The entertainment industry is at a moment of change. Resources that were once spent on TV networks and theatrical releases are being funneled into streaming services, as media conglomerates race to catch up with game-changing, industry-revolutionizing Netflix. The "streaming wars", the competition between the studios to sure up talent and content deals as they ask audiences to buy their monthly subscriptions, is in full swing.
One day, a book will be written about the streaming wars and it'll include a clear picture of which services crashed and burned and which ones emerged victorious. I look forward to reading that book and looking back on this moment in time with hindsight, but until that day, all I can do is offer my opinion on each service and say which ones I feel are worthy of your money and time. I'm only going to talk about the services that are directly vying to be the new Netflix, not niche ones like Shudder or the Criterion Channel. Also, a proper ranking would include Quibi, but someone would actually have to pay me to write about Quibi before I even thought about downloading that app. And, last I checked, nobody's paying me to write for ChannelTim, so... sorry Quibi.
Tech giant Apple has been looking to get into the content game for a while now, but they've gotten off to an inauspicious start with AppleTV+, whose thin slate of original programming has failed to generate much buzz.
Price - $4.99 a month (or a year free with the purchase of an Apple product like a TV or a phone).
User Interface - Slick and navigable, this is Apple after all.
Originals - The worst part of AppleTV+'s pitch is that it asks you to pay monthly solely for their original programs. That means you get shows like the Jennifer Aniston-Reese Witherspoon starrer The Morning Show (messy, but entertaining) or M. Night Shyamalan's thriller Servant (weird, but intriguing) and others like Defending Jacob and Truth Be Told that have stars but tepid reviews and zero interest from me. On the film side, they recently debuted Tom Hanks' decent war film Greyhound and have a partnership with indie distributor A24 to release several movies, including the new Sofia Coppola pic On The Rocks. Since Sofia Coppola is my favorite living director, On The Rocks is one of my most anticipated films of the year and I can't wait until it drops on the service in October.
Library - The all original approach means it has basically no back catalogue to speak of, making AppleTV+ the service with the least amount of content by a significant margin. Apple has considered purchasing a movie studio in the past, and having access to an existing library of titles would certainly be a boon to AppleTV+.
Purpose - Streaming represents a fraction of Apple's overall business, so they likely see AppleTV+ as an extra with which to entice people to buy their phones and computers. You can also get additional streaming channels as add ons to their subscription and you can use it to watch anything you've purchased on iTunes, which goes to show how the company sees it as just an excuse to keep people using Apple's devices.
Best for - People who like watching Reese Witherspoon pretend to report the news while wearing a wig.
Recommend viewing - Boys State, an excellent documentary about teenagers who are already remarkably cynical about the American electoral process.
7. CBS All Access
CBS All Access started back in 2014 as a destination for repeats of shows from the CBS linear network, with some originals thrown in there as well. But as the streaming wars ramp up, parent company ViacomCBS is apparently mulling massive changes to the service to make it more competitive. Apparently a name change is in the works, but the name is the least of their problems if you ask me. Short-sighted deals like the one ViacomCBS recently struck to license certain films and TV shows from their library to competitor Peacock tells me that the company needs to seriously sit down and rethink what they want to accomplish in the streaming space.
Price - $5.99 a month with limited commercials, $9.99 for no commercials.
User Interface - Not great. The one aspect I really like is that they include a live feed of the CBS linear network. That's a nice touch. They recently added tabs touting the different brands under their commercials (which they actually refer to as "brands" - yikes) like CBS, BET, and Nickelodeon, but those folders are light. They ought to think more conceptually about those tabs and add one for Star Trek, if they want to effectively utilize their one marquee franchise. And there's no watchlist, which is shocking to me. That's streaming 101.
Originals - A couple of shows in the Star Trek universe (Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks), critical darling The Good Fight, and a reboot of The Twilight Zone are the notable original titles. There's a smattering of other shows, but nothing that seemed worthy of my time.
Library - Small. They have old CBS shows like JAG. The most famous titles like Cheers and Frasier and even the older Star Trek series can all be streamed elsewhere. They do have every episode of Spongebob Squarepants, which I'm sure is of interest to some people. Their collection of movies sports some gems, but is too light to be competitive, which is odd considering the breadth of the Paramount film library that isn't being tapped at all.
Purpose - Who knows at this point?
Best for - Trekkies, I guess.
