internet cable service, DirecTV Now, could be as large as 20 million households. To put it to the test, I farmed out part of this review to several friends and relatives. It’s TV, it’s fun, it’s a free trial with no hassle. Why wouldn’t people jump at the chance to try something new?
As it turned out, almost nobody did.
This could have been my fault. December is a busy month. Maybe I wasn’t a persuasive enough saleswoman or didn’t nag people artfully enough. And maybe my picks, while a diverse bunch, just aren’t early adopters.
But their hesitation might also foreshadow some challenges for AT&T. Most of my friends and family are happy enough with their current TV options that they felt no need to try something different, even when it was free. (DirecTV Now costs $35 and up after a one-week free trial.)
The appeal of services like DirecTV is simple: You can watch scores of live TV channels online for less than you’d pay for a typical cable subscription. These services are aimed at the legion of “cord cutters” who are abandoning cable packages for other options.
My testers, not all of whom had cut the cord, were pretty happy with the streaming services they already have, like Netflix and Amazon. Several said they had access to plenty of TV.
Others lacked the extra gadgets needed to watch DirecTV Now on a TV set, though they could use phones or tablets. One friend who tried the service protested the commercials and frequent bugs. Only one said he might become a customer in the future.
My testers didn’t even mention the viewing restrictions that bedevil live internet TV. For example, NFL games are blacked out on mobile, the Golden Globes show wasn’t available, and many can’t get major broadcasters due to rights issues.
Such issues might help explain why customers remain scarce, nearly two years after DirecTV Now rivals Sling TV and PlayStation Vue launched. Neither releases customer numbers, but Sling, thought to be the more popular service, is estimated to have fewer than a million subscribers.
Here are some of our reviewers’ stories.
Too much TV
• My sister: Dana Arbel, 27, yoga teacher, volunteer coordinator at an education nonprofit. Lives with my parents and her dog in Phoenix. Has Netflix and Amazon; found it hard to break her existing habits. “(I) don’t watch live TV,” she said via WhatsApp. “Go for movies or old shows. Mostly.”
• My college friend: Pooja Chitneni, 32, doctor. Lives with roommates in Boston. Has cable and access to Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go. She was excited to try DirecTV Now but kept forgetting to start it up, with so much else to watch. “There’s no void,” she said.
• My college friend: Celina Montoya, 33, nonprofit consultant. Lives with her husband and two children in San Antonio. She’s been cable-free since 2006, but uses Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, has a TV antenna for local channels and visits friends or relatives to watch basketball games. She forgot all about DirecTV Now. It “didn’t have any sense of urgency for me,” she texted.
• My mother: Ana Arbel, 60, program manager at a nonprofit. Lives with my father and my sister. Has cable, watches Netflix on TV and catches overseas shows on a computer. “Sorry, Tali, too much technology, that’s hard for me,” my mother said of DirecTV Now. “I want somebody to organize everything for me and explain, and I only do the click and watch.”
• My high-school friend: Rebecca Kaufman, 32, nurse. Lives with her husband and two daughters in Tucson, Ariz. Haven’t had cable for five years. Eager to try DirecTV Now, but she couldn’t — the service doesn’t work with her streaming gadgets, an Xbox and a PlayStation, and her family doesn’t stream much to phones or computers.
• My college friend: Soni Obinger, 32, graphic designer. Lives with her husband and toddler near San Francisco. Has been thinking of canceling cable and wanted to try DirecTV Now, but the service didn’t work with her Roku streaming device. (AT&T says DirecTV will be on Roku by March.)
• My co-worker: Barbara Ortutay, 38, tech reporter. Lives with her boyfriend, toddler, mother-in-law and cat in New York. A recent cord cutter, she watches Netflix and free local channels. She passed on DirecTV Now because she couldn’t watch it on her TV.
Watching is a chore
• Me: Tali Arbel, 32, journalist. Lives with a cat in New York. Uses Netflix, Amazon and watches some broadcast and cable TV shows on network apps, rarely watches live TV. I hated that DirecTV Now doesn’t have a DVR that stores live shows for later viewing (AT&T says it’s coming). I’m also used to binge-watching full TV seasons commercial-free; DirecTV Now’s stock of “on-demand” video, by contrast, was underwhelming. Playback also occasionally froze up while watching on-demand episodes.
• My friend: John Bega, 37, ad producer. Lives with his dog in New York and watches Netflix, Amazon and one-off events via a family cable account. With DirecTV Now, he binged on-demand episodes of FX’s “Atlanta” and logged in a few times for cable news and independent films. But frequent ads and video freezes and cutouts bummed him out.
• My sister’s friend: Chris Pullen, 25, student. Lives with roommates in Boston and uses Netflix; he’ll sometimes watch football at a friend’s house. He couldn’t get DirecTV Now to work well on his TV, but he liked watching shows on his phone and computer, and didn’t have technical issues. He says he’d choose an online option like DirecTV Now over regular cable if they cost about the same.