Cutting the Cord? A Guide To Streaming Services and Saving Money
OOver the past few years, the term “cutting the cord” has become a well-worn figure of speech referring to those who cancel their cable or satellite subscriptions and opt to replace them with one or more of the various streaming services. Furthering this “cord cutting trend,” many of the streaming services now offer exclusive content, some of which has shaken up the world of pop culture and entertainment. As a result, there are now some TV buffs who may actually spend more money on TV after they cut the cord — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
While you may not be able to see every new show that hits the proverbial (and increasingly inaccurate) airwaves, there are many ways that you can still save money by ditching cable and opting for streaming. Of course the first step is choosing the platform or platforms that are right for you. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some popular streaming options — including some of the pros and cons of each — as well as some other tips for saving money on streaming:
Comparing the Top Streaming Services
|Streaming Service||Type||Price Range (per month)|
*Also included with Amazon Prime membership
**Included with qualifying AT&T Unlimited &More plans
***Pricing not yet disclosed, service to launch in 2019
****Requires membership to participating libraries
These days, there’s certainly no shortage of streaming services available. This includes some of the “top dogs” like Netflix and Hulu, but extends to linear networks adding to their brands, premium channels getting in on the action, platforms with bundled streaming channel packages, and even a couple of free options. Below you’ll find details on services in all of these categories including some of what’s good and what’s not so good about each.
Before we dive in, one more thing to note is that the content on each of these services is subject to change as are the pricing and features. Keep this in mind as you’re doing your own research and choosing which platforms may be right for you and your budget.
Top Dog Streaming Services
Netflix. Hulu. Amazon Prime. YouTube. These are probably some of the top names that come to mind when you think of streaming video. What’s more, several of these services have taken the entertainment industry by storm, winning awards for original programming and even reviving some of the shows discarded by the traditional networks. But while you’re surely familiar with these four players it’s still worth taking a closer look.
- Pricing: $8.99 Basic, $12.99 Standard, $15.99 Premium.
- Biggest draw: Original series like Stranger Things and Queer Eye plus original films like Birdbox and Roma, as well as comedy specials, continuations of network shows, and more.
- Biggest drawback: Only standard definition streaming at the lowest tier.
- Best for: Comedy nerds, TV binge watchers, and those who want to keep up on the most talked-about shows.
- Bottom Line: Netflix has been a powerhouse in the streaming service space and is still seen by many as the gold standard (not to mention the first place fans petition to save shows when they get canceled). Despite some price increases over the years, the platform remains competitive on that front as well and has also made headlines for their astronomical investments in content. Whether all of that output is quality is up for debate, but Netflix will likely be a top pick for many cord cutters as they make their selections.
- Pricing: Basic – $5.99, No Commercials – $11.99 a month, Hulu with Live TV – $44.99 a month.
- Biggest draw: Original series like The Handmaid’s Tale as well as current seasons of select shows on traditional TV.
- Biggest drawback: Commercial interruptions on Basic tier.
- Best for: Catching up on current television programs.
- Bottom Line: Started by many of top media conglomerates, Hulu has found some success in the premium content business thanks to hits like The Handmaid’s Tale. However, some may still recall that Hulu initially offered a freemium model, allowing viewers to catch up on current shows. With the annoying introductory rate and the presence of commercials unless you upgrade to the $11.99 a month tier, some cord cutters may be turned off by Hulu’s current model.
- Sidenote: Hulu is likely in for some major changes in the next few years as former 30% owner The Walt Disney Company has recently acquired another 30% as part of their purchase of 21st Century Fox assets, giving them a controlling stake in the platform. On top of that, AT&T just sold their share back to the streamer, so now Disney has 66%. As a result, Hulu is likely to become the “adult” counterpart to Disney+ (more on that later) and could be bundled with that service as well ESPN+.
Amazon Prime Video
- Pricing: Included with Amazon Prime subscription ($119 a year or $12.99 a month) or $8.99 for Prime Video.
- Biggest draw: Original series such as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Sneaky Pete, Fleabag, and the 2018 Emmy award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
- Biggest drawback: Pricey if you’re only using Prime for Prime Video.
- Best for: Frequent Amazon shoppers who also love to stay abreast of buzzy and bingeable television.
