On-demand vs. live TV streaming
When it comes to TV and entertainment streaming, there are two main ways to watch: on-demand and live. The difference between on-demand and live TV streaming is that on-demand content is available whenever you want it, while live TV streaming follows a program (similar to traditional TV programming). You have to be available to watch a program when it airs or use a DVR to record it if you want to watch later.
While this basic difference seems obvious enough, it can get confusing with the many different types of providers, the programming they offer, and the way they use the same terms in different ways.
We’ll dive more into the differences between on-demand and live TV streaming so you can understand how to watch what you want and when.
The history of streaming
Both on-demand and live TV streaming evolved from traditional television. On-demand content is a term that was originally used by cable TV providers to describe the content they offered that you could watch at any time (think “pay-per-view”). But now, with the proliferation of on-demand streaming providers like Paramount+, Netflix and Disney+, on-demand content is a term that also applies to the content you can watch on these platforms.
When Netflix ruled the scene several years ago, there was more of a difference between live TV and streaming. Back then, live TV was something you purchased through a cable or satellite TV company, which broadcasted channels to your home’s set-top box. Streaming meant watching on-demand content via the internet.
But that difference is rapidly diminishing with the creation of live streaming providers like YouTube TV and fuboTV—two of our runners up for best streaming services for news. These providers offer much of the same live programming you can get with a traditional TV provider in addition to their on-demand content.
Traditionally, live TV also used to be something you couldn’t watch online—but that is no longer the case. As streaming has become more popular, traditional providers responded with TV Everywhere, which basically lets you log in with your TV subscription information to access content on the go.
Streaming now encompasses live content and on-demand content, which raises the question, “how different is streaming from cable now anyway?” Are we headed back toward the same situation we were in with cable, where we’re stuck overpaying for lots of content we don’t watch because we have to subscribe to multiple streaming services that amount to the same price as cable? Is cutting the cord not worth the cost savings that it used to be (1)?
There’s a good chance that the streaming industry is headed back toward the high costs we experienced with traditional pay TV, which is why streaming subscribers are beginning to voice discontent (2). But cable and satellite TV are still wildly overpriced without matching the flexibility you get from customizing which streaming providers you can subscribe to, which means streaming likely isn’t going anywhere soon.
Learn more about traditional television vs streaming.
What's the difference between on-demand streaming and live TV streaming?
While you usually access both types of content online or with an app, on-demand only and live TV streaming providers differ in many ways, such as cost, available shows, and features.
Following in the steps of the cable providers that preceded them, many streaming providers today offer a blend of on-demand content and live content. For example, Hulu offers live TV with channels like CBS and Food Network, while also allowing subscribers to watch content from their large on-demand library of movies and shows. Netflix, on the other hand, doesn’t offer any live content—everything you can watch on the platform is on-demand content.
Pros and cons of on-demand streaming
- Available whenever you want to watch
- On-demand content is often available for download on mobile devices
- No commercials for on-demand content (depending on platform and payment tier)
- Only available for certain content types
- Contains a lot of outdated content
- On-demand content is always rotating on and off different platforms
- Lots of regional restrictions to wade through
Pros and cons of live TV streaming
- Offers a more exciting experience for sports events and newly released shows
- Gives you access to the freshest content available
- Ideal for sports, awards ceremonies, competition shows, and other time-sensitive content
- Usually comes with commercials
- Only available at certain times
- Can be glitchy if you have a poor internet connection
- Live streams can be interrupted by password sharing
On-demand vs. live TV streaming: cost
Live TV streaming is generally far more expensive than on-demand streaming. While there are budget streaming providers that offer live programming for as low as $25 per month, most live streaming providers charge upwards of $50 per month. On-demand streaming, on the other hand, ranges from around a few dollars to $20 per month. The good news is that neither type of provider usually charges extra fees, requires equipment rentals, or locks you into contracts that could cost you in the long run.
