The end is near-for cable, at least.
For the last few decades, cable companies have ruled the world of televised programming, and customers have paid dearly. Without mercy and knowing full-well their advantage, cable companies have jacked up their rates again and again, and most customers have just rolled over and taken it.
According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the price of basic cable service increased 6.5% in 2013. Lest you're tempted to just shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, I guess everything's more expensive now," that's about four times the rate of inflation.
At the same time, online streaming services have gotten better, more numerous, and cheaper. Only in the last couple years, however, have these services become a real threat to cable, causing large numbers of consumers to cut the cord with cable.
Recently, this threat became much more real when ESPN, the epicenter of live sports broadcasting and one of cable's last bastions in the battle against online streaming, experienced a shocking drop in its subscriber numbers and their stocks tumbled.
While these changes in the way people want to watch programming may be alarming to cable companies, it's great news for consumers like you. Cable's chokehold on our home entertainment choices has been loosened, and consumers suddenly have more choices at better prices.
If you're looking to sever your relationship with your cable company and get a streaming service, here are your six most promising options:
How much: $8.99/mo (for one device); $12.99/mo (for up to four devices)
Features: Although the number of titles offered by Netflix is always in flux, estimates put the current number at about 14,000 titles across their multiple sites for different countries, including movies, TV series, and documentaries. Depending on the season, this can include the latest seasons of popular series like The Walking Dead or Once Upon a Time. Thus far, however, Netflix doesn't seem to have any deals with HBO or Showtime, so don't expect to see Game of Thrones.
In addition to TV shows and movies from other sources, Netflix also produces its own programming, like Orange is the New Black, Marvel's Daredevil, House of Cards, Sense8, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and The Adventures of Puss in Boots. They've also produced new episodes of series that had been previously cancelled, like Arrested Development and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Pros: So far Netflix has the biggest library out of any online streaming video service, making it the go-to destination for binge-watching. For a relatively low price, they provide endless amounts of commercial-free programming. Among this programming are some genuinely great titles, including shows that have been critically acclaimed and recognized by awards shows.
Cons: Unfortunately, although they have gotten better at getting newer and more recognizable movies and TV shows, they still have a glut of second- and third-rate titles. Also, if you're looking to watch live sporting events, or any other live entertainment, you're out of luck on Netflix. There's nothing of the sort here.
How much: $0 (for basic Hulu); $7.99/mo (for Hulu Plus); add'l $8.99/mo (to add Showtime)
Features: Hulu offers a host of titles for free without having a subscription, including movies and shows from the major networks and even their own original series. However, on the free subscription you usually can't watch new episodes until about a week after airing. Also, whatever you watch is going to be interrupted with ample amounts of advertisement once every ten minutes or so -about as much as you would experience watching TV live.
Get a Hulu Plus subscription and have access to all of Hulu's shows and movies the moment they air -no waiting. Strangely, however, you do have endure the same amount of commercials. Also, if you want to be able to view Hulu on your mobile device or smart TV, you'll have to pay for Hulu Plus.
Paying an additional fee, bringing your total bill to $17 per month, you can have access to all of this plus all of Showtime's programming, including shows like Homeland, Penny Dreadful, and Ray Donovan.
Pros: If you like to consume TV shows as they happen, Hulu is your cheapest option. They have an easy-to-use interface and a broad selection, although not quite as broad as Netflix's, which includes lots of international titles.
Cons:Lots of commercials. You'd think that a paid subscription would make you exempt from viewing commercials, but it doesn't. Also annoying is the fact that, with certain shows, you can't watch unlimited episodes unless you have also a subscription to their specific networks. Comments Aubrie Z. on The Best Companys.com:
"I don't like when I can't watch a certain show without having a subscription to network. I pay for a Hulu account so that I don't have to watch cable tv. I wish that seasons would stay on Hulu so that if you missed some you can go back and watch it. I also wish that paying for it meant that I didn't have to watch so many ads."
This creates a big thorn in the side of some Hulu users-why pay for cable and Hulu to watch some shows? These viewers might be better off just sticking with cable and using their DVRs to watch when they want to.
