Deciding which streaming services to subscribe to is daunting. Here’s what you need to know.
The streaming wars are well and truly upon us.
And they’ve become radically more complicated in just the past year. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon — the big fish in a small pond — are still making big moves (especially in the original programming game). The slightly younger CBS All Access is still the streaming home of CBS programming, of Star Trek, and of The Good Fight (one of TV’s best shows).
But the past seven months have heralded the arrival of Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock, all pulling on their wetsuits to take a dip in a pond that seems to have less room by the day. When you consider that this census of streaming services doesn’t account for the scores of boutique options out there (to say nothing of streaming extensions of TV channels, like the Showtime and Starz apps), you begin to realize just how difficult it can be to figure out where to spend your streaming dollars.
Allow us to help. Vox’s Culture writers have surveyed the eight biggest names in the game — Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, CBS All Access, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Peacock, and Netflix — to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each one. If you’re a TV fan, some options will be better for you than others. The same is true if you’re a movie fan or someone who just likes to watch original programming.
We’ve done our best to assess who each service is “for,” and though we’re still in the early days of several of these services — HBO Max, for example, launched in late May, and Peacock just launched in July — it’s possible to see the outline of how the streaming battles will only intensify in the years to come. Read on for our rundown of which services you might find most appealing, depending on your personal viewing preferences.
The basic setup: The heavy hitter, with a vast catalog of buzzy original content; movies and TV shows largely from the past few decades; and cinema and TV from around the world.
Originals: Though Netflix started out as a DVD-by-mail service distributing other companies’ films, it’s really built its current business on its original content. And that content can be very good, extremely bad, or anywhere in between. But on the whole, its scale is impressive.
Netflix’s strong run of successful TV shows speaks for itself, starting with House of Cards in 2013 and expanding into shows that became so popular that you probably felt left out if you weren’t watching them: Orange Is the New Black, The Crown, Stranger Things, Ozark, GLOW, Master of None, Russian Doll. Netflix also boasts successful docuseries, particularly true crime (Making a Murderer, Tiger King) and food-related (Salt Fat Acid Heat, Nailed It!, Chef’s Table) and stand-up comedy specials, the list of which is nearly endless.
And while a lot of Netflix original films are thoroughly forgettable, it’s found a lot of success in a few genres, including romantic comedies, excellent foreign dramas, and Adam Sandler movies (yes, that’s a whole genre). The service’s documentary selection is pretty strong, often focusing on films with a socially or politically conscious angle (like Knock Down the House, Strong Island, American Factory, and Crip Camp). Netflix has also converted more than a few A-list directors who might have been reticent to release their films primarily to a streaming service — like Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), Tamara Jenkins (Private Life), and Alfonso Cuarón (Roma) — with its deep pockets and willingness to stay hands-off throughout the production process.
Back catalog: Netflix’s back catalog is stronger in TV than in film. The service has some big-ticket shows — like Cheers, The Office, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, and Community — as well as earlier seasons of shows that are currently airing (like Better Call Saul). You can watch everything from Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone to The Andy Griffith Show and Thomas & Friends on Netflix. The service is also particularly good at distributing foreign TV shows (such as Babylon Berlin) and making them visible to an American audience, and vice versa for other markets.
When it comes to films, though, Netflix heavily favors movies from about 1980 forward, with an emphasis on very recent films. (The “classics” section includes Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with a few older Westerns scattered throughout.) That’s good news if you just want to catch up on all the movies you’ve been meaning to see from the past few decades — you can watch The Social Network, Avengers: Infinity War, The Matrix, or Inception on Netflix right now — but less great if you’re exploring film history.
The pros: Chances are, if you have any streaming subscriptions, you probably already have Netflix. But if you don’t, it’s worth checking out just to be in on the cultural conversation, and for the endless number of originals that are worth catching up on. Netflix also has a deep well of kid-friendly content.
The cons: If you’re a film buff, Netflix’s selection can be infuriating, and it can be hard to find new releases that might interest you if you’re not paying close attention. Netflix also rarely produces commentaries or interviews related to its original movies and shows, which is disappointing if you’re looking to take a deep dive.
