The best streaming services for live TV in 2020, according to critics
Searching for a live television streaming service? In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, that might seem counterintuitive—popular programming such as sports, award shows, and other live events are indefinitely postponed. But live TV still has value in uncertain times.
Cable news networks such as CNN offer valuable news updates to viewers, of course, as do local channels covering regional happenings. Meanwhile popular networks like AMC, FX, and Bravo continue to showcase some of TV’s most acclaimed series.
If you’re looking to cut the cord or jump back into live television, here are the best streaming services to consider. For more information, read on:
- Best streaming service for live TV overall
- Best budget live TV streaming service
- Best streaming service for sports
- Best streaming service for local channels
- Best streaming service for live TV plus HBO
- Best free live streaming channels
Best streaming service for live TV overall
The critics say: Hulu + Live TV (starts at $54.99 per month)
These days, Hulu isn’t just about next-day programing or exclusive original series. The Disney-controlled company’s live television package, bundled with the complete Hulu library, is a serious contender for best cable replacement, critics from Tom’s Guide and Wired say.
With Hulu + Live TV, you’ll get more than 60 top entertainment and sports channels, such as ESPN, A&E, and TBS, plus all four of the local networks—CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox—some of which other services either charge extra for or don’t carry at all.
The service also comes with 50 hours of cloud DVR storage, though it lacks to ability to fast forward through ads without a $10 add-on that also bumps the storage up to 200 hours. Adding premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime is possible, but will require additional monthly fees. (HBO, for example, is $15.)
Hulu’s substantial content library may make such add-ons unnecessary for some, however. That ultimately pushes the service to the top, Wired says. When you’re not watching live TV, you can easily flip over to the on-demand section and check out Hulu originals like The Handmaiden’s Tale, or licensed classics like Seinfeld.
Best budget live TV streaming service
The critics say: Sling TV (starts at $30 per month)
There are a few cheaper options than Sling, such as Philo, for $20 a month. But with Sling you’ll get better channels at a still dirt cheap price, argues CNET, which named Sling its best budget service for cord-cutters.
For the base $30 monthly price, Sling offers one of two packages: Sling Orange or Sling Blue. The latter will get you more channels—nearly 50, including Fox and NBC—but will noticeably lack ESPN or the Disney channel. The Orange tier will get you these, but it only comes with a little more than 30 channels and allows for just one simultaneous stream at a time. (Blue allows up to three.)
It’s on the subscriber then to evaluate which channels are the priority and make a decision from there—or combine both packages for a $45/month subscription, though you still won’t get all of the major local networks. Still, CNET says, even without the combo, either one of the packages offers a solid amount of entertainment options for the budget-conscious viewer.
Best streaming service for sports
The critics say: FuboTV (starts at $59.99 per month)
How can a streaming service that lacks ESPN be considered the best streaming service for sports? The answer, PC Magazine says, is because it has nearly every other sports option available on the local, national, and international level.
FuboTV gained a reputation for being a haven for soccer fans looking to watch matches in Europe and elsewhere with channels like beIN sports, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and NBCSN. It also comes with much more for the passionate sports fan: the NFL Network, CBS Sports Network, NBC Golf, the Big Ten Network, the Olympic Channel, and, depending on geographical location, a number of regional sports networks. You’ll also get CBS, Fox, and NBC, for national primetime games.
On top of this, FuboTV’s basic plan includes entertainment and news channels you’d expect in a cable replacement, such as AMC, Food Network, and CNN, to name a few. Just keep in mind that along with ESPN, you’ll lose out on ABC and Disney channels. (All three are owned by Disney.)
Best streaming service for local channels
The critics say: YouTube TV ($49.99 per month)
YouTube TV scored the top spot among live TV streaming services on both PC Magazine and CNET, with critics praising the variety of top channels, excellent DVR features, and a clean, if not a little bland, interface. The Google-owned service is a contender with Hulu + Live TV for best overall service.
One of the big reasons is that YouTube TV includes all four of the local networks: CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox. In total, the service offers roughly 70 channels as part of its base package and, unlike Hulu, YouTube TV’s DVR has unlimited storage space with ad-skipping capability.
The tradeoff is that YouTube TV doesn’t come with a vast catalog of on-demand streaming content like Hulu.
Best streaming service for live TV plus HBO
The critics say: AT&T TV Now (starts at $69.99 per month)
Critics actually aren’t too enthused about AT&T Now, the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now, citing its high cost and lack of features compared to competitors. But it does come with a nice add on: HBO, which includes not just the primary network, but HBO 2, HBO East, HBO Family, HBO Latino, and the channel’s on demand library. (AT&T owns WarnerMedia, which owns HBO.)
You’ll also get more than 45 channels including CBS, ABC, MTV, and Fox. For another $10 a month you can bump that channel total up to 60 with HBO and Cinemax included.
Best free live streaming channels
The critics say: Pluto TV (free—and powered by ads)
It goes without saying that a free streaming service is going to have some significant restrictions. In Pluto TV’s case, you won’t get any of the local networks or many of the top entertainment cable channels. But you might be surprised at what options are still available.
The ViacomCBS-owned service features a range of content live and on demand from Viacom brands like Comedy Central, MTV, BET, and Paramount. Popular news networks like NBC News, CBS News, CNN, Bloomberg, and local news broadcasts are available as well. Kids can tune into Nickelodeon channels, and sports fans cans check out Fox Sports and the NFL Network, among other, although live games won’t be broadcast.
You won’t be able to record any shows with DVR, and you’ll have to watch a lot of advertisements, but, PC Mag says, “it offers enough programming to be useful in a pinch.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—What to watch during the pandemic: HBO guide
—What to watch during the pandemic: Hulu guide
—What to watch during the pandemic: Disney+ guide
—What to watch during the pandemic: Amazon Prime guide
—What to watch during the pandemic: Netflix guide