**Update: Hulu announced today (Sep. 2, 2015) that subscribers will be able to forego the ads on their streaming service for a slightly higher monthly fee of $12**
How much: $99/yr (for Prime); $19.99 (to buy new movies); $4.99 (to rent old movies)
Features: Amazon Prime is definitely not just a streaming service. For one thing, Prime started as a benefit for frequent Amazon shoppers: they would pay just $99 per year for free shipping. When Amazon decided to get into streaming entertainment online, they just decided to make it another benefit of a Prime membership. Since then, they've also made ebooks and music part of the package.
As far as streaming television goes, Amazon Prime gives you access to hundreds of TV shows, movies, and original programming at no extra charge. For instance, at this moment, Amazon Prime members can stream The Wolf of Wall Street or Transformers: Age of Extinction without paying anything beyond their yearly fee. They can also watch current and past seasons of shows from CBS, TNT, HBO, and more. If they want to watch something outside of this selection, they can also buy or rent titles in Amazon Instant Video and watch it in the same place where they consume all of their Prime content.
As mentioned above, Amazon recently added Prime Music, which features "unlimited, ad-free access to over a million songs and hundreds of custom-built playlists."
Pros: Honestly, for the price and all the benefits that are packed into it, it's hard not to like Amazon Prime. For less than the cost of basic Netflix, you get tons of high quality movies and TV shows, many of which are not on Netflix (and probably won't be for a long time. And then there's the ability to buy/rent movies and shows to add to your selection-Netflix and Hulu can't do that. Of course, commercial-free music is a nice add-on.
The Best Companys reviewer Samantha Wesley summed up the benefits of Amazon Prime best when she said:
"I like Netflix but it doesn't give me a huge chunk of cloud storage for photos, music, and ebooks. Nor do I get all of my music on my PC matched in the Cloud. Or a music player to go with, that gives me access to free albums, songs and mixes. And I don't get Ebook conversion and storage for my ebooks, or access to millions more ebooks to add to my library ... Amazon has quality movies, great shows, excellent streaming applications and top-notch customer service to go with all the other membership perks, and it makes joining a no-brainer. I love Netflix...but if I had to choose only one? Well, it's no contest."
Clearly, no streaming service brings all of your media together the way Amazon Prime does. The price really isn't an issue, and neither is quality. Truthfully, in the long run, other streaming services are going to have a hard time beating Amazon Prime.
Cons: Amazon Prime does include a few annoyances. For instance, their media player isn't as slick as Hulu's or Netflix's. It's not unusual to have buffering issues or shows dropping mid-play. Navigating from one title or category can be clumsy and frustrating. And often, you'll see a show where some seasons are free with Prime but newer seasons cost extra. Also, Prime does not include live television programming, like sporting events.
How much: $20/mo (for basic); add'l $15/mo (for HBO); add'l $5/mo (for Sports Extra); add'l $5/mo (for Deportes Extra)
Features: One of the most interesting new entries, Sling TV is literally cable TV over the Internet. This means you get all the same programming that you would get from a cable subscription, commercials and all, but at a lower price and minus all of the extra fees that cable providers tack on.
Just to give you an idea, Sling's basic package includes mainstays like ESPN, CNN, HGTV, and Disney Channel. Sports fans can add Sports Extra, which includes additional ESPN networks, Universal Sports Network, and Univision HDN. Spanish-speakers may be interested in adding Deported Extra, which includes Univision, Uni Mas, Azteca, and ESPN Deportes.
Finally, Sling is available on most major mobile devices, smart TVs, and computers.
Pros: There is no comparable product in online streaming when it comes to live television. It's essentially cable television streamed online for a lot less. This is going to mean the most to fans of live programming, like the Oscars or Monday Night Football. Up until now, if you cut the cord with cable companies, it meant that you ended up watching the NBA Finals on your laptop, using your neighbor's login, or by inviting yourself to your friend's house to watch the game.
