How to choose the streaming services that are right for you
Updated February 12, 2024 at 3:01 PM ET
Has there ever been a more confusing time to be a streaming TV customer?
Recent years have brought lots of major changes to the industry, and starting this week, there's another change:You'll see commercials in Amazon Prime Video's TV series and films for the first time.
Amazon promises the ads will be "limited" — and you can pay an extra $2.99 per month to avoid them altogether. But the change highlights how different the industry is now compared to 2019, when NPR first published a guide to picking streaming TV services.
Over the past year, just about every major streaming service has raised its subscription fees, while some have cracked down on password sharing. At the same time, there are more programming bundles, membership deals, ad-supported subscriptions and streaming services overall, as surveys show cost and content remain the biggest concerns for consumers.
If your New Year's resolution included getting a handle on your streaming budget, you have some challenging times ahead.
But we're here to help. (Many thanks to freelance journalist Jim Halterman and Joe Adalian, who writes the Buffering newsletter for Vulture, for helping me think through these subjects with great conversations.)
Handling streaming's messy adolescence
Back in 2019, streaming was in its playful infancy. Apple TV+ and Disney+ had just debuted, and most platforms were offering low prices and lots of content, just to get people to sample their services. It worked: A recent study showed 83% of U.S. households now subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and/or Hulu.
These days, streaming is in a bratty adolescence and things have gotten seriously complicated. According to the 2023 Streaming Unwrapped report from TV ratings company Nielsen, audiences had 90 streaming services to choose from in 2023, up from 51 at the start of 2020. A different Nielsen analysis found that content available in June 2023 reached 2.7 million programs, with 20% of viewers saying they often gave up trying to find good shows after feeling overwhelmed by all the options.
It's obvious that today's viewers need a strategy for choosing the right lineup of TV streaming services. And it has to be a more sophisticated process than just comparing prices, though many subscribers understandably start there.
What to tackle first
Create a TV diary. Take a week, or even a month, to write down what you watch as you watch it and where you might find it. Such diaries can surprise you, offering insights that reveal where you direct most of your attention as a viewer, while suggesting good possibilities for compromise and deals.
Decide what kind of viewer you are. Are you fine with watching some advertising along with your programming? If so, that suggests cheaper, ad-supported subscriptions may be better for you. Do you prefer sports and news to high-quality scripted content? Will you need access to kids programming? Are you willing to spend some effort keeping up with special deals and content bundles, or would you rather pay a little more for a larger lineup of channels that you rarely change?
Consider how to track your subscriptions. If the fees from all your subscriptions come from the same credit card or bank account, you can more easily track spending and end payments quickly. Online resources at places like Bank of America and Rocket Money can help track regular subscription payments; subscriptions purchased through your Apple account or Apple Card are also easy to track and manage online. And there's always good old-fashioned Post-it notes, or notations in a notebook. This can help avoid situations where you're paying for a subscription you didn't realize you had.
Conduct an occasional audit of your streaming services. Every so often, call up each streaming service you access, look up your account information, and make sure the level of subscription meets your needs. Because streaming services are changing their subscription tiers more often, you may discover a better deal has emerged or the price has increased.
Bundles can save money. Modern streaming offers more deals bundling channels and services together for reduced fees. So Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ are available for $14.99 with ads or $24.99 without advertising. T-Mobile customers who buy their Go5G Next plan can get Hulu, Apple TV+, Netflix and MLB.TV for free. Peacock is even available to Instacart+ members at no extra cost. Sometimes, it may feel like a return to the cable TV mindset, but signing up for bundles of services can ease pocketbook pressures.
Apps can organize your viewing. Several apps track TV content to let you know where your favorite shows are found, including TV Time, JustWatch and Reelgood. The Apple TV app — which is separate from the Apple TV+ streaming service — also helps organize your viewing across different streamers. And the Apple TV streaming device — a small, hockey puck-size unit that can connect your TV to online services — provides the virtual assistant Siri to discover where programming is available and compare pricing.