Best for: Pretty much everyone: families, bored people, anyone who wants to get in on the Netflix original conversations, fans of bingeable TV shows, and movie lovers.
Cost: There are three tiers of Netflix subscriptions. $8.99 per month will let you watch on one screen at a time in standard definition, and download some videos to one phone or tablet. For $12.99 per month, you can watch on two screens simultaneously, in full HD in many cases, and download to two phones or tablets. $15.99 per month bumps you up to four screens at once (handy if your whole family wants to watch different things), in full HD or ultra HD (4K), and download videos to four devices. You can also add a plan (between $7.99 and $14.99 per month, depending on the options you choose) to receive discs or Blu-ray by mail, which expands the back catalog capabilities considerably. —Alissa Wilkinson
The basic setup: The best streaming service for TV fans spent the first half of 2020 quietly getting even better.
Original programming: For years and years and years, Hulu existed in the shadows of Netflix and even Amazon Prime Video when it came to original TV series. Most of its efforts fizzled out, and even the occasional Casual or Difficult People — good shows both — was more of a niche hit than anything else.
Then came The Handmaid’s Tale. The massive hit, based on Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, debuted in 2017, won a whole mess of Emmys, and put Hulu’s original series on the map in a big way. Since then, not all of the service’s shows have been hits — its miniseries adaptation of Catch-22 was an unfortunate miss — but it’s put out a surprisingly strong slate, including the winning teen comedy PEN15, the thoughtful slice-of-life series Ramy, and the gorgeously intricate adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. And, honestly, that’s just for starters.
Beyond Hulu’s own originals, the service is also the streaming home of many of FX’s original series. When you consider that FX is perhaps second only to HBO in terms of creating tremendous television across literal decades of history, Hulu having so many FX shows becomes a huge notch in its favor. And recent FX series like Mrs. America and Devs were exclusive to “FX on Hulu”; because FX is still developing and making these shows, their quality can remain as consistent as FX’s shows traditionally have been, while airing on the more easily accessible Hulu platform.
Hulu also has a bunch of really great documentary films, many of which (like 2018’s Minding the Gap) are Hulu originals. The service doesn’t have the original film output of Netflix or Amazon, but it’s certainly no slouch, especially if you love nonfiction filmmaking.
Back catalog: Hulu has long been the best streaming service for TV. It was started by two TV networks — NBC and Fox — and quickly brought in ABC as well. And though its roots in television are evident in some ways viewers may not always appreciate (its embrace of weekly episodic releases), those roots also mean it’s the one service that seems to place a huge premium on cultivating an extensive TV library.
Hulu has so many classic TV shows. Do you wanna watch Lost? That’s here. How about ER? Yep. Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Of course! Designing Women? Golden Girls? 30 Rock? Yes, yes, and yes. Bob’s Burgers? Insert burger-related pun meaning “yes” here! To list all the classic TV shows available exclusively on Hulu would take up hundreds more words. Suffice to say, if you are a TV fan of long standing, Hulu is easily your best bet.
And, hey, if you just want to watch reruns of what’s on TV right now, Hulu is the best place for that, too, considering it’s got next-day reruns of most ABC, NBC, and Fox shows, along with several other series that don’t air on those networks.
The pros: In case I haven’t made it clear, Hulu is a wonderful place to watch great television, from the classics of the medium’s history to original series created by Hulu’s programming team to the many series created by the crack team at FX. Add to those the next-day reruns of some of the best broadcast TV shows and you have a service that, to my mind, is pretty unbeatable if you’re a TV fan.
There’s less on Hulu for movie fans, but the service usually has a number of recent Hollywood hits, and its nonfiction offerings are considerable and diverse.
The cons: If you don’t pay a few extra bucks for Hulu’s ad-free tier, the many, many ads are irritating, ubiquitous, and repetitive (as in you’ll see the same ad dozens of times during a 30 Rock marathon). And, again, if you want to watch lots of movies, this probably won’t be the service for you. Finally, if you live anywhere but the US and a handful of other countries, you don’t have access to Hulu. It’s one of the services outlined in this story that isn’t global.
