When television went mainstream in the 1950s, choosing programming was simple — buy a set. The few choices there came in over the air at no additional cost — the term is ad-supported, and we’ll get to it. An entire generation passed before another choice was offered, cable. Streaming subscriptions began with a single choice, whether or not to get Netflix.
There are now about a dozen prominent streaming “channels.” How to choose streaming services has evolved into “subscription fatigue” — a growing disquiet with the number of streaming subscriptions required to watch what we want to watch. The new networks don’t make it negligible. The growing catalog of award-winning shows produced by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others have spurred another dreaded digital frustration, “FOMO” — “fear of missing out.”
Kinetic by Windstream has made high-speed internet available to an overwhelming majority of residences — from 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, to Kinetic Gig Internet, 1 Gbps — in its mostly rural footprint. Considering how to pick a streaming service doesn’t have to begin with whether your home’s broadband can support streaming. (Enter your information here to find out what speeds are available in your area.)
Outfitting existing technology for streaming likewise is pretty painless. If you purchased a TV in the last 5 to 8 years, you likely have options for TV streaming you’ve never explored. If yours isn’t a smart TV, there are several very affordable add-ons such as Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, and Chromecast. Most can be purchased for roughly the cost of a tank of gas in the old family truckster.
It comes down to viewing habits, entertainment quality and subscription price point. The best streaming options are those with the widest breadth of entertainment options, or the shows you want most, at a cost that’s comfortable to absorb or add to others (because the average is three).
The streaming giant Netflix began its streaming subscription with a small catalog of content in 2007. In 2013, it premiered its first (award-winning) show, House of Cards. In September, it took home 27 Emmy awards — more than all four major broadcast networks, VH1 and CNN combined.
- PRICE $9/month basic access, $16/month for 4K Ultra HD video and up to four accounts.
- ENTERTAINMENT There’s no question that Netflix, today, is the king of original shows and, recently, feature-length movies. It also has a wide selection of popular movies and old shows.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you’re open to new shows, a lot of them, and have good taste. If “new entertainment” is a priority for you, Netflix is tops. If you’re thinking “I just want cable TV without the cable price,” then Netflix is still competitive.
Netflix subscribers still have access to some Disney-owned titles, but Disney is quickly migrating those back to the mother ship for its new streaming service that went live in the fall.
- PRICE $7/month or $70 per year for Disney+, $13/month for Disney+ bundled with Hulu and ESPN.
- ENTERTAINMENT When you think of Disney, you think Snow White. Or maybe you think Woody from Toy Story, Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, Iron Man from Avengers and more. In short, truly blockbuster entertainment.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you love big iconic movies … and, sports?
Disney+, unlike Netflix, is following the mold of Amazon Prime and Hulu by trying to bundle a breadth of content meant to mimic cable so that you never leave the platform. They’re offering a plan that includes ESPN (which Disney owns) and Hulu. They’ve also pledged 10 original films this year and 25 original series (among them, the expanded Star Wars franchise serial The Mandalorian). Disney may, in very short order, prove tops among the very best streaming options.
Netflix took home 27 Emmys, followed in third place by Prime with 15. That yawning gap speaks to its priorities. Prime is scaled to compete with Netflix, but Amazon wants to be at least as competitive as a bundled streaming subscription, and that shaves resources away from the showcase entertainment.
- PRICE $9/month or free for Amazon Prime members, a $119 per year fee.
- ENTERTAINMENT From award-winning original programming such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag to many of HBO’s back catalog of shows. It’s also a portal for adding channels such as HBO and Showtime.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you already have Prime (and if you don’t).
The latest news on the streaming subscription is that it’s available on Google’s Chromecast and Android streaming TV devices, and that Google’s new YouTube streaming subscriptions can be opened on Amazon’s Fire TV devices.
The place with all the cat videos and single-serving Saturday Night Live skits (also car repair how-tos, mommy vlogs and music videos) is now one of the most competitive streaming services for people who basically never fell out of love with cable TV to begin with.