Be ready to experiment and adapt. Old-school viewers are used to paying for their TV setup and leaving it alone. But with rising streaming prices and changing content, smart consumers are more willing to drop and add services regularly. Particularly because some streamers offer free trials — from 30 days for Amazon Prime Video and Hulu to seven days for Apple TV+ — there are lots of opportunities to try new services and cut them loose if needed. And a surprising number of digital TV channels are available free through an old-fashioned broadcast antenna.
What type of streamer are you subscribing to?
The best streaming strategy involves a mix of these types:
Megaproviders: These are streamers with the largest collections of material, containing both original and recycled "library" content, developed to be your primary or only viewing destination. This includes Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+ and Max. A good streaming strategy would likely include at least one or two of these services as a baseline.
Midlevel streamers: This category covers a wide range of platforms, but they're generally smaller and less comprehensive than the megaproviders. This covers Apple TV+, which lacks a huge library, and Paramount+ with Showtime, which also features content from CBS and Viacom cable channels like Comedy Central. Here is where consumers might want to be more choosy, picking up streamers that feature the series or genres they most care about.
Niche favorites: Some streamers have a highly specific focus, including Shudder (horror), BET+ (Black-focused content), Acorn and BritBox (British-centered series), and Fubo (sports). Just make sure whatever content they offer isn't duplicated elsewhere on a larger streamer you're also paying for. Often, a good strategy is to subscribe when they feature new material you find compelling or when you have time to really explore the catalog, then pause or end the subscription when you're less inclined to watch.
Free platforms and FAST channels: Platforms where you can watch streaming TV free with ads, knowns as Free Ad Supported TV channels (FAST), have taken off in recent years, offering a mix of on-demand movies and TV shows alongside themed channels showing content on a schedule like cable TV. The big platforms here include Amazon Freevee, Pluto TV, Tubi and The Roku Channel. For consumers who don't mind watching ads, these can be a no-cost alternative to pricier platforms with big libraries.
Need an example? Here you go.
One sample plan
Netflix, as a baseline service with access to loads of content without ads: $22.99 per month for the Premium plan.
The Disney Bundle, featuring Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, offering access to kids content, high-quality originals and more movies, news and sports: $14.99 per month with ads or $24.99 per month without.
Paramount+, because you're a Star Trek fan and want access to news coverage via CBS News livestreaming and programs like 60 Minutes and the CBS Evening News: $5.99 per month with ads and without the premium cable channel Showtime, or $11.99 for a mostly ad-free subscription with Showtime.
Total: $43.97 per month with ads on some platforms or $59.97 monthly without ads — still cheaper than many cable packages.
These are the major services that you may want to choose from as part of a well-balanced plan.
Price: $9.99 per month, with a seven-day free trial. If you buy an Apple device, service is free for three months.
My take: Apple's done a great job elevating content on this service, including award-winning shows and films like Ted Lasso, Coda, The Morning Show and Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. But its relatively small library means it's still mostly a high-quality add-on for people who use other streamers for the bulk of their viewing. Its integration with the Apple TV app highlights how the service is also designed to encourage use of Apple devices and technology. And the lack of visibility for some of their shows often makes it a home for the best streaming programs you never heard of.
Price: $7.99 per month with ads, $13.99 per month without. Also featured in bundles with Hulu and ESPN+.
My take: The platform struggles to be seen as more than a home for films and TV shows for kids, Marvel fans, Star Wars geeks and Disney lovers. But allowing users with a Hulu subscription to access that service's content — which can be a little more adult — inside Disney+ helps. And with content spanning Pixar, NatGeo, Doctor Who and The Simpsons in addition to Marvel, Lucasfilm and Disney, the platform is slowly broadening an already wide spectrum of entertainment. Doesn't hurt that its bundle with Hulu and ESPN+ is one of the best values in streaming.
Price: $17.99 per month without ads, $7.99 per month or $79.99 annually with ads. Live TV only, $75.99 per month. And each subscription can also be bundled with Disney+ and ESPN+.
My take: Hulu has an impressive slate of originals, including Only Murders in the Building and The Handmaid's Tale, series with cable channel FX like The Bear and Atlanta, live reporting from ABC News, movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and access to many network TV shows. The live TV option provides more than 95 channels, including local affiliate stations, sports channels and cable news channels, along with an unlimited DVR for recording programs to watch later. Given Disney's announced plan to buy Comcast's 33% stake in the platform, it seems like Hulu will be a large part of the company's online strategy.
