What You Need to Know About TV Streaming Services
More than a dozen options include Apple TV+, BET+, Disney+, HBO Max, PBS Passport
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.
Everyone is familiar with streaming pioneers Netflix, the first in 2007; Amazon Prime and Hulu, which both started in 2008. But faster internet speeds in large swaths of the country have persuaded more companies to join in.
Streaming allows viewers to select programs to watch when they wish and enables them to pause, rewind, turn on subtitles or change the language. Instead of making viewers wait a week for a new episode, a 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.
Unlike cable television, streaming services don’t charge fees for installation or for starting or canceling service. So you can subscribe for 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.
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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.
That means shows such as 1923, the prequel to Yellowstone, on Paramount+; Dead to Me, with Christina Applegate, 51, on Netflix; and The White Lotus on HBO can become a part of your watch list.
Streaming platform prices
Source: AARP research
Based on each platform’s least expensive monthly plan, excluding promotional pricing.
The largest: Amazon Prime Video and Netflix
Amazon Prime Video surpassed Netflix as the streaming service with the most subscribers based on estimates through September 2022, according to Dallas-based research firm Parks Associates. Hulu and its majority owner since 2019, Disney+, are third and fourth.
Both Amazon and Netflix provide 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 is available without an Amazon Prime account at $8.99 a month. However, when signing up from the Prime Video page you must change the default plan to avoid bundling in Amazon Prime’s standard delivery service. Meanwhile, users can rent or buy newly released television shows and movies individually without an Amazon subscription.
• Netflix recently rolled out a membership option with ads at $6.99 a month. But some of its movies and shows are unavailable to subscribers on this plan because of licensing restrictions. The platform’s basic plan without ads remains at $9.99 a month. But the video quality is not full high definition unless you join its standard plan at $15.49 a month.
What is it? Apple TV+’s latest award-winning and viral successes include Severance, a show about office workers whose memories are divided between their personal and work lives, and Ted Lasso, a comedy about a football coach leading a British soccer team. 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, CNN, 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.
How to access: Amazon and Apple devices, Android TV, Chromecast, Roku, Samsung TVs, the web and Xbox. A full list is available here.
Price: With ads, $4.99 a month; $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 Star Wars: Andor, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and the nature documentary Super/Natural.
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 starts at $7.99 a month or can be bundled with ESPN+ and Hulu with ads for $13.99 a month, $19.99 a month without ads.
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, such as the critically acclaimed The White Lotus and House of the Dragon; and movies, some available to stream while they were still in theaters, including Dune and Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis.
The platform has more than 10,000 hours of curated content, including third-party licensed movies and program favorites from Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Cartoonito, DC Comics, Looney Tunes, Turner Classic Movies, Sesame Workshop and Studio Ghibli.
How to access: Android or Apple devices, Chromecast, PS4, most smart TVs, the web and Xbox One.
Price: With ads, $9.99 a month, $99.99 a year. Without ads, $14.99 a month, $149.99 a year, which allows you to download videos for viewing on the go and offers 4K ultrahigh-definition, as available.
What is it? Streaming pioneer Hulu is number 3 in streaming service subscribers.
The platform 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.
Hulu also carries original content including The Handmaid’s Tale, Only Murders in the Building and The Great.
How to access: Amazon Echo Show, Amazon Fire Stick and Fire TV, Android or Apple devices, Apple TV, Chromecast, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Roku, most smart TVs, the web, Xbox One and Xbox 360.
Price: With ads, $7.99 a month, $79.99 a year; without ads, $14.99 a month. Viewers have the option to add subscriptions from Cinemax, Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, Showtime, Starz and live TV options.
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 films to stream after a short theatrical release and more than 50 original series, including Criminal Minds Evolution, Tulsa Kind and 1883.
How to access: Amazon Fire TV, Android and Apple devices, 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.
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: Amazon Fire Stick, Amazon Fire TV, Android and Apple devices, Android smart TVs, 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, NBC, Bravo and Telemundo along with original series like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot, Bel Air and the new comedy series, Pitch Perfect: Bumper in Berlin. 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, Chromecast, PS4, Roku, most smart TVs, the web and Xbox One.
Price: Peacock is free but has commercials. For $4.99 a month, $49.99 a year, you can get extra movie options, live sports and next-day access to NBC programming. For $9.99 a month, $99.99 a year, you can watch ad free and get access to select titles to watch offline on mobile devices.
What is it? Showtime lauds its original series, hit movies, documentaries and sports programming. Most recently, viewers can expect the second season of the breakout hit Yellowjackets or watch its newest series, George and Tammy, based on country duo George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
How to access: Android and Apple smart devices, 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 six months, then $10.99 a month, ad free. Bundled with Paramount+’s essential plan, $11.99 a month.
What is it? Starz offers a library of diverse shows, movies and docuseries. In addition to a rotation of blockbuster movies, viewers can stream original series such as Becoming Elizabeth, a drama about Queen Elizabeth before she ascended the throne, and Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts and billed as a modern take on Watergate that focuses on the scandal’s untold stories.
How to access: Amazon Fire Stick, Android and Apple devices, Roku, Xbox and most smart TVs.
Price: $3 a month promotional rate for the first three months, $8.99 a month after. A six-month subscription, usually $43.99, is being offered for $25.
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 $9.99 a month or $99.99 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.
• You can also add sports packages to existing streaming subscriptions from Hulu, Peacock, Sling TV and YouTube TV.
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.
The number of channels may be limited compared with cable or satellite TV, but starting prices range from around $25 to $70 a month. Options include DirectTV Stream, Philo TV, Sling TV and YouTube TV.
This story, originally published April 6, 2022, was updated to reflect price changes and new offerings from the streaming services.
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.
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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.