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Your Guide to the Streaming Wars

As four new services hit the market between now and next spring, we break down which streaming outfits are worth your time and money

hulu, netflix, cbs all access, amazon prime, apple tv, mandalorian, picard

'The Mandalorian' from Disney+, Jennifer Aniston in 'The Morning Show' from Apple TV+, and Patrick Stewart in CBS All Access' 'Picard.'

2018 Lucasfilm Ltd.; Courtesy Apple TV+; Trae Patton/CBS

The Streaming Wars are here! The Streaming Wars are here!

Really, they’ve been here for years now, but the whole mess has gone to another level recently, as the rest of the TV industry has ramped up its efforts to combat Netflix by… introducing their own versions of Netflix.

Apple TV+ launched on November 1st. Disney+ follows on November 12th, and NBC and WarnerMedia will launch new streaming services in the spring. The days when you could have only, say, a Netflix and a Hulu subscription and have access to the majority of interesting work being done in television are long over. Every media conglomerate wants to own their own content, and thus to force you to subscribe to their unique service to access that content. To keep up with it all, you’ll eventually be spending as much or more than you would be for the old-fashioned cable bundle. 

Before Disney+ turns on the lights, we thought it was a good time to check in with some of the significant existing services, as well as these newcomers, to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of each — and whether they might be worth adding another monthly expense to your long list of subscriptions.

Netflix

Cost: $8.99/month (no HD, only one device at a time), $12.99/month (HD, two devices at a time), $15.99/month (Ultra HD, four devices at a time)

In a nutshell: More original series than anyone else — and some of them are actually excellent.

Netflix saw the streaming future first. Heck, it arguably built the streaming future that everyone else is racing to join. In the early days, before the rest of the business saw what was coming, Netflix had a vast catalog of great shows that had originated elsewhere. Starting in 2013 with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, the 800-pound gorilla of the streaming world began debuting its own exclusive series, building up an in-house library of titles to prepare for the inevitable moment when outside studios started buying back their old product. So The Office and Friends are leaving, but Netflix now has a few hundred original series (including comedies, dramas, kids’ shows, unscripted series, and foreign language programming) to help offset those departures.

The library still has some classics, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, with Seinfeld on the way in 2021. But as Netflix leans more and more on in-house content, it’s worth questioning how strong that content is. Netflix definitely has some capital-G Great shows, such as BoJack Horseman, or this year’s trifecta of Russian Doll, Unbelievable, and When They See Us. And there are a whole lot with a baseline of very good that can sometimes rise well above that, including Orange, Big Mouth, and GLOW. But there are also plenty of Netflix originals that top out at well-executed diversion (Stranger Things) and way too many (particularly, but certainly not limited to, Marvel shows like Luke Cage) that have promising elements and absolutely no idea how to tell a compelling story across a 10- to 13-episode season.

Between the cream of the originals and what’s left of the library titles, you will not lack for interesting options as you browse the endless Netflix interface. But given the enormous head start they had on everyone else, the quality gap’s not nearly as wide as you might expect.

Prime Video

Cost: Comes with an Amazon Prime subscription, which costs either $119/year (averaging out to $9.92/month), or $12.99/month if you don’t want to pay the annual fee (you can also get a 30-day free trial right now).

In a nutshell: You mainly care about the free shipping, but this is a nice bonus.

As the retail giant from which we get all our other stuff, Amazon should be easily dominating the streaming wars. Instead, the company’s vastness has oddly worked against Prime Video, to the point where many Amazon Prime subscribers don’t even know they get access to all this TV along with two-day shipping and Whole Foods discounts.

And it is a lot of TV, even if much of it feels mismatched. The library still contains access to many classic HBO series like The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but that deal should be expiring by the time HBO Max launches. (The deal has already been extended past its original end date; HBO did not return requests for clarification at press time.) There’s also an eclectic selection of shows not available on other streamers, including Hannibal, Justified, The Americans, Mr. Robot, and Downton Abbey.

Prime Video’s original series, meanwhile, offer a lot of Dad Content, with muscular literary adaptations like Bosch, Jack Ryan, and The Man in the High Castle as reminders that once upon a time, Amazon specialized in selling books. (It will shock no one to learn that Prime Video has a Jack Reacher show in the works. Hopefully, they’ll cast someone a wee bit taller than Tom Cruise this time.) But there are also Emmy winners like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Transparent, and Fleabag (which, like the great Catastrophe, is a British production that Amazon has exclusive streaming rights to), plus other intriguing experiments like the Julia Roberts thriller Homecoming.