Price: $9.99 per month or $99.99 annually with ads, $15.99 per month or $149.99 annually without ads. An Ultimate ad-free subscription offering programs in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Atmos sound is $19.99 per month or $199.99 annually.
My take: Owner Warner Bros. Discovery is still sketching out what this megaservice will be, combining content from HBO, Discovery and loads of other brands, like CNN, DC Entertainment and Studio Ghibli. It's debuted a news platform with a curated live CNN feed and live sports via a Bleacher Report-branded add-on called B/R Sports — a feature that is currently free but will cost at least $9.99 monthly once Max works out the technology. The interface is clunky and a challenge to navigate at times, and I still dislike the decision to downgrade the HBO branding when they changed the name from HBO Max. But as a longtime fans of brands like HBO and CNN, what keeps me engaged here is the content, including some of the best originals on TV, like Succession, The Last of Us and True Detective: Night Country.
Price: $6.99 monthly with ads, $15.49 per month for standard membership without ads, $22.99 per month for Premium membership (4K Ultra HD programming, more devices can connect at once and no ads).
My take: This remains the largest streamer and the one that often sets the industry standard. In recent years, it has struggled to produce original series with the impact of competitors Hulu and HBO/Max, but the breadth of its content — including a wide range of programming from outside America, including South Korea and Latin America — remains impressive. It's also cutting deals with competitors like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery to license selected content, including the ABC series Lost, the NBC drama This Is Us and HBO's Six Feet Under, further increasing its library reach.
Price: $5.99 monthly or $59.99 annually with ads and without Showtime, $11.99 monthly or $119.99 annually for a mostly ad-free subscription with Showtime.
My take: As the home of new and old Star Trek series along with CBS programming and Yellowstone spin-off series (but not Yellowstone itself, which is on Peacock; I know, quite confusing), Paramount+ has a lot of fans. But its library still isn't big enough to match larger competitors, even with premium content contributed by Showtime. Too often, this platform feels like two struggling outlets trying to find success by joining forces; viewers may decide to subscribe when Star Trek and Yellowstone spinoffs have new episodes and drop the service at other times.
Price: $5.99 monthly or $59.99 annually with ads, $11.99 monthly or $119.99 annually without ads, with downloads and access to local NBC channels live.
My take: Despite a surprisingly large library, this service is still trying to make its mark beyond NBC shows like Law & Order and Saturday Night Live, though it has status as the service smart enough to lock up streaming rights to Yellowstone, a show actually owned by rival Paramount Global. It's also an effective hub for Olympics programming and has some intriguing originals like the comedy Poker Face.
Price: $14.99 monthly or $139 annually for Amazon Prime including video services (the membership includes a lot more services beyond video streaming). $8.99 monthly for Prime Video access alone. $2.99 per month additional for commercial-free video.
My take: Prime Video offers a breathtakingly vast library with the additional ability to purchase or rent programming that isn't included with the membership. Its originals are not quite in the league of competitors like Netflix and Hulu, but shows like the action drama Reacher and The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power feature big swings aimed at larger audiences. For NFL fans, it also has rights to Thursday Night Football games until 2033. And among the major streamers, it has one of the best selections of classic films, though its interface for finding content really needs improvement.
Price: $13.99 monthly for a premium plan without ads; $62.99 for the first three months, then $72.99 monthly for YouTube TV service.
My take: The free version of YouTube can be a wonderful streaming resource, with loads of content created for the service and free episodes posted by other TV platforms (HBO put up free episodes of The Sopranos for its 25th anniversary; the big late-night TV shows usually post most of their content on the day it airs). There are also lots of movies available without charge, like L.A. Confidential. The premium version allows you to watch the programming without ads. The YouTube TV service adds over 100 channels, including local affiliate stations, cable news channels and more, with a DVR to allow recording of programs and delayed viewing. Both platforms are surprisingly agile streaming services that can plug a lot of holes in your TV content needs.
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