Channel numbers on streaming services?

Several months ago there was a report that channel numbers were starting to show up on DIRECTV NOW. This led a lot of people to say that it wouldn’t be long until all streaming services had channel numbers in the guide. That hasn’t happened yet. It still could. However, the real question is, should live streaming services have channel numbers?

State of live TV streaming today

As of this writing, none of the major live TV streaming services (DIRECTV NOW, Sling TV, YouTube TV, Philo, and Hulu Live Channels) have channel numbers in their guides. It’s interesting because channel numbers are a common fixture of every single major pay TV service. There are live streaming services with channel numbers, but they are outliers and not mainstream at all.

For example, the free Pluto TV app has channel numbers in its guide. However, Pluto TV is more of an aggregator of content from web sites such as The Onion and People. It’s not a live streaming provider to compete with traditional cable or satellite.

Why haven’t channel numbers caught on?

As I see it there are two reasons that you don’t see channel numbers in the guide on streaming services. The first is pretty straightforward. If you look at your standalone streaming box, there is no number pad on the remote! Sure, if you have a smart TV there is a number pad, but no other streaming service uses it because they are trying to keep a consistent experience. HBO NOW, for example, wants you to see exactly the same app on your Samsung Smart TV as you do on your AppleTV. That means the number pad is unused.

If there isn’t a number pad on the remote, it doesn’t make sense to have numbers in the guide, right? Makes sense to me.

The other reason I think that channel numbers aren’t used is that honestly, people don’t want them. The idea of channel numbers goes back to the days when over-the-air TV was the only game in town. Even in the early days of cable, there was no on-screen guide. The best you would get was a printed listing of channels and the only way to choose a channel was to punch in a number or just flip from channel to channel. Channel numbers were a way for people to interact with the limited technology of the day.

Truth is, channel numbers aren’t needed for most people who just go to the guide to select a channel. They are useful for universal remotes, but even so we’re seeing smart home devices that can respond to voice commands. You can say, “Alexa, change to HBO” and that’s easier than trying to remember channel numbers.

What if you’re old school?

Hey, I get it. I’ve spent close to 20 years memorizing DIRECTV channel numbers myself. I can tell you where HBO is (501) and where HGTV is (229.) I’m just as likely to mash in some numbers on the remote if I know where I want to go.

I’m not saying you need to give up your habit of mashing in channel numbers. There may yet come a time when those channel numbers move over to DIRECTV NOW or Sling TV. It’s possible they’ll parallel those on DIRECTV and DISH respectively. In fact, several AT&T representatives have said (vaguely) that they are working to duplicate the full DIRECTV satellite experience on streaming. While it’s not clear what that means, it could mean channel numbers in the guide.

Still, I have to say I don’t think the world is going to end if you need to give up on the idea of channel numbers. Technology is always changing and people are always changing with it. Perhaps there was a time you typed the number 1 using the lower case ‘L.’ You learned to change. Perhaps there was a time when you found a way to transition from postal mail, to e-mail, to texting or using a messaging app. Life is full of these sorts of transitions and it isn’t the end of the world.

If I had to guess…

I think that the idea of channel numbers in live TV streaming services won’t gain universal acceptance. Perhaps there could be one live streaming service that uses it, just as there is a cellular company that specializes in simplified phones. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not a value judgment. It’s just that there are different people with different needs. I think there’s enough room for everyone. If you want channel numbers, you’ll find a service that works for you. If I had to guess though, most folks won’t miss channel numbers when they’re gone.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.