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How To Pick The Streaming TV Services You Actually Want

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2020 1:42 pm

The "Newer Services" section of this story was updated at 2:55 p.m. on March 18, 2020.

What's your strategy for watching TV?

That might sound like an obvious question. ("Turn it on?") But there will soon exist so many high-profile streaming services that the concept of watching TV — and how to do it without breaking your bank account — will be redefined.

Apple TV+ debuts Friday with episodes from nine original series and plans to release much more. Disney+ will come out within two weeks. In fact, over the next six months or so, at least five major new streaming services will debut, bursting with original shows, reboots and well-regarded reruns. They will serve an audience where 69 percent of people have at least one streaming subscription, with the average consumer subscribing to three. (If you just want to see the costs and features of each streaming service, you can scroll to the bottom or click here. To see what an average menu of services might cost, click here.)

It's a new TV universe, one where you, the viewer, have never had more power to choose what you see. But there's so much to choose from that it can feel overwhelming. Frustration and "subscription fatigue" are growing. Even if your pocketbook can handle signing up for every streaming service, you can't possibly watch all the programming.

Usually, a guide like this would just tell you what services to buy. But in this new era, we're giving you information to make those choices yourself. Buckle up. It's going to be a fun ride.

Assemble Your Strategy

Accept that this will be overwhelming at first. It's time for a new perspective on TV. For decades, you put up an antenna, maybe bought a cable package, and that was your TV universe. No longer. Wrapping your brain around all the choices will take time. Researchers say consumers are terrible at this kind of purchasing decision, which requires sorting through lots of difficult-to-compare information.

Track your viewing. Ask yourself: What TV shows, channels and platforms do I actually use the most? Which broadcast channels, cable services and streaming platforms include most of what I like? You wouldn't fill a bookshelf with books you might read, so don't crowd your media diet with random services, either. One big question: Do you need cable TV? Many people don't; I keep it mostly for ready access to live events and broadcast TV stations without an antenna, but you might feel differently.

Create a TV diary. One tip, borrowed from the dieting world, involves writing down what you watch on TV every day for a week or two. It will be different from what you imagine you watch every day, I promise. It's the best way to figure out what you're actually watching and what you're willing to spend to see it.

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced Apple TV during a launch event in March. The service is now live.
Noah Berger / AFP via Getty Images

Experiment. For viewers used to the burdensome process of obtaining (and dropping) cable service, this may seem odd. But many streaming services start and stop memberships with a couple of clicks. So don't be afraid to try a service, then change or cancel it after a few months if it's not working for you. Several also offer a free trial period.

Assemble The Field

Sometimes knowing a streaming service's purpose can help you figure out if it fits into your life. I group them into five tiers; an effective TV strategy will involve a mix of them.

Megaproviders: TV platforms that want to provide all or most of the programs you watch. These are services with extensive libraries, including lots of original and repurposed content. In this tier, I put established services like Netflix and Hulu, along with new platforms like Disney+ and HBO Max. Recommendation: A smart consumption strategy would include one to three of these services as a baseline.

Add-on services: These platforms don't offer enough content to handle all or most of your TV consumption but still may feature material important to you. Here, I would put the streaming apps for premium cable channels like Showtime and Starz, alongside established services like Amazon Prime Video, PBS Passport, CBS All Access and YouTube's subscription services (including Premium, Music and YouTube TV). There are also newer channels like ESPN+, BET+ and Apple TV+. Recommendation: Find only the services that feature the ongoing programs you want, and don't be afraid to tweak the mix every so often.

Quirky faves: There are some streaming services focused on specific tastes. The anglophile platforms Acorn and BritBox, the comics-oriented DC Universe, black-focused Urban Movie Channel, horror-movie focused Shudder and more. Recommendation: Be careful that these services offer content you can't get anywhere else. DC Universe, for example, may wind up sharing a lot of content with HBO Max.

Seasonal picks: Some platforms may only have a few series you enjoy, so it may make sense to subscribe only when those shows have fresh episodes. Star Trek fans, for example, can wait until every episode from the latest season of Star Trek: Discovery is available on CBS All Access, then sign up for a monthlong binge. Any streamer can fit this category, depending on your tastes, but services with just a few original hits like Starz or Epix might be most appropriate. Recommendation: Tracking these picks takes effort but saves money. It also allows you to spread a limited budget over more services.