- Bottom Line: By bundling its popular two-day free shipping service Prime with a premium streaming platform, Prime Video definitely stands as a unique player in this space. Additionally, Prime has made a name for itself on the awards stage, most recently earning multiple big awards for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. While these top titles may not be enough to bring people to Prime on their own, the other benefits of Amazon Prime are certainly worth considering. Of course you can now subscribe to Prime Video by itself… but, considering you could get all of the benefits of Prime for just another $11 (if paid annually), that’s likely not the best course of action.
YouTube Premium (YouTube Red)
- Pricing: $11.99 a month.
- Biggest draw: Originals like Cobra Kai and series from some of the biggest YouTube stars as well as an ad-free experience across the platform.
- Biggest drawback: Not a ton of talked-about shows just yet, relatively high price.
- Best for: Those who spend a lot of time consuming YouTube content and want to take advantage of other perks like background play.
- Bottom Line: Formerly known as YouTube Red, YouTube Premium has seemingly struggled to market itself as effectively as the other streaming services (as evidenced by the name change). That said, their freemium release of the Karate Kid series Cobra Kai did earn the platform some much-needed buzz. Additionally, Premium does offer some other notable features, such as the aforementioned background play, access to YouTube Music Premium, and the ability to watch any YouTube video ad-free when you’re signed in. As a result, those who love all things YouTube and the stars the platform has produced will likely find more value in this service than others.
With those “top dogs” taking a bite out of traditional media’s market share, some networks have created their own streaming options meant to build upon the assets they have and then adding in exclusive content to bring more subscribers on board. Interestingly, there seems to be different methods of pursuing this route. With that, let’s take a look at three examples of what I’m calling “linear extensions”: CBS All Access, ESPN+, and FX+.
CBS All Access
- Pricing: $5.99 a month with Limited Commercials, $9.99 a month Commercial Free (15% off when you purchase an annual plan),
- Biggest draw: Star Trek: Discovery, Big Brother Live Feeds, full episodes of current and legacy shows, plus live streaming from your local CBS affiliate (including NFL on CBS).
- Biggest drawback: Commercials on basic tier, limited number of hit originals at this time.
- Best for: Trekkers and those who love CBS’s content library.
- Bottom Line: CBS surely had a lot of doubters when it launched its own streaming service but All Access has stayed afloat partially thanks to their series Star Trek: Discovery. On that front, the service has also announced the return of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, once again played by Patrick Stewart. Aside from Star Trek, All Access also hosts a library of classics ranging from I Love Lucy to CSI: Miami. At $5.99, the service is one of the more affordable options, but that tier does include commercials, making it difficult to recommend one way or the other.
- Pricing: $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year
- Biggest draw: More live sports than you can shake a stick at, the 30 for 30 documentaries catalog, and other exclusive programming.
- Biggest drawback: While original series released so far have been enjoyable, nothing has truly hit just yet.
- Best for: Sports fans — especially those who follow leagues not typically broadcast on one of the main ESPN channels.
- Bottom Line: Lately ESPN+ has made headlines by not only adding UFC content but becoming the exclusive distributor of UFC pay-per-view events through 2025. Beyond those announcements, the platform has been gaining subscribers by continually adding sports content to the platform, including original series, exclusive 30 for 30 documentaries (in addition to hosting other entries on-demand), and of course live events ranging from soccer and tennis to boxing and auto racing. ESPN parent company Disney also promises that more live content will be added to the platform as it continues to make new deals and make even more content from its linear networks available on ESPN+. While it may not be a full replacement for ESPN itself, ESPN+ has seemingly found a market among die-hard sports fans.
- Pricing: $5.99 a month
- Biggest draw: Early access to FX Originals series, ad-free streaming, and an on-demand catalog of full season.
- Biggest drawback: Requires a TV provider account.
- Best for: FX fans who aren’t exactly cutting the cord.
- Bottom Line: Considering that FX+ requires that you hold a cable or satellite subscription, it hardly belongs on this list. That said, those only hearing about FX+ might not realize this key hitch, which is why it’s worth noting. Considering that the concept of FX+ may be appealing to fans of American Horror Story and other FX hits, hopefully the network can move to a true direct-to-consumer model in the future.