Also, Hulu recently became a subsidiary of Disney, instead of existing in the weird netherworld of being owned by several networks at the same time, as it had for most of its history. So far, it’s doing what it’s always done, but that might change as Disney asserts more control over the service.
Best for: Major TV fans.
Cost: Hulu Basic is $5.99 per month, but it has lots of ads. Hulu Premium is $11.99 per month and is worth it for the (almost) complete lack of ads. (A small handful of programs have one ad at the beginning and one ad at the end, due to old deals made with networks and studios.) Hulu also has two packages that offer live TV, for $54.99 per month on top of the Basic plan or $60.99 per month on top of the Premium plan. (This could be a good way to get what amounts to a “cable subscription” alongside a streaming subscription.) Finally, a bundle including Hulu with ads, Disney+, and ESPN+ will run you $12.99 a month. The same bundle but with ad-free Hulu costs $18.99 per month. —Emily VanDerWerff
The basic setup: Amazon Prime members can have a little bit of streaming video, as a treat.
Original programming: Amazon has that billionaire money behind it, and Prime Video benefits. The House that Bezos Built is able to funnel cash into producing a number of original TV series with heavy-hitter creative teams attached, and to acquire movies on the film festival circuit that will be contenders during awards season, making some corners of its library extra-compelling.
Among the shows Amazon has garnered attention for are Transparent, the identity-probing dramedy that was its first breakout hit; the 1950s-set period dramedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; and the irreverent, British dramedies Fleabag and Catastrophe. (There are theoretically other shows on Amazon that are just dramatic or just comedic and not both, but I’m hard-pressed to think of them.)
Amazon’s also got a few high-profile nonfiction original series, like the Jordan Peele-produced docuseries about Lorena Bobbit and — on the other side of the spectrum — Project Runway’s heir apparent Making the Cut, co-hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. (The Grand Tour from the Top Gear folks is another popular exclusive.) In the margins are perfectly fine shows that aren’t quite as much to write home about, from Goliaths and Homecoming to Mozart in the Jungle, Sneaky Pete, and Upload.
On the movie side, recent awards contenders from Amazon Studios include Manchester by the Sea, The Big Sick, and Honey Boy. Amazon has also been theatrical distributor for several international and documentary films of note, like The Handmaiden, Human Flow, I Am Not Your Negro, Les Miserables, One Child Nation, and The Salesman — all of which are well-regarded and very much fall into the “prestige” category, if that is important to you.
Back catalog: Here’s the thing: Amazon has a huge and varied library of TV and movies to rent or purchase à la carte — no subscription required. But if you’re an Amazon Prime member, a lot of that same content is available to stream for no additional cost. America’s Next Top Model, Bones, House, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Mr. Robot, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and SpongeBob SquarePants are some highlights that represent the breadth of TV shows on offer. There are also options to add on content from certain TV channels, like HBO and Nickelodeon, for an additional monthly cost.
Amazon has a decent collection of both older and newer films. You can stream The Avengers (the first one, that is), Pretty in Pink, and Zombieland with your Prime Video subscription, but you can also stream classics like The Conversation, Roman Holiday, and Stop Making Sense — relative oldies of the type that Netflix hasn’t shown much interest in for quite some time.
The pros: Amazon Prime Video’s movie library is easily the most impressive part of the service. It’s a great way to dip into the history of cinema, and there’s a good mix of acclaimed documentaries and international films too, many of which are hard to find on other services. That also goes for recent smaller releases — independent films you might have only learned about when they were nominated for a bunch of awards and have wanted to watch ever since.
As for TV, when an Amazon original TV show is good, it’s really, really good. Like, you should probably watch Fleabag immediately if you haven’t yet. And the ability to add on content that is otherwise exclusive to other networks and streaming services (like CBS All Access, HBO, Showtime) is a nice flex.