Recommended viewing - The first season of the incredible CBS show Evil is available to stream and it's definitely worth checking out if you haven't already.
After a stellar launch in November 2019, Disney+ seemed like the only new streamer with enough muscle to take on Netflix. But with months-long gaps between blockbuster releases, it's looking like Disney+ will have to work a lot harder to prove its value outside of the family market.
Price - $7 a month (though I got a year free as a Verizon customer, and there's also a bundle option where you can pay $12.99 a month for Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+).
User Interface - Good. Finding things to watch is made easy by the streamlining of five core brands (Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, and National Geographic), as well numerous themed collections. Other services have since followed suit and added tabs for individual brands.
Originals - After coming out of the gate hot with megahit The Mandalorian, things have been pretty quiet on the originals front, with the exceptions of Hamilton and Muppets Now. Most of the originals are docs and behind-the-scenes looks at various aspects of the Disney empire. Some original movies, have premiered on the service, like The One and Only Ivan, but they've all been strictly kiddie flicks, so I haven't watched them. TV shows based on Marvel characters are on the way, but have been delayed a bit by the pandemic.
Library - Well, it's the Disney library. How much that means to you will vary, but they do carry an impressive percentage of Disney's output over the years. Personally, nostalgic rewatches of movies like The Little Mermaid are fun, but are not apart of my regular streaming rotation. They need to incorporate more of the classic 20th Century Fox library, as well the non-kid movies Disney has made under various banners through the years. They've got to loosen the tightly controlled brand image if they want to compete with the mass appeal of Netflix.
Disney+ also has all 30-something seasons of The Simpsons, but up until recently, you couldn't watch them in their original aspect ratio. Hundreds of non-HD episodes of the series were awkwardly cropped or stretched, ruining several of the series' visual gags. Though they've corrected the problem (but only if you switch the aspect ratio back yourself on the show's "details" page), the level of disrespect the remastering displayed is kind of astonishing to me. I'm not a fan of the show personally, but The Simpsons is massively popular, did Disney really think they could mess with it and no one would notice?
Purpose - Nothing short of a total transformation of the company. Traditionally, Disney has closely guarded the availability of its movies through rereleases and on home media, a concept known as the 'Disney vault'. But with most of the library being available to watch on demand through Disney+, the vault idea is dead. The company is betting on Disney+ subscriptions eventually being a significant source of revenue, and it's willing to throw out of the rulebook to make it so. See also, the unprecedented release strategy for Mulan in a few weeks, which (thanks to the pandemic) will see the would-be blockbuster going to Disney+ for a one-time fee of $29.99 on top of your subscription fee. It's a move that has the potential to change the industry - if it works out.
Best for - Parents of small children.
Recommended viewing - I recently revisited the Hayley Mills version of The Parent Trap from 1961 and thought it held up really nicely.
NBCUniversal's streamer only made its debut in July, but it's already carved out a nice corner for itself in the streaming world by offering something different. Aside from its unique pricing strategy (it's free with ads), Peacock's big pitch is that it's the timely streamer - emphasizing current events, news and live programming rather than just being a destination for binge-watching, which it is as well.
Price - Unlike every other streamer on this list, Peacock has a free tier! For access to the original programming and as well as an expanded library, you'll need the $4.99 Premium tier, though the idea is to have the Premium tier be de facto free to most people through partnerships and deals. There's also an ad-free tier for $9.99 a month, but who on earth would pay for that?
User Interface - The search function is abysmal - only allowing you to search by title, not by actor or director's name. But aside from that, there's also the very unique (for streaming) Channels feature, which includes feeds of themed programming like a channel dedicated to clips from The Tonight Show. Replicating the feeling of casual channel surfing in a streaming environment is a really clever idea and perhaps the most innovative twist on the Netflix formula to come so far.
Originals - This is where Peacock's charms end. To be fair, the pandemic has stalled their most high-profile original shows, such as planned reboots of Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster. What they launched with was pretty weak - sci-fi adaptation Brave New World and a handful of British imports like the medicore David Schwimmer sitcom Intelligence. If I wasn't getting Premium for free, they've done nothing to convince it's worth paying for.
Library - Decent. Its sitcom-heavy catalogue includes such classics as 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, and (beginning January 2021) The Office. The movie list includes some truly obscure stuff, but also draws on the history of Universal Studios by including several Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, Doris Day comedies, and classic Universal monster movies. Peacock has also made the incredibly savy decision to pursue licensing titles (like Everybody Loves Raymond and Two a Half Men) from outside studios in order to bulk up their offerings.