- Sidenote: New FX owners Disney haven’t mentioned FX+ in any of their investor calls or events so it’s unclear if this offering will stick around or eventually get absorbed into Hulu in some way.
Similar to how some networks now offer streaming companions, there are also premium channels that have gone direct-to-consumer. Given their already premium status, one notable difference here is that most of these services stick to what they already known and don’t really offer much in the way of exclusives. Still, those who can’t live without HBO, Showtime, or Starz may be in luck thanks to these options.
- Pricing: $14.99 a month
- Biggest draw: Ability to watch hit HBO series like Game of Thrones, Veep, Last Week Tonight, and many more without a cable subscription. It can also be added as a premium to other streaming services such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video (although the $14.99 a month price stays the same).
- Biggest drawback: Aside from library content and on-demand access, HBO Now offers little more than the network itself.
- Best for: Game of Thrones junkies who want to cut the cord and similar folk who want HBO without having cable.
- Bottom Line: Not to be confused with HBO Go — the streaming counterpart that comes with your traditional HBO subscriptions — HBO Now gives cord cutters access to the channel’s plethora of critically acclaimed and award-winning content. In addition to hosting full seasons for current and previous HBO series, HBO Now also allows users to stream films currently playing on the channel. At $14.99 a month, Now isn’t exactly cheap but, with HBO continually proving to be a television powerhouse, that high price might be worth it many TV enthusiasts.
- Pricing: $10.99 a month
- Biggest draw: Series like Shameless, The Affair, Ray Donovan, and the Jim Carrey-starrer Kidding. Showtime can also be added as a premium to other streaming services such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video (both $8.99 a month extra).
- Biggest drawback: Only includes Showtime content.
- Best for: Those who want to watch Showtime’s original series but don’t want a cable subscription.
- Bottom Line: Unlike HBO, Showtime offers a slight discount to those adding the premium network to their Hulu or Amazon Prime Video subscriptions. On top of that, even the base price for Showtimes comes in at $4 a month less than Home Box Office. Of course, despite having some major hits over the years, Showtime continues to play second fiddle to HBO in terms of awards glory and buzzed about programming. Thus, it’s likely fair to assume that the same would be true of cord cutters looking to get the most talked-about TV for the best price.
- Pricing: $8.99 a month
- Biggest draw: Originals like Power, American Gods, and series from Kevin Hart’s Laugh Out Loud network as well as many recent and random movies.
- Biggest drawback: Lacking in originals.
- Best for: Fans of Kevin Hart and those who want on-demand access to past Starz series like Party Down.
- Bottom Line: Priced at $8.99, a look at the Starz line-up of series and current movies still doesn’t seem to justify that cost. At the same time, with many streaming services, there will always be some film or show that’s available on one service and nowhere else. Because of this, there may still be a market for Starz, especially among those who have come across shows like Power and American Gods or enjoy some of the other series that mega-star Kevin Hart brings to the platform.
Lest you assume the streaming ecosystem had completely abandoned the notion of a cable package, there are several platforms that essentially recreate the model for the streaming generation. That is to say they include access to some of the same channels you’d find on your TV along with DVR functionality and more. If that sounds up your alley, here’s a look at Philo TV, FuboTV, and AT&T WatchTV, and DirecTV Now.
- Pricing: 45 Channels for $16 a month, 58 channel for $20 a month
- Biggest draw: Live and on-demand access to many basic cable channels at the base level with the option to add specialty channels for a few dollars more. You can also record and save an unlimited number of shows for up to 30 days.
- Biggest drawback: No premium networks or sports options.
- Best for: Those who want access to a number of their favorite linear channels without dealing with the cable companies.
- Bottom Line: With Philo TV’s basic package including an array of channels like AMC, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, and IFC, this option could fill a cable-sized hole for many cord cutters and comes at an attractive price. As for the upper tier, the additional 13 channels will likely only appeal to a small number of viewers. Finally, with live TV and DVR options included, Philo TV could be a great transitional product for those who will miss certain aspects of their “traditional” television experience.
- Pricing: $54.99 a month (85 channels). Latino Plus and Portugues Plus packages also available along with additional programming packages.