Free stuff: Facebook Watch, Tubi, Sony Crackle and Shout! Factory TV, among other sites. Comcast/NBC's Peacock streaming service is expected to offer an ad-supported version with no subscription fees for some cable and satellite TV customers. Recommendation: These services provide access to some cable channels, movies and original programming with no cost — but often with commercials.

What one sample plan looks like: Here's one hypothetical array of streaming subscriptions.

  • Disney+ for access to superhero and kids stuff. $6.99/month
  • Netflix for access to its wide range of original movies and TV shows and rerun content. $15.99/month (premium tier)
  • ESPN+ for access to live sports. $4.99/month
  • HBO Now/HBO Max, for access to HBO originals. $14.99/month
  • CBS All Access, because you love Star Trek. $6.99/month (for two months)
The Walt Disney Company exhibited details of its Disney+ streaming service at a Disney expo in August. The service goes live Nov. 12.
Jesse Grant / Getty Images for Disney

Total: $49.95/month, which is still cheaper than many cable TV packages.

Newer Services

Apple TV+

Price: $4.99/month, with seven-day free trial. Those who purchase a new iPhone, iPad, Apple TV unit, Mac computer or iPod touch receive a year's free subscription. Debuted Nov. 1.

Features: Available through Apple TV app, select smart TVs and online. Through Family Sharing, up to six family members can use one subscription. Video in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos.

Content: Commercial-free and all original. Service debuted with episodes from nine new shows, including Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston's The Morning Show. Has since released Little America, a dramatization of real-life immigrant stories; Truth Be Told, a drama with Octavia Spencer as a true crime podcaster and Amazing Stories, an anthology series executive produced by Steven Spielberg.

My take: Apple faces a huge challenge, as viewers feel "subscription fatigue" and balk at signing up for new services with small program libraries. The company reportedly spent billions on new content without much idea about what users expect from an Apple TV+ original. Often, it takes platforms awhile to discover what content resonates with its audience, and despite some awards nominations for The Morning Show, Apple's first crop of new shows don't yet seem to have a breakout hit.

Disney+

Price: $6.99/month or $69.99/annually, with seven-day free trial; $12.99/month for bundle with Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu (with ads). Verizon wireless customers who buy the company's wireless unlimited plans, Fios Home Internet or 5G Home Internet services can also receive 12 months of Disney+ free. Debuted Nov. 12.

Features: Commercial-free with up to four concurrent streams and unlimited downloads with support for up to 4K HDR video. Subscribers can create up to seven profiles, including kids' profiles with parental controls.

Content: Streaming home for movies and shows from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic. Exclusive streaming home for films released by Walt Disney Studios in 2019 and beyond, including Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4. Thirty seasons of episodes from The Simpsons. Original projects include The Mandalorian, the first scripted live-action Star Wars series; Loki from Marvel Studios and the Toy Story-based animated series Forky Asks a Question from Pixar.

My take: Disney has loads of desirable content available at a modest price (at least, right now). And while many Star Wars fans fell in love with Baby Yoda and The Mandalorian, much of Disney+'s appeal has come from its extensive, kid-friendly library (including a gift for those with kids to entertain due to coronavirus-induced school cancellations; the release of Frozen 2 for streaming three months early). Families and genre geeks have become an important core constituency for a service which says it has amassed more than 28 million subscribers by February 2020.

HBO Max

Price: $14.99/month, launching in May 2020. Subscribers who get HBO through AT&T, and customers of the existing platform HBO Now will receive it at no additional cost. The service is different and more expansive than current platforms HBO Now and HBO GO, which just stream content from the premium cable channel HBO.

Content: At launch, 10,000 hours of programming from WarnerMedia outlets, including the entire HBO service, TNT, TBS, truTV, CNN documentaries, DC Entertainment, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Warner Bros. New shows include a Game of Thrones prequel called House of the Dragon. Exclusive streaming home for all 236 episodes of Friends and all 279 episodes of The Big Bang Theory, along with all 23 seasons of the animated comedy South Park. HBO Max will be home for new seasons of Sesame Street, the show's 50-year library and four new Sesame Workshop shows. It'll also feature a reunion special with interviews of the Friends cast, and new projects from creators like Ellen DeGeneres, Reese Witherspoon and Steven Soderbergh.