One tiny feature that’s unique and fun: When you pause most shows or movies, a pop-up will show you who the actors are in the scene and the names of the characters they’re playing. Very helpful for anyone who’s always like, “Who’s that guy again?” a.k.a. all of us TV/movie nerds.
The cons: The majority of Amazon’s third-party TV content — anything that isn’t an Amazon original series — is available to stream elsewhere, and other services sometimes have more episodes available of a given series than Prime does. (SpongeBob, however, is notably not streaming anywhere but Amazon.) The Prime interface is also pretty lousy if you want to watch anything that isn’t an Amazon-produced original series; it’s as if the platform intentionally discourages users from even trying to explore your options.
Additionally, rentable content is mixed in with streaming options, with only a small label delineating between what’s free for Amazon Prime members and what you have to pay extra for, even if you’re one of those members. There have been many times where I’ve been excited to see that a newish movie is available on Prime Video, only to find out that I have to rent it like any old plebe.
And since you can already rent or buy almost all TV shows and movies on Amazon (just like you can on services like iTunes and Vudu), it’s maybe not worth your while if you aren’t interested in the original programming — especially if you’re averse to giving Amazon (and Jeff Bezos) any of your money.
Best for: People who already subscribe to Amazon Prime; fans of classic, independent, or international films.
The basic setup: You liked HBO? Here’s a product from mostly different people with HBO in the name!
Original programming: HBO Max is a “best of times, worst of times” kind of streaming service. As the streaming home of HBO television shows and movies, it’s the place to go to watch the network’s many, many great shows, from the upcoming Lovecraft Country to the currently running (and quite good) obscurity Betty. HBO is one of the few networks actively making programming in other countries instead of just acquiring it from other countries (Netflix is kind of the only other service that produces its own non-English language series on a wide scale). It’s a regular player at the Emmys. It’s the home of Succession, of Barry, of Watchmen, as well as a huge catalog of even older classic programs like The Sopranos and The Wire. HBO is perhaps the most prestigious name in American TV for a reason.
But HBO Max isn’t just HBO. If you just want HBO, you can subscribe to either the cable channel or its standalone streaming app, which is also called HBO. Both cost the same as HBO Max and feature less content. If you subscribe to HBO Max, you want all the other stuff, right?
Well, HBO Max has its own programming team. And once you get beyond the HBO catalog, HBO Max is a bit of a wasteland for original programming. There are some new Looney Tunes shorts. There’s Love Life, an Anna Kendrick rom-com TV series that is pretty mediocre. There’s a talk show featuring Elmo from Sesame Street. There’s a documentary about sexual misconduct allegations against Russell Simmons. Eventually, there will be new seasons of the TBS black comedy Search Party. There’s some reality show stuff.
And that’s … kind of it. HBO Max has been hit hard by pandemic-related production shutdowns, so many of the original series it was going to roll out over the next several months have been put on hold, leaving the service almost entirely reliant on HBO to provide it with original programming. But this was supposed to be HBO Max. There was supposed to be other stuff!
Fortunately for all of us …
Back catalog: Here is where HBO Max shines. The service boasts a huge collection of programming from the WarnerMedia library — including stuff from Warner Bros., HBO, and the Turner cable networks (among others). It also offers a whole bunch of programming licensed from other studios. (Curiously, HBO Max seems to have a lot of movies owned by Disney in its library.)
Most notable for many customers will be Friends, which is now exclusively available to stream on HBO Max. But if you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, it’s here. So is Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. So is Doctor Who. So is the Studio Ghibli catalog (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.). So is a curated list of titles from the Turner Classic Movies library (something that will instantly put HBO Max leaps and bounds ahead of most other streaming services, which too often ignore classic film fans). So are dozens upon dozens of other titles. If you are primarily interested in streaming services for their back catalogs, HBO Max might be your best bet.
The pros: Hey, guess what, HBO is still a programming powerhouse, and HBO Max having the complete HBO library is a powerful argument in its favor if you’re not already subscribed to one HBO service or another. But even beyond HBO programming, HBO Max’s massive catalog of iconic titles from TV and film is going to look mighty tempting even before you factor in that HBO Max lured Studio Ghibli onto streaming (something that seemed incredibly unlikely to ever happen right up until HBO Max made it happen). The Studio Ghibli films and the Turner Classic Movies library will be more than enough for many film fans. The TV offerings (outside of HBO) aren’t as extensive, but Friends alone will be a huge reason to subscribe for many.
