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AT&T TV Service Feels Like Cable’s Bad Old, Good Old Days

The AT&T TV service launched nationwide today with a set of features and requirements that wouldn’t have felt out of place back sometime like 2010.

Set-top box? Check. Lots of fees? Check? Lots of confusing tiers? Check. Two-year contract? Check. Big price increases baked in? Almost-double check. Honestly, the feeling of nausea-inducing nostalgia is palpable.

There are, thankfully, some nods toward now with AT&T TV, which underwent six months of testing in 10 U.S. cities before today’s launch.

You get one Android-based set-top box that provides access to hundreds of live-TV channels, 40,000 on-demand titles, and 500 hours of DVR recording time, all navigated with a voice-activated remote that is integrated with Google Assistant. You can even control your smart-home devices with it.

You won’t have to change the input on your TV to access, through the Google Play Store, the apps for around 5,000 media services. including such video giants as Netflix and YouTube, and music streamers such as Spotify and Pandora. That feels so 2020!

Everything gets to you through the Internet, instead of depending on the satellite service that feeds AT&T’s fading DirecTV. But after that, things start to get a little antediluvian:

The service has four tiers of live TV programming, with the base offering delivering 155 channels for around $50 for the first year. The price will nearly double, to $93 a month, after the promotional rate ends. The top-end package, Ultra, starts at $70 and jumps to $135 after the first year.

Regional sports channels, in some packages, will cost another $8.50. Oh, and unlike DirecTV, there’s no Sunday Ticket, the premium add-on that glued hard-core NFL fans to their sets every Sunday so they’d have their choice of games to watch, regardless of city.

For even more kick-in-your-wallet-pocket nostalgia, expect lots of other fees, including a $19.95 activation charge, $15-per-month charge for early termination, and charges for failing to return that box and remote. Oh, and if you need more than one box for, say, a second TV in your home, it’ll cost $120. Good times.

This all feels awfully familiar (emphasis on awful). There are some opportunities to save money, at least initially, if you leverage other parts of the AT&T empire.

For now, the best deal is to bundle AT&T TV with AT&T’s 1-gigabit broadband. For a year, you’ll pay a combined $80 a month (plus all those fees), before the Year 2 hammer hits. And there probably will be more special deals when HBO Max launches in May.

All of that has some appeal, especially for AT&T diehards able to maximize their deals from across the company’s offerings, or for people who want a video alternative but couldn’t or didn’t want to festoon their building with satellite dishes (many landlords aren’t big on that, for instance).

Amid the nostalgia/PTSD contained in AT&T TV you may also feel some brand confusion. Probably only insiders won’t mistake AT&T TV, the DirecTV successor without satellites, with AT&T TV Now.

Now is AT&T’s over-the-top skinny bundle, formerly called DirecTV Now and designed to grab some of the cord-cutters looking for bargain alternatives to traditional cable and satellite. AT&T TV Now is, like DirecTV, busy losing customers at a prodigious rate, though the satellite service is the undisputed champ there.

DirecTV’s subscriber base has been falling off a cliff since 2017, when it topped 21 million. Since then, headcount has plummeted, dropping 4.1 million subscribers in 2019 alone. It’s possible AT&T TV will help staunch some of the bleeding on the bottom line.

But too much of this feels like 2018, back before prices collapsed, DirecTV looked strong, and consumers weren’t completely fed up. Since then, times have changed. Consumers expect modern DVR functions, easy integration, oodles of online networks, and reasonable prices.

AT&T TV feels like too much of a throwback to be more than a niche player in a far more competitive and demanding world than even two or three years ago.