My take: The company has opened its pocketbook wide to gather a sprawling array of content, featuring lots of beloved shows and stars. But it doesn't yet seem focused into a recognizable strategy, which may be a tough sell to viewers wary of taking on yet another subscription. Given all the content, and the likely varying level of quality, HBO Max may dilute the power of HBO's high-quality TV brand. The price point may also be discouraging, with a debut date set after most of its major competitors.

Peacock

Price: The service has three tiers: a free version, featuring 7,500 hours of programming with ads; a premium version, with 15,000 hours of content, priced at $5 per month and limited ads; the premium version without ads, priced at $10 per month. Comcast Xfinity customers can access the service on April 15, 2020; the general public gets access on July 15, 2020.

Content: Material from owner Comcast/NBCUniversal. Streaming home for reruns of American version of The Office and Parks and Recreation. Reboots of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, the teen comedy Saved by the Bell and the sitcom Punky Brewster, along with a weekly talk show featuring writer/performer Amber Ruffin from Late Night with Seth Meyers and films from the Fast & Furious and Jason Bourne franchises.

My take: This is a confusing rollout of different services, just as consumers are tiring of the streaming deluge. And it will take some seriously appealing programming to attract paid subscriptions for a service which also has ads. Right now, this feels like a platform designed to look good to NBCUniversal executives and advertisers, with a little less thought spared for the viewers expected to pay for access.

Quibi

Price: Fee is $4.99/month for service with commercials; $7.99/month for ad-free subscription. Debut scheduled for April 6, 2020.

Features: Mobile-first app featuring short-form video content delivered in "quick bites," designed for viewing on portable devices. Most content will range from five to 10 minutes per episode.

Content: There's three types: movies in chapters, short form documentaries and unscripted shows and news/lifestyle shows dubbed Daily Essentials. The company says it will debut with 50 shows, eventually featuring 175 programs with 8,500 episodes in its first year. Programs include a new version of Punk'd with Chance the Rapper, a court show featuring model Chrissy Teigen as judge and a partnership with CBS' 60 Minutes to create original, six-minute stories under the title 60 in 6.

HBO unveiled details of its HBO Max service at a WarnerMedia investor presentation in late October. It's scheduled to go live in May 2020.
Presley Ann / Getty Images for WarnerMedia

My take: Former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman and Dreamworks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg have teamed up to lead the company, which has announced several high-profile projects but not yet made any programs available to see. It'll need a super-buzzy original series to cut through all the media clutter – and viewer impatience — surrounding streaming.

Established Services

Amazon Prime Video

Price: $119/year or $12.99/month, with 30-day free trial. Video streaming is included with Prime membership, which also offers benefits for shopping and shipping items on Amazon.

Content: The service offers access to thousands of movies and TV shows, from House and The Closer to Mission: Impossible Fallout and The Lincoln Lawyer. Originals include The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Fleabag, Transparent and Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan. Prime members can also choose from over 100 premium channels such as HBO or Showtime for additional charges.

Hulu

Price: $5.99/month for basic service (shows with ads); $11.99/month for premium service (shows are ad free, except Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Grey's Anatomyand How to Get Away with Murder); $54.99 per month for basic + live TV (more than 60 channels of live television); $60.99 for premium + live TV (commercial free, except for the three shows listed earlier and the live TV channels). Basic service is available, bundled with Disney+ and ESPN+, for $12.99/month.

Content: Original programs include The Handmaid's Tale, Castle Rock, Marvel's Runaways and Shrill. Also features episodes of The Mindy Project, Four Weddings and a Funeral the TV series, and the Veronica Mars reboot. The platform also features streaming access to many network TV shows. Add-ons (for additional charges) include an enhanced cloud DVR, unlimited number of screens using the account at once and premium channels like HBO or Starz.

Netflix

Price: $8.99/month for basic service (one screen, standard definition); $12.99/month standard service (two screens, HD video available); $15.99/month premium service (four screens, HD and Ultra HD video available).

Content: Commercial-free with original titles and reruns, including TV series, feature films, documentaries, talk shows. Notable titles: Stranger Things, The Crown, Black Mirror, The Good Place, When They See Us, Bodyguard, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. It is losing Friends, Parks and Recreation and The Office in 2020, along with streaming rights to Disney-owned movies such as Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame.

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