The cons: HBO Max, at least in the early going, is incredibly hard to discover programming on, either surfacing too few titles onto its main screens or making you scroll through endless alphabetical lists to find something you want to watch. If you want to watch brand new, original programming, that’s going to be a slower ramp-up than HBO Max probably expected. And it stinks that the vast, incredible TCM library is only going to be available to subscribers a few films at a time. (Seriously, what would it hurt to put all of those movies up at once?) Finally, if you’re currently an HBO cable channel or HBO app subscriber, it could be trickier than you’d want to upgrade to HBO Max (though you probably should), depending on where you subscribe.
Best for: Big-time movie fans; people who instinctively start humming the Sopranos theme after hearing the “AHHHHH” over the HBO logo; anybody who wants to watch an Elmo talk show.
Cost: $14.99 per month, though there may be numerous deals available depending on your cable provider. (If you’re already an HBO subscriber, you might already be rolled over to HBO Max automatically. You should check!) —EV
The basic setup: The entire House of Mouse all under a single roof, from animated masterpieces to Pixar’s modern classics, the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes, the Disney Channel TV library, National Geographic shows and documentaries, and 1950s and 1960s live-action movies you’ve never heard of.
Original programming: Meager. The original programming on Disney+ mostly consists of TV series based on popular Disney-owned properties: Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian; planned shows centered on Marvel characters like Captain America’s sidekicks Falcon and Winter Soldier; and the very meta High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. There are also documentary series like Encore!, where adults return to their high school days to re-stage musicals they performed as teenagers; The Imagineering Story, focused on the people who work on the various rides and attractions at Disney theme parks; and various shows about nature and wildlife. Additionally, there’s a small slate of family-friendly original movies, including YA novel adaptations (Stargirl) and live-action remakes of classic animated films (Lady and the Tramp). But if you’re not already steeped in the world of all things Disney (and Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar), none of these original shows or films will be very accessible, and there aren’t many more options.
Back catalog: Extensive. Disney+ is the only place where you can watch nearly every single animated and live-action film by Disney or one of the major movie studios it owns, from the iconic (the entire Star Wars film franchise! All the Disney animated classics from its late-’80s-to-mid-’90s golden age!) to the obscure (what the heck is Fuzzbucket?). It also boasts a large number of Disney Channel TV shows and movies. And then on top of that there are the entire Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel libraries (except for Sony-owned Spider-Man), plus a whole slew of content from National Geographic. Oh, and every season of The Simpsons, thanks to Disney’s acquisition of Fox in 2019.
The pros: If you’ve got kids or are a nostalgic fan of the House of Mouse, the overwhelming amount of Disney animated classics will certainly appeal. Same goes for the Disney Channel movies, if you were young and obsessed with them during the 2000s. And the Star Wars, Pixar, and Marvel movies are obviously big sells if they align with your personal preferences and fandoms. The Mandalorian is a lot of fun, and it gave the internet its lord and savior Baby Yoda; meanwhile, the upcoming Marvel TV shows look promising.
But for me, what Disney+ is best for is endlessly watching episodes of The Simpsons. That show is the one thing on the subscription service that infinitely rewards rewatching, and it’s easy to put on any ol’ season and just leave it running for the rest of the day. (And I’m so grateful that the original 4:3 aspect ratio is now available.)
The cons: My biggest complaint about Disney+ is that its biggest sell is its library of things you probably have already seen 100 times. I love The Lion King — I used to watch it every day after school — and it’s nice to have it easily accessible, just as a comforting presence. But at age 26, I have few plans to watch that movie again any time soon, and the same is true for all the other Disney movies I love.
None of the originals available right now merit a monthly Disney+ subscription on their own, and the upcoming shows and films that Disney has announced thus far will only boost the unique content on the platform by a smidgen.