Purpose - Not to dominate the streaming space, but to become an essential component of it. In some ways, it's trying to compete with YouTube more than Netflix. While it hasn't made the case to be anyone's only streaming service, it's made an excellent case for being a (free) supplement to everyone's streaming habits.
Best for - People who want to make the Today show last all day.
Recommended viewing - Psych 2: Lassie Come Home provides an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.
4. Amazon Prime Video
The tech behemoth has been making original programming for just as long as Netflix, though their streaming strategy has changed as the years have gone on. For instance, gone is their innovative pilot process (in which they made several pilots a year available for public viewing and feedback in order to determine which ones to pick up to series). There's also the curious case of IMDB TV, the free-wth-ads streaming service also backed by Amazon. What's the purpose of that thing?
Price - Apparently, you can get Prime Video by itself for $8.99 a month (that's news to me). Most users get the service as part of their $99 a year membership to Amazon Prime, which also includes a number of other benefits like 2-day shipping.
User Interface - It's pretty good, but not spectacular. They've only recently added profiles, and the "watch next" bar is a weird combination of a watchlist and a continue watching tab. Also, you have to scroll past selections from available add-on channels and titles you can rent or purchase, making it not always obvious what's included in your Prime subscription.
Originals - Looking at the list, there are far less original series than I would have thought. Despite the relatively small number, Prime Video was the first streaming service to take home the Best Comedy prize at both the Golden Globes (with Mozart in the Jungle) and the Emmys (with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). On the film side, Amazon Studios has done a far better job than Netflix of respecting the tradition of cinema, while quietly building up an impressive library of titles such as Late Night and The Goldfinch. They also were the first streaming service to release a film that would go on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (Manchester by the Sea).
Library - I'm not sure how this is possible, but Prime Video apparently has the largest amount of content of any streamer, with a staggering more than 20,000 hours more than its next nearest competitor (Hulu).
Purpose - Part of Amazon's plan for world domination. The company's only in the streaming business because it helps them sell their products and keep people as Amazon customers. And data. They want your data.
Best for - People who enjoy having cat food delivered expediently.
Recommend viewing - Hunters isn't for everyone, but I thought it was a fun show.
Netflix began the streaming revolution and is by far the streamer with the largest audience and widest cultural reach - but is it still the best? Not by a long shot.
Price - Standard plan is $12.99 a month.
User Interface - Seemingly designed to keep customers endlessly scrolling through thousands of titles and categories without ever choosing something to watch. Every time I open Netflix, I have to remember to mute the volume or else be subjected to the sounds of trailers and clips that automatically play when you hover over a title. Whoever came up with that idea belongs in prison. I also hate how Netflix skips over end credits to get you watching the next episode more quickly and don't get me started on the "skip intro" button. That coupled with the binge model of releasing entire seasons at once really irks me. It's like they've totally forgotten that an episode of TV is a piece of art made by human beings. To Netflix, it's all just indiscriminate content to be shoved in front of people's faces for as long as possible.
Originals - The sheer volume of original content Netflix releases every single week is astonishing and something no other streamer can even come close to matching. But that truth is most of that content is garbage. Netflix is not interested in quality, they are interested in quantity. They know that people will watch whatever junky show they release just because so many people are in the habit of opening Netflix when they want to watch something. Original movies fall into one of two distinct categories: Oscar bait or absolute trash. To be fair, there are some very good Netflix original series as well (The Crown, Stranger Things), but unless a show is a runaway hit, the ceiling for a Netflix original is three seasons. Santa Clarita Diet, Dead to Me, Bloodline - all great shows whose lives were cut short after 30-something episodes because their mysterious internal data says people don't start watching a show after its third season. Sure, Netflix can make whatever business decision they feel is right, but what are audiences supposed to take away from this kind of thinking? Why would someone want to get invested in a show whose platform doesn't see much value in it? How do you build audience loyalty that way?
Library - It's large, there's no denying that. There's a fair number of non-Netflix movies, but you'll find hardly any pre-1980 movies. It'll be interesting to see in the next few years, as licensing deals with Netflix end, how quickly studios pull their content from Netflix to put on their own services - we've already seen that happen to shows like Friends (now on HBO Max).