- PRICE $50/month.
- ENTERTAINMENT With more than 70 channels, including all four major broadcast networks, ESPN and Fox Sports, beloved entertainment networks like AMC, PBS (and PBS Kids!) and National Geographic, and the highest rated cable news channels, YouTube TV offers subscribers their favorite “cable” channels along with new streaming entertainment like YouTube Kids.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION for those wondering how to pick a streaming option while simultaneously reflecting fondly on old cable TV.
With YouTube TV, viewers may watch live sports, breaking news and must-see shows when they air, or save them with an unlimited cloud DVR feature. They also get six accounts (only three may stream at once). Kinetic by Windstream customers can now enjoy premium YouTube TV with their Kinetic Internet. Customers without a smart TV or streaming device for their television can add a Kinetic streaming box at no charge.
A distant third in the Emmy race was Hulu with five wins. Despite its occasional splash (The Handmaid’s Tale), Hulu is happier to keep a well-stocked pantry of past hit shows from ABC, Fox, CBS and NBC. Hulu + Live TV was one of the first major streaming platforms to offer live network broadcasts (shows, sports) over a streaming subscription. Disney now fully owns Hulu.
- PRICE $6/month ad-supported, $12/month ad-free (neither offers live broadcast/cable), $55/month Hulu + Live TV.
- ENTERTAINMENT Hulu + Live TV is a fulsome catalog of old shows and new, live entertainment and movies, and sports broadcasts from ESPN, Fox Sports and the broadcast networks. Because its Live TV is ad-supported, and live TV itself is ad-supported, the amount of time spent watching advertisements may beg the question, what does my subscription fee support?
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you’re a student and into Spotify, the music streaming subscription service, because a combined Hulu-Spotify bundle is $5. Otherwise, Hulu is best if you like their lineup.
Disney says Hulu will stay where it is, despite the apparent competition. Viewers wondering how to choose streaming services should put Hulu near the top because it’s a low entry point ($6) with live-TV option. Disney’s FX Networks will produce shows for it. Like YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV offers about 70 channels, including the major broadcast channels, sports and cable, A&E, Cartoon Network, Disney, FX, TBS, TNT and others.
Like its parent company, Dish, Sling Orange and Sling Blue streaming subscriptions endeavor to compete among streaming services as Dish competes with cable — by bundling channels at a competitive price point without producing entertainment.
- PRICE $25/month for Sling Orange, $25/month for Sling Blue, or $40/month combined.
- ENTERTAINMENT The Orange package comes with about 30 popular cable channels but limited broadcast networks. In some markets subscribers get Fox, NBC and Univision in the Blue package.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you’re a coupon clipper, or know and like Dish service.
Like Dish itself, promotions such as “4 for $10” to get Kids Extra, Lifestyle Extra, Comedy Extra and News Extra drive the value proposition. Sling is a thrifty option for some viewers amenable to a singular lineup of channels of popular programming you can find elsewhere.
Despite its vaunted place among the stars of technology (and ticker symbols), Apple TV+ is a modest offering. It launched just before Disney+ with more original programming but, ultimately, a far smaller catalogue of entertainment.
- PRICE $5/month.
- ENTERTAINMENT This streaming network came out of the gates with The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell and Reese Witherspoon. Other than this and a handful of other original shows, it does not boast a robust catalog of TV content.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you have purchased an Apple device (say, an Apple TV streaming box) within the last few months or will. Then it’s free.
Apple TV+’s premiere was upstaged by Disney+, no question. But shows opening or set to premiere include Little Voice, about an up-and-coming singer from J.J. Abrams and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles; Servant, a psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan; and new content from Oprah Winfrey.
