By now, you’ve probably heard this take a dozen or more times: There are too many streaming video services, and keeping up with them all is too complicated and expensive.
The argument is understandable on some level. 2019 saw the launch of Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, joining the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, CBS All Access, Showtime, Starz, Epix, and countless niche services. And the situation won’t get any saner in 2020, with WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBC’s Peacock on the way.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t despair. With a little bit of planning and a slight recalibration of your consumption habits, you can use the streaming wars to your advantage. As we head into 2020, here are a few steps you can take to navigate the glut of streaming video services.
Step 1: Pick a main (or maybe two)
Contrary to popular internet opinion, you don’t have to subscribe to every streaming video service at the same time; doing so certainly isn’t economical in the age of peak TV. A better approach is to pick one or two streaming services that will form the base of your consumption, giving you plenty to watch when you’re feeling indecisive. Then, you can add and drop other services when you have the time and inclination to use them.
This is easier than it might seem, because each major streaming service has its own sensibilities. You just have to pick the ones that line up with your own interests.
Netflix ($13 per month for HD streaming): The all-around contender. This will probably be the baseline streaming service for most people, partly because it’s already in the majority of U.S. households, and partly because it’s where an increasingly large percentage of must-see TV is ending up. Netflix is pretty much untouchable in its volume of exclusive original shows, movies, and stand-up specials. (A recent analysis by Variety Insight found that Netflix released 371 original movies and shows last year, a 54% increase over last year and more than the entire TV industry released in 2005.) That said, the case for subscribing to Netflix month-to-month instead of year-round will probably get stronger as other services get deeper back catalogs.
Amazon Prime ($120 per year): The one you’re already paying for. If you pine for what Netflix used to be—especially in its earliest days, when it was more focused on movies—Amazon Prime might scratch the itch. The service has a lot more movies than any of its competitors, and it’s starting to string together some hit originals such as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag. There’s a decent chance you’re getting Prime Video already as part of an Amazon Prime subscription.
Hulu ($6 per month with ads, $12 per month without): For broadcast TV lovers. Hulu still carries most ABC, NBC, and Fox shows the day after they air. Procedural dramas, talent shows, late-night talk shows, sitcoms—it’s all here, with the added bonus of originals such as The Handmaid’s Tale and back episodes of cable and network shows. Hulu’s identity will change in the coming years as networks such as NBC and ViacomCBS pull programming onto their own services, but for now it’s a great way to ease your transition away from bloated cable TV packages.
CBS All Access ($6 per month with ads, $10 per month without): Crime shows galore. Like Hulu, but for CBS instead of the other networks. You could potentially combine the two for a complete set of primetime broadcasts, including all the NCIS and Blue Bloods you could ever watch. Realistically, though, this one probably goes into the temporary subscription pile until it gets more notable originals beyond the Star Trek universe.
Disney Plus ($7 per month or $70 per year): The fandom favorite. In a testament to Disney’s franchise and branding power, this is probably the easiest streaming service to explain. It’s where you go to watch movies and shows in the Marvel and Star Wars universes, along with Disney and Pixar films. It’s a strong permanent streaming-service contender for families, and the Disney Bundle (which includes Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus for $13 per month) could be a compelling Netflix alternative for everyone.
HBO Max ($15 per month): The prestigious dark horse. Things will get really interesting in May, when AT&T supersizes the HBO catalog with a trove of WarnerMedia shows and films. At that point, you’ll get all the premium channel’s buzzy originals, plus a deeper lineup of low-commitment shows such as Friends for when you just need to tune out. Eventually, WarnerMedia wants to add sports and news to the mix as well. For all the talk of rivalry between Disney and Netflix, HBO Max might be a more immediate threat to pull subscribers away from the latter—unless WarnerMedia’s management shake-ups end up hindering HBO’s hit-making abilities.
NBC Peacock (TBD): The comfort food king. NBCUniversal’s streaming plans are a bit murkier than those of its competitors, but the company seems to be leaning heavily on past hits (The Office) and nostalgic remakes (Punky Brewster, Saved by the Bell, Battlestar Galactica). Pricing also remains up in the air, with rumors of the service being free with ads or $10 per month without them.
Step 2: Use tools to find what you need
Granted, the descriptions above don’t fully capture the breadth of what every streaming service offers. Sometimes you want to watch a specific show that people are talking about. Beyond just the major streaming services, there are smaller premium options such as Starz, Showtime, and Apple TV Plus, along with niche services such as Crunchyroll, DC Universe, and Acorn TV with their own exclusive catalogs. Tracking everything down is where the streaming wars can start to seem complicated.
Still, finding shows across different streaming services is easier than you might expect. On the web, Reelgood and JustWatch are great sites for figuring out where to stream specific movies and shows. (They also have apps for iOS and Android.)
If you have a streaming device, you might not even need external search services. Instead, the voice search functions on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV will allow you to look across services for a particular movie or TV show.
Step 3: Add and drop services without mercy
With so many potential streaming options, subscribing to them all would be a waste of money, and keeping track of all those subscriptions would be a hassle anyway.
That’s why I suggest immediately canceling anything that isn’t one of your main courses after signing up. All of these streaming services are prepaid, so once you’ve purchased a month of CBS All Access or Hulu, for instance, you are entitled to that full month even if you unsubscribe on day one. That means you can sign up for a service, binge-watch a show or two, then move on without the threat of sneaky ongoing charges. And if you find that you’re reactivating every month, maybe that means you need to switch out what you thought was your main service.
Step 4: Recalibrate expectations
The key to coping with the streaming wars is at least partly about mental calculations, rather than strategic decisions. That means accepting that TV has become a firehose, and giving up on the idea that you could possibly drink it all. Inevitably, you will miss some shows, or at least watch them on your own timetable, regardless of what you’re reading about or seeing on social media. The sooner you divorce yourself from the idea of keeping up, the easier it becomes to watch TV on your own terms, once again making it a worry-free and cost-effective pastime.