On-demand vs. live TV streaming: content
In terms of available content, live streaming will feel much more like a traditional TV provider with news, sports, current shows, and the networks you’re used to watching when you turn on the TV. On-demand streaming has more movies, older shows, and exclusive content produced by the streaming providers themselves.
If you’re a sports fan, on-demand streaming probably won’t cut it. While traditional TV is still usually the best option for sports fans, most live streaming providers will have at least some access to live sports, including local sports channels.
On-demand streaming generally doesn’t have any type of sports content.
News and local channels
Live streaming is the way to access your local channels and news networks. On-demand streaming simply doesn’t have this kind of content. The good news is that you can get a lot of this content for free with an antenna, or sometimes directly from the network’s website or app.
On-demand streaming libraries are full of movies, and if you’re a movie buff, on-demand streaming will likely be the place to find what you want to watch when you want to watch it. Live streaming providers also air movies, but you’ll have to wait to watch until the movie is airing on a channel you’re subscribed to.
Both live and on-demand streaming services have television series, but the shows available will differ. Current shows aired by networks like CBS or ABC are usually aired first on live television, then moved to on-demand streaming at a later date. If you want to watch the newest episode of Bob’s Burgers, for example, you’ll have to tune into Fox when it airs. However, you can watch a ton of older episodes in Hulu’s on-demand library.
To be more competitive, on-demand streaming providers also have their own shows (and movies) that you can only watch on their platforms. Some of the biggest shows in the past several years fit into this category, like Wednesday, Rings of Power, and House of the Dragon, which air on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Max, respectively.
Whether live or on-demand is better for your watching habits will really depend on what you want to watch and whether you need to see the latest episodes as soon as they air.
On-demand vs. live TV streaming: commercials
One of the best things about on-demand streaming when it first started was the lack of commercials. People cut the cord in waves both for lower prices, and because they could watch shows without being interrupted every few minutes for a commercial break.
It is still true to an extent that on-demand streaming has fewer (or no) commercials. But a lot of on-demand providers now offer cheaper, ad-supported tiers, and these ads can be grating in their repetitiveness. However, you can usually still pay a little more for commercial-free content, and it will still be cheaper than a live streaming service.
With live streaming, you still have to put up with regular commercials or DVR shows to watch later. Some live streaming providers make it easier than others to skip commercials with this technique.
On-demand vs. live TV streaming: recording and watching offline
Most live streaming providers offer unlimited cloud DVR so you can record live programming to watch later, just like you could with traditional TV. Because recorded content is usually available in the cloud, it’s more difficult to watch offline, but you can access it from anywhere you have an internet connection.
Because on-demand streaming is available whenever, there’s no need for a DVR. However, you can download select shows to watch offline, which makes it easier to watch shows where you might not always have access to a stable internet connection as long as you think ahead a little.
What is VOD streaming?
VOD streaming stands for video on-demand streaming, and it’s just another term for any service that offers you video on demand. If you can watch video whenever you want on a service, that’s VOD streaming. That means that technically every streaming service is a VOD streaming service—so basically it’s just another confusing acronym for you to wonder about as you try to keep up with the rapidly evolving streaming industry.
If you feel like you’re struggling to keep all the providers and terminology of the streaming world straight, you’re not alone. A whopping 69% of streaming subscribers think there are too many streaming platforms available, and 58% feel overwhelmed by the amount of content available on those streaming services (3).
The only thing that’s certain about the streaming world is that it will continue to evolve, although the differences between on-demand content and live streaming will likely stay the same for a while.
Cara Haynes has been writing and editing about internet service and TV for six years. Previous to contributing to Helpful, she worked on HighSpeedInternet.com and SatelliteInternet.com. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your lifespan.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.
Endnotes and sources
- “Streaming TV is having an existential crisis, and viewers can tell,” Washington Post. Accessed 2 December 2022.
- “Netflix’s Stumble Could Be a Warning Sign for Streaming Industry,” New York Times. Accessed 2 December 2022.
- “Cost and content are key for those deciding to keep, or drop, streaming services,” Ipsos. Accessed 2 December 2022.