Not only are television screens getting larger, but the number of must-watch shows is increasing across a growing assortment of on-demand streaming video services intent on persuading you to cut your cable TV cord.
By now everyone is familiar with streaming pioneers Netflix, the first to begin streaming in 2007, and Amazon Prime and Hulu, which both started streaming the following year. But faster internet speeds in large swaths of the country have persuaded more companies to tap into the expanding market.
Streaming allows viewers to select programs to watch on their own time and enables them to pause, rewind, easily turn on subtitles or even change the language of a show. Instead of making viewers wait a full week for a new episode, an entire season is often available at once for binge watching.
“The positive of the contemporary television environment is the sheer richness of content out there, of new material, and the easy availability of watching entire runs of shows 10, 20, 50 years old,” says Josh Jackson, assistant director of the media studies program at the University of California, Berkeley. “The downside is the research that has to go into determining who’s playing what and which $15-a-month streaming service is the best match for you.”
Ways to keep costs in check
For consumers, more options can mean more temptation, kind of like the by-the-pound buffet at the grocery store. To keep your budget in line, ask yourself: How many hours of TV do I want to watch in a month? Does a new service have enough shows I like to be worthwhile? What are a service’s terms of cancellation?
Some companies offer a free trial period, which can help you assess their programming, but they require a credit card to sign up. Keep in mind that you will be charged automatically if you don’t cancel your subscription before the free trial ends.
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But unlike cable television, streaming services don’t charge fees for installation or for starting or canceling service. So you can subscribe for just a month — as long as you remember to cancel before the next billing cycle — and resubscribe later, once the platform repopulates with new viewing choices.
Another option is bundling, which allows you to pay one price for two or three streaming platforms. This could lower your costs, but only if you like enough shows on every service you’ll be paying for as part of the bundle.
Cable TV channels, which often have ads, will continue to exist because “they serve their parent corporations a unique economic opportunity,” Jackson says. “Broadcast television is still the primary vehicle for advertisers to reach a massive audience quickly.”
But much of broadcast television relies on advertisers who prioritize viewers ages 18 to 49. And content is created to appeal to that age group. Streaming services might give older adults more opportunities to find the shows they want, he says.
“A subscription-based television environment that’s more concerned with numbers of subscribers and less concerned with demographics might provide a greater variety of shows that might value and target an older audience because their appeal to advertisers isn’t part of the equation,” Jackson says.
Streaming platform prices
Source: AARP research
Based on each platform’s least expensive monthly plan
The largest: Amazon Prime Video and Netflix
Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are the largest of the streaming services, based on number of U.S. subscribers, according to Wall Street Journal estimates provided by New York-based research firm MoffettNathanson. (Hulu and its majority owner since 2019, Disney+, are neck and neck in the third and fourth spots, depending on how you slice the data.)
Both Amazon and Netflix provide a variety of original shows and films, some of which have won top awards. Each platform carries additional movie and television options that have never been broadcast on the silver and small screens, but the services differ in a few ways:
•Amazon Prime Video requires an Amazon Prime account, which costs $14.99 a month. The company dropped the option to subscribe exclusively to its streaming service. However, you can rent or buy newly released television shows and movies individually without an Amazon Prime subscription.
• Netflix’s basic membership is $9.99 a month and is ad free. But the video quality is not high-definition unless you join its standard plan, at $15.49 a month.
What is it? Apple TV+ debuted the second season of its Emmy Award-winning The Morning Show in fall 2021, during the pandemic, and it was one of the first programs to premiere on the platform, in 2019. Most recently, CODA became the first movie made for a streaming service to win best picture at the Academy Awards. The service has no ads, and Apple says it comes out with new original programming each month.
How to access: Apple TV app (available on most Apple products and most smart TVs), PS4, Roku and Xbox One.
Price: One-week free trial, then $4.99 a month. Additionally, three months of the service come free with the purchase of a new Apple device.
What is it? BET+ provides a collection of dramas, movies and sitcoms featuring Black culture with more than 1,000 hours of ad-free viewing. This includes exclusive programming. such as documentaries, originals from Tyler Perry and specials from BET Networks.
How to access: Subscribe to BET+ through its website, or add it to your Amazon Prime Video account. View it on Android or Apple devices, some smart TVs and the web.
Price: One-week free trial, then $9.99 a month.
What is it? Discovery+ gives users access to current and former shows from Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Food Network, HGTV, Investigation Discovery (ID) and TLC. Exclusives and discovery+ originals feature personalities such as the Irwin family, Jonathan and Drew Scott, Bobby Flay and more. Popular television shows from A&E, the History channel and Lifetime are also available. A collection of the BBC’s natural history shows, like Planet Earth and Blue Planet, are available.
How to access: Apple and Amazon devices, Android TV, Chromecast, Roku, Samsung TVs, the web and Xbox. A full list is available here.
Price: With ads, $4.99 a month, or $6.99 a month without ads, after a seven-day free trial.
What is it? Disney, which oversees Marvel, National Geographic, Pixar and the Star Wars franchise, provides thousands of movies, such as the Broadway production of Hamilton, and shows to stream.