- Biggest draw: Offers a number of popular entertainment, news, and sports channels along with Cloud DVR features.
- Biggest drawback: Starts at a high price and only gets more expensive as you add programming options.
- Best for: Cord cutters who still want to view a multiple of sports options as well as top news networks.
- Bottom Line: While it doesn’t include ESPN, FuboTV does give users access to several sports stations, including NBCSN, the NFL Network, NBATV and many more — with the option to add 23 more sports channels and even international sports for additional monthly fees. Beyond that, Fubo also includes news ranging from Fox News to CNN to MSNBC while also offer entertainment from AMC, Hallmark, Syfy, and more. You can also add nine Showtime channels for the same price as that channel’s standalone option. Unfortunately, all of this comes a steep price — that recently went up — that may be a turn off to those we aren’t as concerned about watching linear sports and news networks.
- Pricing: Included with qualifying AT&T Unlimited &More plans or $15 a month.
- Biggest draw: Access to 35+ channels of live TV in addition to on-demand programming.
- Biggest drawback: Although there is some on-demand content, there are no DVR features at this time.
- Best for: AT&T Unlimited &More customers who won’t need to pay anything extra to access this service.
- Bottom Line: AT&T WatchTV includes a number of popular channels such as CNN, TBS, AMC, and more. Sadly, unlike some of its competitors, users are currently unable to record and save their favorite shows. Because of this, those without AT&T Unlimited &More plans may want to look elsewhere. But, for those who do have qualifying AT&T Unlimited &More or are considering switching, this one’s a no-brainer.
- Pricing: $50 a month (40+ channels including HBO), $70 a month (50+ channels including HBO and Cinemax), $93 a month (65+ channels).
- Biggest draw: Multitude of channels, cloud DVR, and the inclusion of HBO.
- Biggest drawback: Pricey overall and DVR function is still technically in beta.
- Best for: Those who want more traditional cable or satellite packages but in a streaming format. Also great for those who want ESPN in their streaming bundle.
- Bottom Line: Last month, DirecTV owners AT&T did a major overhaul on the packages and pricing of the DirecTV Now service. While the base level now includes the popular HBO, it also costs $50 a month and comes with relatively few entertainment channels (for AMC, you’ll need to go up to the $93 “Entrainment” package that actually excludes HBO). That said there are still some essentials in the “Plus” tier, including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, all three major 24-hour news networks, and even a couple of ESPNs.
Sure the streaming service space may already seem crowded but it’s only going to grow. This fall two big players will enter the arena, as Disney and Apple both debut streaming platforms of their own (that, incidentally, both have +s in their name). Although there are still big questions about each of these, it’s still worth taking a look at what we do know about Disney+ and Apple TV+.
Disney Streaming Service
- Pricing: $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year
- Biggest draw: A new live-action Star Wars series titled The Mandalorian, Marvel shows such as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, exclusive films and shows, a library of past film and TV content (including 30 seasons of The Simpsons), and will replace Netflix as the streaming home for new Disney/Marvel/Star Wars titles released in 2019 or after.
- Biggest drawback: Mostly family-friendly content and the size of the content library and rollout are still unknown.
- Best for: Families who love Disney and fanboys who can’t get enough Star Wars and/or Marvel content.
- Bottom Line: With more details about Disney+ and its programming finally emerging, it seems the service could deal a blow to Netflix. The strength of the Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, Fox, and National Geographics brands cannot be denied and the company is making a major investment in content to please fans. Although only a partial line-up is available now, expect a lot more news to emerge as November draws closer.
- Launch Date: November 12th, 2019
- Pricing: TBA
- Biggest draw: Huge names from Oprah Winfrey to Steven Spielberg have projects in the works along with the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Octavia Spencer, J.J. Abrams, and more.
- Biggest drawback: Aside from teases about some of the content, not much is known about the service just yet.
- Best for: Those who want to consume high-quality TV and trust Apple to produce it.
- Bottom Line: Apple’s foray into streaming content is one that’s been expected for a while but was finally announced in March 2019. In a statement announcing the service, Apple’s Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services Eddy Cue said, “Apple TV+ will be home to some of the highest quality original storytelling that TV and movie lovers have seen yet.” We’ll have to wait until this fall to see if that proves true — and if the price of the platform will make it attractive to your average cord cutter.
