Streaming was supposed to save us from cable hell — but now we’re living in it again

Computer with logo: Netflix , HBO MAX, APPLE TV PLUS, NETFLIX, PRIME VIDEO are online video streaming services
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Just a few years ago, streaming seemed like the answer to our cord-cutting dreams. Instead of paying big bucks for 100-plus channels — most of which you never actually wanted — you could choose streaming services a la carte. They were cheaper and blessedly ad-free. When comparing streaming to cable, the former notched every win. 

But in a short period of time, streaming has gotten a lot more expensive. Not only are there more services overall, they have raised their respective prices at least once — and sometimes, two or three times — in the past year. Almost all of the ad-free services had turned their cheapest basic plan into an ad-supported one. If you don't want to see ads and if you want live broadcast feeds, you have to pay more. 

And some of the streamers are teaming up to offer discounted bundles. Soon, you can get Disney Plus, Hulu and Max together for less than the three cost separately, and it makes financial sense even if you don't want one of them. Just like it was with cable. 

Oh, and most live sports and new programs still require access to broadcast and cable channels, which means you need a live TV streaming service on top of Netflix, Max, Disney Plus, etc. 

The streaming dream has turned into a nightmare.

I cut the cord to save money — but I'm back to paying cable prices

Three years ago, I decided to finally cut the cord on cable. At the time, I was paying about $92 for access to broadcast and cable channels (and DVR storage). It was ridiculous since my cable usage had diminished in favor of Netflix, Disney Plus and what was then called HBO Max. 

I didn't want to completely give up access to broadcast and cable channels — like ABC for "Grey's Anatomy" and Bravo for "Top Chef" — so I opted to sign up for Sling. I still use it to this day, but the price has gone up to $65 for the Orange and Blue package in my city. 

That's cheaper than what I was paying for cable, but not by much. And if I'd chosen YouTube TV ($73), the difference would be even less. 

But what's really driving up my streaming bill to rival cable is the cost of the other streaming services. Right now, the total cost of all eight major streaming services is $58 per month. And that's for the least expensive plans.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
ServiceCheapest plan priceAds?
Disney Plus/Hulu bundle$10Yes
Prime Video (standalone)$9Yes
Paramount Plus$6Yes
Peacock (until July 2024)$6Yes
Apple TV Plus$10No

Of course, nobody needs all eight of those services, and I certainly don't subscribe to all of them at any given time — even though I write about streaming entertainment for a living. But I do pay for four or five at a time. 

But even just having Netflix without ads ($15.49) and Max without ads (after a recent price increase, $17) drives up my total streaming bill above my old cable total. Sure, I could opt for the lower-priced tiers and suffer through ads. It's a difficult pill to swallow, though, since those services launched as ad-free experiences. Still, I may have to grudgingly accept it soon if streaming prices continue to balloon. 

Content scattering makes it impossible to cut streamers

The easy answer to the dilemma of rising streaming costs is: just do without. Carrying that out is the difficult, nearly impossible, part. 

For example, if you're a big NFL fan, you'll need three streaming services on top of NFL Sunday Ticket (via YouTube TV) to watch every single game in the 2024-25 season. The whopping total cost: $714.98. 

Even if you think your must-see TV list is short, it often ends up being longer than you think. Let's say you love "Real Housewives" and "Vanderpump Rules" (Peacock, soon to be $8), your kids can't live without Pixar movies (Disney, $8 with ads) and your partner is a news junkie who requires live CNN and MSNBC (Sling Blue, $40). And of course, your household must have Netflix ($15.49 ad-free) because who doesn't? Even that "short" list will cost $72 a month — not that much less expensive than cable.

Streaming is moving in a flat circle back to cable

A grid of streaming service apps (Sling, Prime Video, Paramount Plus, Peacock, Netflix, AMC Plus, HBO Max, Pluto TV, Apple TV) open on a phone

(Image credit: Tom's Guide/Henry T. Casey)

Streaming bundles are on the way, and while they're marketed as good for consumers' wallets, they'll end up having the opposite effect. This is exactly how cable companies minted money back in the day. They offered what seemed like a great deal — look, 100 channels for $50! — but it was no deal at all because you probably never even looked at at least a quarter of those channels. 

Corporate siblings Disney Plus and Hulu already come in a bundle priced at $10. That is a great deal if you want both of those services, which cost $8 each. For only $2 more, you can have both! But if you don't want both, you're spending more. 

If you get the bundle, and realize you haven't been watching anything on Disney Plus lately, you can't get rid of it for a few months because you're locked into the bundle. The same principle will apply when the Disney Plus, Hulu and Max bundle launches. 

The best part of the streaming revolution that upended cable is its a la carte nature. You could pick and choose services, subscribe and unsubscribe and resubscribe at will. This process is known in the industry as churning. Yes, I might want Disney Plus, Hulu and Max — just not all at once. Even if a bundle of all three is heavily discounted, it will still cost more than if I subscribe to just one at a time.

The outlook is even pricier

The future of streaming looks more and more expensive. The road ahead is riddled with bundles, consolidation and price increases. 

Netflix has raised its prices almost every year since 2019. Max had two price hikes in the past 18 months. Peacock is going up for the first time ever, just in time for the 2024 Olympics. The price of Apple TV Plus has doubled in the past two years.

There are rumblings of a potential partnership between Paramount Plus and Peacock. If it happens, undoubtedly, a merged platform would cost more. Though it's not a bundle, ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery are launching a joint sports streaming service called Venu — yet another line item on sports fans' streaming bills.

It's enough to make me yearn for the good old days of cable.

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Kelly Woo
Streaming Editor

Kelly is the streaming channel editor for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.

  • Fox Tread3
    June 10, 2024 - Ms. Woo in her article said, "It's enough to make me yearn for the good old days of cable." So she is saying that paying for a high percentage of channels that she never watched was.. "the good days"? First of all, I think this whole topic is a "first world problem", that impacts on the relatively affluent. I'll start by saying that NFL Football is my all time favorite sport, but I haven't subscribed to a service that lets me watch it for two decades. I watch the sport on occasion via Amazon Prime, but otherwise, I don't miss it. I use Amazon Prime Video as my video subscription hub, and subscribe to various streaming services that I can cancel at any time! In a time when going to the movies is getting into the price range and similarly in regularity to going to a Broadway show. Paying for streaming bundles that are after all elective, is part of the entertainment environment that we live in. Fortunately, I don't have anyone other than myself to consider when subscribing to streaming services, and it makes me feel great that I'm not being forced to pay for something that I have absolutely no interest in.. you pick one.. Bulgarian professional bowling maybe? There comes a time for the "Middle class" to determine what they can afford vs what they want. If you can't afford it.. bite the bullet, and cancel it. Being glued to a screen for entertainment is not the end all be all. There are so many other things including self created recreational options in the world.