Programming includes documentaries, films and series for subscribers of all ages. Popular original programs include The Mandalorian; High School Musical: The Musical: The Series; and the nature documentary Elephant.
How to access: Android or Apple devices, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, most smart TVs, PS4, the web and Xbox One.
Price: No free trial. The service is $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year. Bundled with ESPN+ and Hulu (with ads), it’s $13.99 a month.
What is it? In addition to all of HBO’s programming, HBO Max features iconic shows, such as Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air; original programming; and movies, some available to stream while still in theaters, such as Dune and King Richard.
The platform has more than 10,000 hours of curated content, including third-party licensed movies and program favorites from Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, CNN, Crunchyroll, DC, Looney Tunes, New Line, Rooster Teeth, TBS, TNT, truTV, Turner Classic Movies and Warner Bros.
How to access: Android or Apple devices, Chromecast, PS4, most smart TVs, the web and Xbox One.
Price: With ads, $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year. Without ads, $14.99 a month or $149.99 a year, which allows you to download videos for viewing on the go and offers 4K ultra-high-definition, as available.
What is it? A streaming pioneer, Hulu has lost popularity as competition has increased, especially since Walt Disney Co. became majority owner three years ago. NBCUniversal owns the rest.
Hulu carries new episodes of some broadcast TV shows the day after they air. This includes content from ABC and Fox, which don’t have their own independent subscription services. (The networks do stream online but require an account that must be linked through an affiliated cable provider.) However, content from NBC is also carried on the platform, despite having its own streaming service, Peacock.
How to access: Android or Apple devices, Amazon Echo Show, Amazon Fire Stick and Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Roku, most smart TVs, the web, Xbox One and Xbox 360.
Price: With ads, $6.99 a month (one of the cheapest options); without ads, $12.99 a month.
What is it? The former CBS All Access has been rebranded as Paramount+. Users can continue to stream shows from BET, CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and the Smithsonian Channel, and live television from their local CBS station, CBS News, CBS Sports and Entertainment Tonight Live 24/7. The addition of Paramount means there are now films to stream after a short theatrical release and over 50 original series, including a revival of Frasier, Criminal Minds and the animated kids’ series Star Trek: Prodigy.
How to access: Android and Apple devices, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, PS4, Roku, most smart TVs, the web and Xbox One.
Price: Essential plan, with ads but no access to local live CBS programming, $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year. Premium plan, largely without ads, $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year. Both plans offer a one-week free trial period.
What is it? PBS Passport is the Public Broadcasting Service’s version of on-demand programming. While not all PBS shows are part of its library, it does include popular series such as Antiques Roadshow, Masterpiece and a rotating selection of Ken Burns films.
How to access: Android and Apple devices, Amazon Fire Stick, Amazon Fire TV, Android smart TVs, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and newer Roku TV models, and the web.
Price: Local PBS stations set their own rules for what donation amounts qualify for a Passport membership benefit. Generally, donors need to give at least $60 a year or $5 a month as a sustaining member.
What is it? Peacock includes shows from MSNBC and NBC, along with its own original series like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot, Bel Air, and a dramatized version of the Tiger King story, Joe vs. Carole. The service’s film catalog includes some classic franchises and recent hits that appeal to a variety of ages.
How to access: Android and Apple smart devices, AppleTV, Chromecast, PS4, Roku, most smart TVs, the web and Xbox One.
Price: Peacock is free but has commercials. For $4.99 a month after a one-week free trial, you can get extra movie options, live sports and next-day access to NBC programming. For $9.99 a month, you can watch ad-free and get access to select titles you can watch offline on mobile devices.
What is it? Showtime lauds its original series, hit movies, documentaries and sports programming. Most recently, the breakout hit Yellowjackets and the revival of cult favorite Dexter have locked in viewers’ attention.
How to access: Android and Apple smart devices, AppleTV, Chromecast, PS4, Roku, most smart TVs, the web, Xbox One and even Oculus VR devices.
Price: After a 30-day free trial, $3.99 a month promotional rate for the first three months, then $10.99 a month, ad-free. Bundled with Paramount+’s essential plan, $11.99 a month.
For the sports junkie
Finding the right channel to watch your favorite team can be frustrating, especially right before a big game. Fortunately, streaming provides options for sports fans, too.
• ESPN+ costs $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year and offers live events, original shows and acclaimed programs, such as the entire library of 30 for 30 documentaries about significant people and events in sports history.
• At $69.99 a month, fuboTV is one of the more expensive but most comprehensive options for sports fans. It features all the major broadcast networks, national sports league channels and even some entertainment options. It comes with cloud DVR, meaning you can record and watch programs from anywhere at any time without purchasing additional equipment.
A different type of streaming
If you want to ditch cable or satellite TV altogether, a variety of streaming services offer live channels, often for less than the cost of a cable subscription.
On-demand films, documentaries for AARP members
AARP Members Only Access offers exclusive and premium content for members, including a rotating selection of on demand full-length films and documentaries, as part of your AARP membership. Other content available includes celebrity interviews, Spotify playlists from legendary musicians, popular books and AARP Smart Guides.
How to access: Log in and create an account with AARP.org using your AARP membership number. You can view the material on your PC or Mac or cast it to a bigger screen such as your TV.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.