- Launch Date: Fall 2019
Free Streaming Services
Lastly, if looking at these options has your wallet running scared, there is some good news. Below you’ll find two free options that may help make your life as a cord cutter a little easier. Take a quick look at Pluto TV and Hoopla.
- Pricing: FREE
- Biggest draw: Access to live TV channels, both “real” and specially curated.
- Biggest drawback: You can only view programs live with no on-demand or DVR options.
- Best for: Those who just want something to watch without spending money.
- Bottom Line: Pluto TV gives you access to a variety of entertainment without paying a thing. With a diverse line-up of channels ranging from Rifftrax to CNBC, the service could be a great option when you just want to throw something on. While you may need to work a bit to watch your favorites with this service, it’s a nice and certainly affordable supplement to add to your cord cutting mix.
- Pricing: FREE with membership to participating libraries.
- Biggest draw: The ability to borrow books, seasons of TV, films, and music.
- Biggest drawback: Monthly borrowing limits apply as do daily overall library borrowing limits.
- Best for: Revisiting some older series, watching older movie titles, and maybe even checking out new music without spending on audio streaming services.
- Bottom Line: If you have a library card, you may already have access to Hoopla without realizing it. Personally, I’ve been impressed with some of the content available on this free platform. The one big downside is that you may encounter borrowing limits that prevent you from watching what you want — especially on weekends and other popular times. Aside from that, this too can be a great option for staying entertained on a strict budget.
Top Tips for Saving on Streaming
Consider bundle deals
Beyond some of the options you may have noticed, such as adding HBO or other premium networks to some services, there may also be other ways you can save by bundling. For example, music lovers and TV lovers can combine Spotify Premium with Hulu (the basic tier) for one price — in fact, that price was recently lowered to where you can get Hulu for free as a Spotify Premium subscriber. Students have it even better as the same bundle plus Showtime comes in at just $4.99 a month. Finally, once Disney+ launches, the Walt Disney Company has said it’s “likely” to bundle the service with ESPN+ and Hulu for a discounted rate.
As you can see from some of the pricing above, often times you can earn a discount by paying for a full year of service upfront instead of selecting a monthly option. In most cases, this works out to the equivalent of getting two months free, saving you upwards of 15%. While such discounts are available for every service on this list, it may be worth taking advantage of if they are.
Try coupons and promos
Another way you may be able to save money when signing up for streaming services is to look for special promo codes and offers. Take, for example, Ebates, which offers up to $25 cash back for new Hulu subscribers ($15 on Hulu Basic and $25 for Hulu Live). You may also be able to find promo codes on sites like RetailMeNot or DontPayFull. Lastly, there’s always the chance that the services themselves will offer special deals from time to time so it may be worth it to hold out and see what kind of deals you can score.
Look to your phone service
Earlier we also discussed the AT&T WatchTV service, which is included with select AT&T plans. However this isn’t the only example of mobile phone carriers looking to lure customers with free TV. T-Mobile now offers to cover users’ Netflix subscriptions, while some of Sprint’s unlimited plans include a Hulu subscription. It’s worth noting that, with these two carriers are looking to merge, it’s unclear which perk will remain if and when they are united.
Preview your options
Finally, nearly all of the services discussed do offer free trials, ranging from a week to a month. This is the perfect opportunity to explore each platform before committing to buy. In addition to diving into what programs and other content is to be found on each option, you’ll also want to ensure that these services perform well on your preferred devices, maintain an enjoyable and stable interface, and include all of the other features you may be seeking. Pro-tip: before signing up for these free trials, make sure you look up how to cancel if necessary and write down the date you joined so that you don’t forget when you’ll be billed.
With a bevy of streaming services on the market and more to come, the decision to cut the cord now also means figuring out which of these many options is right for you. Ultimately the answer will likely depend on a number of factors, such as what types of programming you’re looking for, what consumption options and devices your prefer, and even what mobile phone service you have. In any case, hopefully this look at some of the most popular platforms as well as some tips for saving when signing up will come in handy as you join the ranks of the cord cutters.
Also published on Medium.