Purpose - Total domination of the entertainment industry. Netflix spends billions and billions every year on producing content, taking on massive amounts of debt in the process because they know its a strategy that can't (or won't) be copied by other companies.
Best for - People who turn on the TV and immediately fall alseep.
Recommended viewing - Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever was pretty good.
Hulu has come a long way from its inception in 2007 as a way for people to catch up on last night's episode of shows on Fox, NBC, and ABC. It was also free back then! Remember that? Times have changed since then and the now Disney-controlled streamer has evolved into one of the most competitive ones out there.
Price - $5.99 a month with ads, $11.99 a month for no ads. $12.99 a month for the bundle that also includes Disney+ and ESPN+. There's also has an option to get through Live TV through Hulu, which will cost you $54.99 a month.
User Interface - Infamously bad. Even after a recent redesign, it's not the easiest to navigate. It takes too many clicks to get to what you were watching the last time you opened Hulu.
Originals - In 2020 alone Hulu has premiered such terrific series as Little Fires Everywhere, Normal People, The Great, Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi, Mrs. America (through its FX on Hulu banner), and two Disney+ castoffs High Fidelity and Love, Victor. They also debuted the sci-fi rom-com Palm Springs, which is one of the best movies off the year thus far. And that was all just this year!
Library - If you're looking for the streaming service with the best TV library, Hulu is it. There are so many old TV shows on there, from ER to Golden Girls to Dawson's Creek to Seinfeld. They've got a decent number of movies as well, but it's the massive amount of classic shows available that makes Hulu stand out.
Purpose - In flux. Hulu might be thought of as the destination for content deemed too adult to air on corporate sibling Disney+, although that line could be get blurry. (For example, the thinking behind the decision to send Love, Victor to Hulu because of its incredibly tame depiction of teenage sexuality seems ridiculous and homophobic in hindsight.)
Best for - TV addicts.
Recommend viewing - Normal People.
1. HBO Max
The May launch of HBO Max was not as smooth as WarnerMedia would have liked, with brand confusion (it's different than HBO, but it includes everything on HBO and if you pay for HBO you most likely have access to HBO Max at no additional charge) leading to most people who have HBO Max not even realizing they have it. I knew from the day they announced the name that it would cause problems, and that's a shame because it's truly the best streaming service on the market.
Price - $14.99 a month, making it the priciest service on this list (but it's worth it). A less expensive ad-supported tier is planned for 2021.
User Interface - Not spectacular, but more than adequate. They understand correctly how to use "hubs" to showcase the variety of different brands the service is built on (HBO, TCM, DC, etc.). When looking for something to watch, there's an A-Z option, which is great because you can view everything they offer with having to rely on a computer algorithm to anticipate what titles you'll be interested in. One complaint I have is that, for $15 a month, it should include live feeds of HBO's channels.
Originals - There are not too many Max originals because the pandemic caused production to shut down and most of the ones on there are kids shows (and that pretty good Anna Kendrick show Love Life). But HBO is also part of this service and they've been contributing tons of new stuff to watch - and HBO (unlike Netflix) is known for their quality control, so you can be sure most of it is worth watching. In the past few months, they've had the brilliant I May Destroy You, the buzzy new show Lovecraft Country, the excellent new movie Bad Education, and, my pick for TV show of the year so far, The Plot Against America.
Library - While it isn't as large as Netflix's, HBO Max has much more that's actually worth watching. If you like watching movies, this is the streaming service to subscribe to. There really is something for everyone - from superhero movies to movies from the Criterion Collection. They also have by far the largest selection of films from pre-1970.
Purpose - Telecommunications giant AT&T's $81 billion acquisition of Time Warner (which it would rename WarnerMedia) in 2018 made it a serious player in the media world, and HBO Max is undoubtedly a large part of the future of WarnerMedia. But as for AT&T's larger strategy, I cannot really say, aside from noting that AT&T is unlikely write the kinds of checks that would allow HBO Max to truly compete with Netflix's production spending.
Best for - People who'd enjoy watching a Fred Astaire movie followed by a Friends rerun followed by a talk show hosted by Elmo (AKA people who like variety).
Recommended viewing - If you're a fan of reality dating shows, Singletown is a must-watch.
So, there you have it. If you are only going to subscribe to one streaming service, it should be HBO Max. Or whichever sounds most appealing to you, because everyone's needs are different. Thanks for reading!
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