November 4, 2019

How To Pick The Streaming TV Services You Actually Want

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.

npr news streaming 1 Jim Corwin/Photolibrary/Getty Images Plus

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+ debuted 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.

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.

npr news streaming 2 Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced Apple TV during a launch event in March. The service is now live.
Noah Berger/AFP via Getty Images

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)

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

npr news streaming 3 Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

New 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. Debuts 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 debuts with episodes from nine new shows, including Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston's The Morning Show; Jason Momoa's drama about a world where most humans are blind, called See; a retelling of poet Emily Dickinson's coming-of-age story, Dickinson; a new version of Oprah Winfrey's book club.

My take: Apple may face the biggest challenges among these new streamers. The company reportedly has 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 works with its audience, and here there's no catalog of older shows to draw users if originals flop. And the first crop of new shows doesn't seem to have a breakout hit (though keep your eyes open for Little America, executive produced by Kumail Nanjiani and Alan Yang).

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. Debuts 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). The company has spent months carefully revealing its service to the world and cultivating early subscribers. Families and genre geeks will be an important core constituency.

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: 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 reboots of shows such as The Boondocks, streaming of at least 12 seasons of Doctor Who, 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. It may dilute the power of HBO's brand. The price point may be discouraging, and with a debut date set for next May, it will premiere after all its major competitors.

Peacock

Price: Service will have an ad-supported version and a subscription version; no details released yet on either option. Debuts April 2020.

Content: Over 15,000 hours of 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: As one of the last new services to debut, it may be the most affected by "subscriber fatigue." But its ad-supported version may encourage more sampling.

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 designed for viewing on portable devices. Most content will range from five to 10 minutes per episode.

Content: The company has announced several development deals, including a version of The Fugitive featuring Kiefer Sutherland, a musical comedy series starring Darren Criss, 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.

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 surrounding streaming by April.

npr news streaming 4 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

Established Services

Amazon Prime Video

Price: $119/year or $12.99/month. 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 Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder); $44.99 per month for basic + live TV (more than 60 channels of live television); $50.99 for premium + live TV (commercial free, except for the three shows listed earlier and the live TV channels). Basic service will be available, bundled with Disney+ and ESPN+, for $12.99/month after Nov. 12.

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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