With Sling TV, you're essentially getting the same thing you could from your cable company but for a lot less. So the biggest benefit here is cost savings.
Cons: With live cable comes commercials, which are typically absent or limited on other streaming services like Amazon Prime or Netflix. Also, the ability to watch what you want to watch whenever you want is gone. When compared to cable, Sling also doesn't have the sheer breadth of programming (all bazillion channels) that plain old cable offers. Depending on what you think of all those cable channels, this will be either a pro or a con.
How much: $5.99 (rent new movies in HD); $19.99 (buy new movies); $3.99 (rent older movies); $7.99-19.99 (buy older movies); $34.99 (buy season); $1.99 (buy episode)
Features: Vudu is pretty much a digital video store. You don't pay any kind of subscription fee, but you do pay to rent (i.e. stream content for a limited time) or buy movies or shows. Once you pay for them, you can stream titles. If this sounds like Apple TV or iTunes, that's because it is, except you don't download the content, you just stream it.
Vudu could almost be viewed as the premium streaming service, with a much greater focus on quality than on cost. You can view new releases and sometimes those that are still in theaters or haven't even hit theaters yet. Also, Vudu gives you three resolution choices when buying or renting: SD, HD, and HDX. Of course, you pay more for higher resolution, but owners of larger TV screens will find this a must.
Pros: Vudu is really the ideal choice for cinephiles who aren't as cost-conscious. When it works, the streaming quality on Vudu is top-notch, on par with what you would expect from a Blu-Ray. Also, the ability to view content even before it hits the home video market is definitely a nice bonus. If you are going to use Vudu, make sure you have Internet speeds that are up to the challenge. This will really make the experience.
Cons: Of course, what happens if you don't have the Internet speed to match Vudu's high-definition standard? Let's just say the experience is filled with long periods of buffering and sometimes dropping out of video altogether. Sometimes, you can pay for HD but if your Internet speed is not up to the challenge, Vudu will just switch you to the SD version of your title. And, no, they don't refund you the difference. For that matter, Vudu doesn't really provide a clear-cut way to get a refund when things don't work out.
As mentioned above, as things add up, Vudu becomes the most expensive of online streaming options. This makes it ill-suited to binge-watching or trying out new TV shows.
How much: nothing, it's totally free
Features: Backed by Sony Entertainment, Crackle is a lot like Hulu, except without the Hulu Plus option. Like Hulu, Crackle lets you watch a host of titles, including some well-known movies and TV shows and even some that Crackle has produced on their own. For instance, on Crackle you can watch the '90's comedy Joe Dirt, but Crackle is also the only place where you can watch Joe Dirt 2 because Crackle produced it.
Also like Hulu, Crackle pays the bills by breaking up the viewing experience with lots of commercials.
Pros: First, it's free, so what do you have to lose, and you do run into some movies and TV shows that you find on other streaming services. For this reason, Crackle might be the ideal streaming choice for the very casual, non-committal viewer.
Cons: If you're measuring it up next to Hulu, you're going to find a much smaller selection of movies and TV shows on Crackle, since they offer only titles from Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, Screen Gems, and Sony Pictures Classics and Sony-distributed television series.
Another thing to beware of is the poor video experience. As with free Hulu, Crackle serves three or four commercials every 15 to 20 minutes. Simple actions, like trying to maximize the video player, can freak out the video player and cause it to open a new tab in your browser. Also, don't expect HD or Blu-Ray quality here. Crackle offers SD quality only. It's pretty clear that Crackle is not at the top of Sony's priority list.
Also, in what may be the worst of their sins, they let you watch Seinfeld episodes, but then only offer some episodes and some seasons.
But what can you expect from a completely free streaming services?
Trying out online streaming can be daunting, but almost across the board, it offers a much lower-cost option without the contracts and fees that have made the cable experience so unpleasant. Best of all, none of these streaming services lock you into for a period of time. So, if you're dissatisfied with one service, it's pretty easy to cancel and try another one until you get the right one for your preferences.
Want to see how consumers have rated these and other TV streaming services? Visit bestcompany.com's TV Streaming page.