With that said, I’m a childless 20-something — not the ideal Disney+ subscriber, based on what’s on offer right now. It is families who ultimately stand to gain the most from a Disney+ subscription. Most kids have gone at least partway down the Mickey Mouse-shaped rabbit hole in our Disneyfied world, through branded everyday merchandise, Disney pop stars, and the ubiquity of Frozen. And even though the desire to watch and rewatch the same stuff is an ageless one, kids tend to have more patience and interest in repeat Toy Story 4 viewings any day of the week.
Best for: Families who are (re)discovering the classic Disney movie canon, or Star Wars/Marvel fans who like to pick apart the movies on a regular basis. Also: Fans of The Simpsons.
Cost: $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year. Alternatively, you can subscribe to a bundle that includes Disney+, Hulu (with ads), and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month, or $18.99 for the same bundle but with ad-free Hulu instead. —AF
The basic setup: Do you smile a bit when you hear the NBC chime? Guess what! There’s a streaming service for that!
Original programming: Peacock’s closest comparison point might be HBO Max. In the same way that HBO Max is the streaming home of WarnerMedia’s vast archives, Peacock exists mostly to leverage programming from the enormous NBCUniversal back catalog. It boasts tons of famous comedies and dramas (including endlessly rewatchable mystery shows like Murder She Wrote and Columbo), and in 2021, it will become the exclusive home to The Office, which has been a big draw on Netflix.
Also like HBO Max, Peacock’s creation of original programming has been hindered by the production shutdown spurred by Covid-19. So when the service launched on July 15, it offered only a handful of original shows.
And those original shows are … fine? The service (for me, at least) has been a bit glitchy, with those glitches predominantly hitting the original programming, which doesn’t make for a particularly smooth viewing experience. But even under perfect conditions, I can’t imagine I’d be too taken with Peacock’s reimagining of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the Instagram filter era (the new series updates the original text just enough to be frustrating when it keeps lots of other elements from it that feel vaguely nonsensical in 2020, like a terror at the idea of monogamy being outlawed) or the pleasant but unremarkable comedy Intelligence.
Peacock has also launched with a handful of nonfiction programs, in particular a documentary series starring Ryan Lochte that seems as though it was designed to benefit from an Olympics boost that won’t materialize with the games postponed to 2021. (Every streaming service has had production plans thrown into disarray by the pandemic; only Peacock seems to have lost an entire cornerstone of its launch strategy, which was planned to revolve around the Olympics.)
But one of the real reasons to check out original programming on Peacock is to find the ways it replicates just … watching TV. The service has multiple channels for NBC’s news and sports and late-night programming, and you can just sit there and watch them stream by, as if you were watching regular old TV. It’s not a particularly revolutionary idea, but it’s well handled, and I expect it to become a bigger staple of Peacock in the future. It’s at least a new (old) idea for a streaming service.
Back catalog: As with HBO Max, Peacock has a really extensive array of TV shows and films, many of which are beloved for one reason or another. If you adore classic NBC comedies like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Cheers, they’re all here. (Though if you want to watch Friends, Seinfeld, or Community, they’re all on different streaming services.) There are plenty of terrific dramas available, too, like the aforementioned Columbo, which is perhaps the best detective drama ever made, and the ever-amazing Battlestar Galactica remake from the 2000s.
But Peacock’s back catalog is … patchier. Many of the shows most strongly associated with NBC (like, again, Friends) are actually owned by other companies with their own streaming services (in this case, WarnerMedia and HBO Max), which means they aren’t streaming on Peacock. At present, the service has way too many one-season flop series, few of which fall into the “one-season wonder” category.
Movie-wise, the platform is slightly more exciting, with plenty of famous Universal horror films from the 1930s and ’40s (like Bride of Frankenstein) and a variety of more modern hits, including the first three Jurassic Park movies. Its offerings aren’t as extensive as those in the HBO Max catalog, but there’s plenty to watch all the same.