AT&T TV / AT&T TV+ AT&T WatchTV
DIRECTV Now/AT&T TV Now
AT&T TV is essentially DIRECTV’s ineup over an internet connection. Unfortunately, it’s only available in very select markets. ,
- PRICE Free (AT&T WatchTV) for AT&T Unlimited subscribers, otherwise $15/month, while AT&T TV is $50-$100 or more per month for assorted packages.
- ENTERTAINMENT At the premium price point, 50 channels including regional sports, Cinemax and HBO. (AT&T owns HBO as a result of its acquisition of Time Warner.)
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you want a streaming option with live TV, HBO and Cinemax but without original branded content, at a budget-busting price point.
The early entrance of the telecom giant into entertainment has morphed with the help of the satellite TV service into a pin cushion of options for TV streaming. The sum of its efforts is a brand trying to compete with other streaming subscriptions offering both a catalog of popular titles and live TV.
Another quirky but budget-conscious pick among the constellation of options for TV streaming is Philo, a strong pick for those who basically want cheaper cable.
- PRICE begins at $20/month ad-supported.
- ENTERTAINMENT No sports, live news or local channels, but beloved standard cable fare from Comedy Central, AMC, Nickelodeon and others.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you’ve cut the cord and miss it or know you will.
At $20 with nearly 60 channels, cloud DVR and a “Look Back” feature that lets viewers catch a show they just missed are the reasons Philo is on most cord-cutting lists.
CBS All Access
Maybe it’s appropriate that CBS is the first of the major networks to offer its own streaming pretty much as you’d want it.
- PRICE $6/month ad-supported, $10/month ad-free.
- ENTERTAINMENT CBS All Access is the network in its entirety — live shows, past shows, live sports and news special reports just like you’d get over the air or cable but on-demand.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you’ve cut the cord and don’t have a digital antenna that can catch this broadcast network over the air.
CBS is an excellent network to do this because along with shows that regularly win their ratings battles (CSI and NCIS, for instance), you get NFL football, NCAA college basketball, and network news. And the network is developing a limited event series, Stephen King’s “The Stand,” exclusively for the streaming service. Budget-minded consumers asking how to choose streaming services may trip on this particular value proposition, however. A digital antenna may be capable of picking up the broadcast network over the air, and other subscription streaming (YouTube TV, Hulu) offer backdoor access to much of the same programming.
With TV shows such as Outlander and Power, Starz is a production operation with a following, but whether it’s one of the best streaming options is up to the beholder.
- PRICE $9/month
- ENTERTAINMENT Along with Outlander, Power, The Spanish Princess and other episodic and serial programming, popular movies such as Venom and A Dog’s Way Home. New titles include In the Long Run, an autobiographical family comedy created by Englishman Idris Elba, and The Professor and the Madman, a true story about a murderer and his Oxford professor friend, starring Sean Penn and Mel Gibson.
- BEST STREAMING OPTION if you like Starz shows.
A la Carte
Along with the big platforms there’s smaller niche players that, bundled together, could be attractive — say, for a British-loving comic bookish cinephile. Acorn TV and BritBox both specialize in entertainment written and produced across the pond, and they’re light loads at $5/month and $7/month, respectively. Meanwhile, for the film lover in your life, the Criterion Channel has more than 1,000 critically acclaimed classics and moderns for $11/month, $100 annually, or the DC Universe (Batman, and a bit of original content, too) for $8/month, $75/annually.
In 2020, streaming will again be shaken up by the premiere of Peacock, NBC’s (reportedly) free streaming platform, and HBO Max. (Showtime already streams a la carte.)
For many consumers, cultivating the best streaming options into one lineup doesn’t hinge on availability but price. Viewers who have dropped cable pick up a live TV subscription like YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV for news and sports and Netflix or Prime for original content, ultimately reanimating much of the monthly bill they’d intended to cut with the cord.
Still, the allure of subscription streaming is that none of the major players require any contracts, build in hidden fees or keep on-premises equipment. The only requirement beyond the fee is ample internet. More and more, that’s table stakes for a great many exciting new technologies.