Whenever the HBO shows skedaddle, Prime’s mix of library titles and original ones won’t be nearly as deep as Netflix’s. But there’s still a lot of interesting material here, and the X-Ray feature — where you can pause a show and immediately see which actors are in that scene, what song is playing, etc. — is by far the best value-add to any streaming service interface.

Hulu

Cost: $5.99/month (ad-supported), $11.99/month (no ads), $44.99/month (ad-supported, but with access to live TV), $50.99/month (no ads, with access to live TV). Get a free trial here.

In a nutshell: A fantastic library of past TV shows, plus easy access to a lot of what’s current. Plus, FX!

Hulu began life as a joint venture of ABC, Fox, and NBC to offer next-day streaming options for network shows like Grey’s Anatomy, House, and The Office. It still delivers that (though NBC’s current series may fly over to its proprietary service, Peacock, within a few years), but now has a lot more to choose from. (The live-TV option also makes it one of the easier ways to cut the cable cord while still getting sports, news, and other live programming.)

In particular, for those who care as much (if not more) about library content as original series, Hulu has so much to offer: classic dramas like ER, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Friday Night Lights, and St. Elsewhere; genre-bending favorites like Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The X-Files; great modern comedies like 30 Rock, Atlanta, Bob’s Burgers, and Better Things; even some of the best of recent kids’ TV like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. And today, Hulu announced that all current and future FX series, plus a decent chunk of the channel’s past output, will be joining the library.

The original content is spottier — especially if you checked out of Emmy winner The Handmaid’s Tale after too much ongoing misery — but there are a number of small gems like Casual, Pen15, Ramy, and the recent miniseries adaptation of Looking for Alaska. And now that FX will be supplying some of its original shows directly to Hulu — including Jeff Bridges in The Old Man, Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America, and Nick Offerman in Devs — that roster gets even stronger.

Disney has bought Fox, is starting up another streaming service (see below), and is buying out NBC’s stake in this one. So where does that leave Hulu going forward? It’s still a significant part of Disney’s plans — a bundle of Disney+, ESPN+, and ad-supported Hulu will be available for $12.99/month once Disney+ launches — and making FX a more prominent part of it helps differentiate the service from the more family-oriented Disney+. Being the FX of streaming is a very promising idea.

CBS All Access

Cost: $5.99/month (ad-supported), $9.99/month (ad-free). Try it free for 7 days here.

In a nutshell: Star Trek, Star Trek, and more Star Trek. Plus a few other things.

Streaming… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the service whose existence seems to anger people more than any other. Maybe it’s because Trekkies are annoyed they have to subscribe to yet another service to see the latest spinoff, Star Trek: Discovery. Or maybe the traditionally old-skewing nature of CBS makes consumers believe it shouldn’t be allowed to have its own subscription service. Whatever the reason, people get Mad Online whenever All Access is mentioned, whether they want to see Discovery, the excellent Good Wife spinoff The Good Fight, the Jordan Peele-produced Twilight Zone revival, or any of the service’s other odds and ends. (Heavier on the odd.)

A subscription also gives you access to current CBS programming, plus complete collections of some shows like NCIS. The back catalog of programming is solid, albeit mostly containing series available on several other services. (You can stream both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Cheers, for instance, on Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video, as well as on All Access.)

All Access isn’t going away, either. Discovery hasn’t entirely figured itself out (and has changed showrunners multiple times), but several more Star Trek spinoffs are in the works, highlighted by Patrick Stewart’s return to the franchise in Star Trek: Picard. That’s a show so hotly anticipated by Trekkers, they may not have any emotion left over to be annoyed that they have to pay extra to see it.

Apple TV+

Cost: $4.99/month (free for a year if you buy a new Apple phone, tablet, or computer)

In a nutshell: You get what you pay for — which ain’t much.