The pros: The attempt to turn a streaming service into a collection of traditional TV networks is a smart idea, executed (mostly) well, and it feels like a good way to get around the fact that having too many choices can make it hard for viewers to just pick something to watch already. The more these channels are programmed by folks who have cool and idiosyncratic ideas of how to use the NBCUniversal catalog to showcase cool stuff, the more they’ll become their best selves.
The other big pro is that Peacock has three separate tiers — a completely free tier with copious ads, a mid-budget tier with a few ads, and an expensive tier with no ads. The “free tier” option feels like a potential game changer to me, if Peacock can nail the mix of ads to programming and particularly if it can sell enough ads to not have to air the same five or six over and over and over again, a problem that bedevils other ad-supported streaming services.
(I should note that not all of Peacock’s programming is available as part of the free tier, but most of it seems to be.)
The cons: Peacock’s library just isn’t there yet. There’s a ton of good stuff, but when you actually start digging through it, there’s not as much good stuff as there is on HBO Max, Hulu, or Netflix. Still, with a free tier available, it’s worth perusing from time to time as the service continues to add programming. In some ways, Peacock’s 2020 launch feels like a prelude to when the service gains exclusive rights to The Office, at which point it will hopefully have its feet under it.
Best for: People for whom the phrase “must-see TV” spurs contented sighs.
Cost: The baseline plan is completely free. The mid-tier plan is $4.99 a month. The most expensive plan is $9.99 a month. (According to Peacock, the most expensive tier does contain ads in a few programs due to streaming deals that are specific to those programs, but I have yet to encounter any.) —EV
The basic setup: Apple’s tentative foray into the streaming world, sort of confusingly named after its set-top box.
Original programming: Apple TV+ is an interesting case in that almost all of its content is original and exclusive. Not that there’s much of it available: Apple TV+ only has about 25 shows on offer. Most of those are adult-oriented and totally melodramatic, like Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon’s over-the-top, inside-TV-baseball thriller The Morning Show and Chris Evans’s Defending Jacob, a maudlin adaptation of a popular crime novel. (There’s also Jason Momoa’s wretched See, an expensive fantasy show gunning for the title of “the next Game of Thrones” with zero success.)
The comedies fare much better. Dickinson is a funny and affecting standout, with Hailee Steinfeld as a teen Emily Dickinson in a fun mashup of 19th-century life with contemporary style. The anthology series Little America, from Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, has also been widely well-received. (Disclosure: Little America is co-produced by Epic, which is owned by Vox Media.) And the newest addition is Central Park, a musical-comedy cartoon from the Bob’s Burgers crew that seems pretty dang delightful.
Otherwise, there are a few shows for kids, like a Sesame Street spinoff focused on STEM and a reboot of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock series. Oprah’s Book Club is also a monthly show.
Back catalog: There isn’t one. Well, except for the entire run of Fraggle Rock, from the show’s HBO days. The original series ran for five seasons and 96 episodes — more than half the number of episodes of all of Apple’s original shows combined. (The Apple TV+ app does give you access to rentals via iTunes, but that doesn’t require a subscription.)
The pros: The comedies are genuinely entertaining, even provocative. If it were on any other platform, Dickinson would likely be a huge hit, especially with the Tumblr teens. Same goes for Little America, a critically beloved show that’s held back by its very restrictive and unexciting platform.
Also, the Apple TV+ website and app are both very pretty, if that matters to you.
The cons: Apple TV+ suffers from the biggest issue a streaming service can have: There’s not much to watch. Once you finish the few gems, that’s it. Nothing on Apple TV+ is made for rewatching, especially since so much of what’s there is heavy drama. And without any ol’ TV standbys to tune into when you’re content-starved, there’s no reason to visit Apple TV+ on a regular basis. For the most part, Apple is riding on name recognition and the fallacy that “prestige” drama automatically equals good drama. (It does not.)
Best for: The Apple faithful, especially since any new Apple device purchase currently includes a free one-year subscription to Apple TV+. That means tons of people are eligible to at least try out the service for a while.
