Kevin Stanhope streams his favorite sports and shows by using YouTube TV.  Staff photo by Shawn Ouellette

On Tuesday, rabid Maine sports fans with a cable or satellite subscription found themselves frantically flipping channels between the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins, hoping not to miss any action.

But Kevin Stanhope of Gray, who ditched the satellite provider DirecTV a year ago for the internet streaming service YouTube TV, calmly watched all three at the same time. He had one game on his TV and the other two on different tabs on his laptop screen.

“With the Bruins and Celtics both in the playoffs and the Red Sox on almost every night, it’s a must,” said Stanhope, 40, who works for a bank. “I’m paying $50 a month now when I used to pay about $150. For sports, streaming is so much better. It’s not even close.”

While streaming services have been available for more than a decade, with Netflix the best-known, most have offered mainly movies or TV show reruns. But in the past two to three years, there have been a half-dozen or so new services launched that offer a slate of live channels that replicate a cable package, including live and local sports. Five years ago, it was common to hear people complain about their cable bill and say they’d quit in a minute if they could only find another way to watch their favorite local sports teams. But they couldn’t. Now YouTube TV, Fubo, PlayStation Vue, DirecTVNow and Hulu + Live TV all offer live sports to varying degrees for about $45 to $70 a month, compared to the $107 a month that Forbes says cable and satellite customers paid on average in 2018.

The creation of these live TV streaming services is part of a decadelong trend that has seen all forms of video streaming contribute to the steady decline of cable and satellite TV subscriptions. Several TV industry surveys released this year estimate that 65 percent of America’s 119 million TV households have a streaming subscription while about 75 to 78 percent have a cable or satellite subscription. (Many households have both.) In 2010, about 90 percent had cable or satellite subscriptions, according to Nielsen Research, while the streaming industry was in its infancy then and not well tracked.

Even Maine’s major cable TV provider, Spectrum, now has two streaming services, essentially competing with itself. When asked about its streaming services and whether streaming has cut into its cable business, Spectrum spokesman Andrew Russell declined to give subscriber numbers and said in a statement the company continues to “test and launch new traditional and streaming video products to better serve the consumer demand for more choice. We believe there are non-video, internet-only customers who are interested in smaller, lower priced bundles. We want to meet the needs of all our customers.”

The creation of sports-centric live streaming services is basically a reaction to a long-held consumer wish for lower prices, convenience and fewer unwanted channels. In the 2018 American Customer Satisfaction Index, a survey of some 250,000 consumers, people gave most streaming services a satisfaction rating of 70 or more (out of a 100), while Spectrum’s cable service got a 58. Other cable and satellite providers scored mostly between 55 and 67.

“The research showed that people are getting more of what they want (from streaming), including sports, and they have a lot more flexibility and fluidity to change their package than with cable or satellite,” said David VanAmburg, managing director for the ASCI.

A PLAYBOOK FOR SPORTS FANS

With the World Champion Boston Red Sox defending their title this year, and the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics both battling in the playoffs of their respective leagues, it’s a good time for Maine sports fans, or any TV watchers, to consider these newer TV options. More options, however, means a little more homework required from the consumer, since each streaming service is different in terms of what channels they offer. (See accompanying story.)

If you’re a Red Sox fan, both YouTube TV and Fubo have NESN, the network that carries Sox games as well as Bruins games. If you’re a Celtics fan, those services also offer NBC Sports Boston, the Celtics carrier, as does Playstation Vue and Hulu + Live TV. If you’re a New England Patriots fan, most of the services carry the networks those games are on, including CBS, NBC and ESPN. If you want mostly national sports channels, like ESPN, Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network, you might try Sling.

A point to keep in mind is that you need different networks, sometimes, for playoff games versus regular season games. For example, the Bruins regular season games are on NESN, but now that they are in the second round of the playoffs, their games are on NBC Sports and NBC. PlayStation Vue dropped NESN recently, hours before Game 5 of the Bruins first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the series was available on NBC and NBC Sports, which are both on PlayStation Vue.

Though the signal for these services comes through your internet connection, they can be viewed on any TV with a streaming device, like a Roku, or a smart TV with a built-in streaming capability. Most newer TVs on the market now are smart TVs.

Besides a lower price, streaming service fans say they like the idea that they are paying for fewer channels they’ll never watch. While some cable packages give you hundreds of channels, the live streaming services usually have between about 50 and 70 and often more than a quarter of those are sports channels.

Another benefit of streaming for sports is you don’t have to keep the streaming service all year, and you only pay for the months when you’re signed up. So if you only want to watch the NHL and NBA playoffs but don’t care about the regular season, you can sign up for just April through June. If you only want to watch MLB playoffs, you can sign up for just October.

