Friday, January 17, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.