Cost: $4.99 per month, or $49.99 per year. There’s also a free, one-year subscription available to anyone who purchases a new Apple device. —AF
The basic setup: A range of shows from throughout CBS’s history are on offer, including a few quality originals. Also: football.
Original programming: There’s a small selection of decent originals on CBS All Access — 12 in total, which might sound paltry to Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Netflix subscribers. The most eye-catching shows are either revivals or spinoffs of popular franchises: A remake of The Twilight Zone (with Jordan Peele as executive producer); The Good Fight, a spinoff of CBS’s beloved The Good Wife; Star Trek: Discovery; and Star Trek: Picard. Each of those shows has some scintillating buzz, like Peele’s name or the return of Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, or a built-in fanbase — as a Good Wife fan, I would probably subscribe to CBS All Access for The Good Fight alone.
A pretty entertaining show that slinks by without as much fanfare is Marc Cherry’s Why Women Kill. It’s a murder mystery wrapped in camp, with delectable costumes and an absolutely wild turn from Lucy Liu as ’80s socialite Simone, a performance that’s essentially Joan Collins-style drag. Cherry, known for creating Desperate Housewives, taps into his earlier show’s same spirit of unsatisfied women living secret lives (and some resorting to murder to escape them) — but with less restraint.
Back catalog: I’ve gotten to the point in the coronavirus quarantine where I’ll watch Parvati’s blindside of J.T. on Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains (season 20, which aired in 2010) over and over again, just to feel something. And if you, like me, feel a strong loyalty toward Survivor, its 40 seasons, and its more than 550 contestants to date, you could lose yourself in the Survivor catalog alone.
Keeping in the reality television vein, the streaming platform has 746 episodes of Big Brother and 122 episodes of Undercover Boss.
Notably missing are episodes of The Amazing Race. All Access doesn’t have full episodes of the show, while Amazon Prime has seasons 1 through 29. If you’re a fan of CBS scripted series like The Big Bang Theory or CSI, you’ll also be disappointed to learn that, while originally airing on CBS, neither show is available in its entirety on All Access (CSI has three seasons available; The Big Bang Theory will stream exclusively on HBO Max instead). The beloved comedy How I Met Your Mother is also notably absent.
All Access also has a random but enjoyable assortment of movies available to stream, ranging from A Clockwork Orange to A League of Their Own, Gattaca, all three Godfather movies, and Save the Last Dance 2.
The pros: If you’re a fan of Survivor, Big Brother, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, or the work of the showrunner duo known as the Kings (Robert and Michelle King) like The Good Fight and Evil, you can absolutely not go wrong with CBS All Access. The back catalog for most of the network’s TV titles is also extensive.
Fans of sports, those fun athletic events canceled before the pandemic hit, can stream every NFL game once those return, whenever that may be. CBS All Access also grants viewers live access to awards shows that air on CBS, like the Grammys and the Tonys.
There’s also a lot more content — 30,000 episodes’ worth — to look forward to in the future, as the CBS-Viacom merger will eventually bring shows from Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, Comedy Central, and the Smithsonian Channel to the platform.
Finally, there’s a slew of classic television series available including I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Twin Peaks. 7th Heaven (which started in 1996) and JAG (1995) also appear in the classics section, presumably to remind us we are all constantly aging.
The cons: Because CBS sold the streaming rights to some of its biggest shows, signature CBS stuff like The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, the full series of CSI, and The Amazing Race won’t be found on CBS All Access.
And given that the platform is so CBS-specific, there’s not a huge variety of non-CBS shows or tons of original programming like there is on Netflix or Hulu. If you aren’t already a fan of CBS shows or Star Trek, you may not be swayed by the current catalog. You might be better served by waiting for its expanded catalog — shows from all those Viacom networks — to kick in (reportedly by this summer), or by using CBS All Access as a supplement to another platform.
Best for: CBS and classic TV diehards who are overwhelmed by the constant influx of new, exclusive content released on platforms like Netflix and Hulu. Football fans, too.
Cost: $5.99 per month with commercials, $9.99 per month commercial-free. Both come with a one-week free trial. —Alex Abad-Santos
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