Fubo, YouTubeTV, DirectTVNow and Playstation Vue (bottom left) are among the streaming services you can watch on your TV to get live local sports. Most allow you to use the service for a month at a time, canceling and restarting whenever you want. Photo by Ray Routhier

Streaming service customers can sign up online, and then just cancel online when the playoffs are over. Then if a customer wants to sign up for one month in December to watch college football, they can do that too. And most charge you a month from when you sign up, so you can start on, say, May 19 and have your subscription end June 19. YouTube TV, Fubo, Playstation Vue, Hulu + Live TV, DirecTVNow and Sling all work this way.

Plus, since every service offers a free trial, usually a week, it’s possible for you to get five or six weeks of games you really want to watch for free.

“There’s no contract, no equipment and you’re not paying for a lot of channels you don’t want,” said Chris Sedenka, 38, of Buxton, a co-host of the Portland-based sports radio talk show “The P.M. JAB.” “I don’t see myself going back.”

Sedenka needs to know a lot about all sports for his job, but his first love is college football. Several of the streaming services have very specific college football networks, like the SEC Network and the Big Ten Network. Sedenka currently uses PlayStation Vue for streaming but is thinking about trying others, since PlayStation Vue recently dropped NESN, the Sox carrier. He likes the fact that he doesn’t have to stick with any one service for more than a month if he doesn’t want to.

Sports leagues have had their own streaming services for years, like MLB.TV, but those often black out local games, which means if you were a Red Sox fan in Maine, MLB.TV was of little help to you.

Roger Knight of South Portland has YouTube TV, for $50, and he and his family watch all the major sports on it, plus various European soccer leagues and winter sports like cross-country skiing. Knight, 45, said he’s happy with the price but also with the convenience. He said his cable bill with Time Warner and Spectrum over the years ranged from $65 to $110 a month.

“Much better customer service and no constant rate increases, hidden charges or equipment rentals,” said Knight, who manages a ski and bike repair business, Boulder Nordic Sport East. “There is really no negative.”

WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS

One drawback to using streaming services is that not all of them carry all of Maine’s local affiliate stations. If you have Fubo for instance, you get NewsCenter Maine but you don’t get WMTW, the nightly home of “Jeopardy.” But Stanhope and other streaming service users sometimes supplement their TV watching with a simple indoor antenna, for maybe $40 to $50. So if you want to see local news plus sports, some of the streaming services might not work for you.

The other drawback is that the prices of the live TV streaming services have already increased pretty significantly since most started two or three years ago. When they launched, prices were as low as $25 to $30 a month, but most have gone up $10 or more and added channels individual viewers may not want. YouTube TV, for instance, just went from about $40 to $50 in April. A spokesperson for YouTube TV responded to questions about the service with an email statement that said the price increase “reflects our ability to deliver the best in class content and product experience” and the addition of eight “highly requested channels” including Discovery, HGTV and Food Network. The statement also called sports programming “a pillar” of the company’s service.

The You Tube app on Stanhope’s TV Friday. Staff photo by Shawn Ouellette

By adding channels and raising prices, the streaming services may be following the model of cable.

“It’s all channels I don’t care about, like the Hallmark Channel,” said Stanhope of the new YouTube TV channels. “But compared to what I was paying (for satellite), it’s still a good deal.”

Stanhope has also been impressed with the customer service of YouTube TV. He said when streaming an NFL football game last fall, the service’s stream was down for about half an hour. Soon he got an email from the service saying his account would be credited for $10, which, at the time, was a quarter of his monthly bill.

“I doubt the cable company would do that if their picture went out for half an hour,” he said.

The two streaming services offered by Spectrum don’t offer local New England sports coverage, like YouTube TV, Fubo or PlayStation Vue. The Spectrum services include local broadcast channels, plus national sports channels like ESPN, ESPN2, TNT, BeIN Sports, NFL Network, Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports, but no regional sports carriers like NESN or NBC Sports Boston. So there’s no regular coverage of Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins. For both services, prices start at $24.99 for the first two years, $29.99 for the third year and $34.99 after that, plus a $5 surcharge. For one of the services, to get ESPN, NBCSN and Fox Sports 1, you need the News, Sports and Weather tier, for $12.

Many sports fans who have streaming services hope they evolve to the point where they offer networks a la carte, so fans can pick and choose exactly what they want. But in more than 40 years of cable TV history and now more than a decade of streaming, that model has never proved profitable enough for a TV provider to try it. And it’s hard to say if it ever will.

But for now, many viewers say streaming is a much better deal for them, even if it’s not perfect.

“It would be ideal if you could pick and choose all your own channels,” said Jera Feldmus, 43, of Glenburn, near Bangor. “But I’m very happy with what I’m getting. I don’t rent boxes, and I’m saving money.”


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