Youtube TV and ads

I’m finally trying to go full cord-cutter and use Youtube TV instead of DirecTV and/or Comcast cable with a TiVo or other DVR. So far so good, sorta, the ads suck.

Youtube TV is a great product. $65 in the US gets you access to about 100 channels, mostly high quality content. Also you get local TV although you do have to prove to Youtube where you live (via browser geolocation, lol.) You can watch 3 streams at once. If you pay extra you can get premium channels, 4K streaming, offline viewing, more than 3 streams at once. The only real drawback I’ve seen so far is that it’s stereo audio only although they’re promising to finally add 5.1 eventually. (Youtube itself has this same problem; wtf, folks?) There’s one minor problem which is Roku officially doesn’t support Youtube TV anymore (they’re having a contract dispute), but Google solved that problem by shoving Youtube TV into the main Youtube app for now.

The bad thing is the ads. Youtube TV is full of ads. I watched a 48 minute episode of Top Chef last night and was forced to watch 10 minutes of ads, mostly in 2 minute blocks. Unskippable. The ads themselves weren’t too bad (and I have ad personalization turned off). But the volume was at least 10dB higher than the show content. And did I mention the ads were unskippable? Just awful. A way worse experience than pirating the show or watching on a traditional DVR where you can fast forward over the ads.

And that’s the confusion. If you watch Youtube TV shows via Video-on-Demand (VOD), the ads are unskippable. And placed later as separate content from the show. If you watch a show via DVR (a recording) you record the ads as the show is broadcast. But you can fast forward over them.

Youtube TV is making a distinction between “a show you have recorded” vs “a show we pulled from a library for you”. I’m sure this makes perfect sense contractually. Technically it’s nonsense. At least, I hope YouTube isn’t making a specific digital recording of a show just for me when I told it to record it. Surely they’re making one recording and sharing it to everyone? Maybe not; Sling’s exemption from copyright licensing relies entirely on getting a separate copy of the stream for every viewer, I don’t know how they record them. Anyway that’s all legal trickery garbage.

The real confusion is a UI problem. All the Youtube TV UI gives you is “add to library”. That both puts any VODs the show has in a special Library view for you (for convenience) and also starts DVR recording any new episodes that are broadcast. So when you first add Top Chef it looks like you already have all the episodes! But only VOD versions; you have to wait until something is broadcast to get the DVR version, the one you can skip ads in. Shows end up being twice in your Library, one VOD and one DVR, and you can choose which version you want. It’s pretty clumsy. Also there’s rumors that some shows / channels force you to watch the VOD version with its ads but I haven’t’ experienced that yet.

It’s all so dumb. The VOD experience is better in absolutely every way. Except for the ads, which Youtube and the content providers have chosen to be super aggressive about. (Apparently this varies show by show). I sort of accept that I should be somehow paying “extra” for VOD access, it is pretty valuable to have 10 years of a show all available to you at once to stream. OTOH I’m already paying $65/mo for access to this product and the VOD playback is consuming no resources, so why do I get punished by being forced to see ads? Mostly I’m irritated by the overlap with the DVR model.

I wonder how long this DVR exception will last. It’s clearly in both the content provider’s interest and Youtube’s interest to force me in to the VOD ad model instead. For that matter I should feel lucky the mute button still works in VOD ads.

Here’s what really worries me; the VOD ads are way more valuable. They can be updated any time. They are personalized to me via my YouTube login. And they are unskippable. I suspect these ads are worth 10x the value to the advertiser that a normal broadcast ad is worth. Expect this kind of ad to be the future, particularly as more people get rid of personal DVRs and cable subscriptions in favor of the clearly superior streaming on demand.

BTW I tried a little technical wizardry to block the Youtube TV VODs. In particular switching to AdGuard DNS. Didn’t work; I suspect Youtube serves all the video streams from the same DNS name. A filtering proxy or an aggressive firewall could probably block the VOD ads with packet inspection although SSL makes that harder. But even so there’s no reason the app would let you get away with it; it seems quite likely the Youtube TV app would just refuse to let you watch anything if it can’t force the ads into your eyeballs.

A little birdie tells me another way to skip Youtube TV ads is to stream on a computer with ad blockers installed. The fancier ones can block the VOD ads while still showing the show. The problem then is you need to get the video to your TV screen. Chromecast won’t work for that, because it just sends the URLs over to be played so you aren’t watching your computer’s ad-free stream. HDMI or video mirroring will work. But this all requires you have a PC in the loop. My goal here is to get the TCL Roku TV to do everything, no PCs involved. The downside is Roku isn’t about to let you install an ad blocker.