Apple TV+ has no library of pre-existing shows, so that five bucks (or no bucks, if you just upgraded your iPhone) gives you access only to only a handful of series for now, none of which are hugely impressive. The amount of original programming will expand over time, and maybe one of the upcoming series will be better than The Morning Show. But for the moment, Apple TV+ seems to be Apple’s vastly skimpier equivalent of Prime Video — an add-on to something customers have already paid for, that encourages them to spend more time in the company’s media ecosystem. (You can also use the Apple TV app to subscribe to the other streamers, for instance.)

Disney+ (Launches November 12th)

Cost: $6.99/month, or $69.99/year (averages out to $5.83/month). See plans here.

In a nutshell: Your childhood, streamed daily.

If this service never made an original, every parent in America who could afford to (and some who can’t) would still subscribe, just to give their kids access to the vast libraries of Disney, Pixar, and LucasFilm movies and shows. (My DuckTales-loving offspring, for instance, are giddy to see the original Nineties version, along with its Disney Afternoon companions like Darkwing Duck.)

But Disney+ will also have originals, starting with arguably the biggest rookie of all the new streamers: The Mandalorian, a Jon Favreau-produced Star Wars spinoff about a Boba Fett-esque gunslinger. (Disney has declined to screen episodes for critics, so we have no idea if it’s any good. But every Star Wars fan is going to watch the thing, at least at first.) Down the road, there will be new Marvel series — produced by, and featuring characters from, the MCU film division this time, rather than the unloved distant relatives that ran on ABC or Netflix — new shows based on other Disney properties, and more, more, more.

The price isn’t that much more than what Apple TV+ is charging, and you get exponentially more programming for that money. We’ll see about the interface, about the quality of all the planned Star Wars and Marvel shows, and about whether the price stays so cheap once Disney gets America hooked, but sight unseen, Disney+ is the only new entrant that looks even vaguely capable of competing on Netflix’s level.

Peacock (Launches April 2020)

Cost: Unclear, though it will be free (and ad-supported) to at least some cable subscribers

In a nutshell: Your favorite NBC-owned content, exclusively! Eventually!

A lot is still unknown about NBCUniversal’s awkwardly-named new service (based, of course, on the broadcast network’s longtime logo). Will it be free to everyone? To all cable subscribers? Just to Comcast customers? Will there be an ad-free option like Hulu and CBS All Access offer? Will the interface be any good? Ask again later on all this and more.

What we do know is that NBC intends to eventually migrate all the library series that it owns to Peacock; Parks and Recreation will be available exclusively here, for instance, starting in October 2020. (This is also one of those times where it’s useful to know which studio produced a show, rather than which network aired it. Friends and Seinfeld were two of the most iconic NBC sitcoms ever, but because they were produced by outside studios, they won’t be on Peacock.) In addition, new content — often based on pre-existing NBCUniversal property — will be in the works, including a Battlestar Galactica reboot from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, plus sequel series to Saved by the Bell and, of all things, Punky Brewster.

HBO Max (Launches May 2020)

Cost: $14.99/month; will be a free add-on for (some? all?) HBO cable subscribers

In a nutshell: Tony Soprano and Phoebe Buffay, together at last!

The name suggests an expansion of HBO NOW, which this new service will essentially replace, but it’s more complicated than that. HBO Max will attempt to bring multiple WarnerMedia properties under one streaming roof. So you’ll still have the entire HBO library (including some titles that were never part of the Prime Video deal, like Game of Thrones) and all new HBO shows going forward. But you’ll also have a lot of non-HBO shows like Friends, The West Wing, and The Big Bang Theory (which has never been on a streaming platform before), Search Party (migrating to Max after two seasons on TBS), and all the CW shows based on DC Comics characters. There will also be some outside library acquisitions (including the films of Studio Ghibli like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, plus animated series South Park and Rick and Morty, and BBC shows like Doctor Who and Luther), along with a wide swath of shows produced directly for HBO Max, including an adaptation of post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven and a new Dune series directed by Denis Villeneuve.

HBO NOW was already a good deal, given the access it provides to some of the greatest TV series ever made, along with more recent highlights like Veep and Watchmen. Getting all this other content for the same price makes it an even better deal. But getting HBO Max set up, and bringing all these disparate properties under one banner, also runs the risk of diluting the things that made HBO’s programming so special in the first place, particularly since many of the execs responsible for the cable giant’s previous classics have been sent packing in the transition to new ownership.

Newswire

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