A viewer’s guide to navigating the messy streaming TV world

Is it finally time to cut the cord?
Is it finally time to cut the cord?
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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We asked for choice. And, guess what? We got it—perhaps more than we bargained for.

As the share of people who have canceled traditional TV in the US hurtles toward 20% of the adult population, players big and small are placing bets to see what people will pay for and watch. It is a far—and welcome—cry from the days when TV customers were told, “you’ll pay for all these channels and you’ll like it.” But the result is a barrage of streaming services many people don’t know what to do with.

Welcome to our field guide on the coming streaming wars. Check out other parts of our deep dive into the future of television here.

There are hundreds of streaming-video services in the US, where the average person pays for three. Media players like Roku carry more than 5,000 streaming channels in the US, from the well-known, like Netflix, to the obscure, like Nosey, a free app with tabloid talk shows like Maury and The Jerry Springer Show. And I, an admittedly heavy TV user, have 14 TV apps on my Apple TV and use 10 regularly, including apps that only work with my live-TV subscription.

What do the Streaming Wars mean for TV viewers? Is the TV bundle dead? Will we have to subscribe to WarnerMedia’s streaming service to watch Friends, or Disney+ to watch Star Wars? Will streaming video change what TV shows look like?

Join us on a journey to answer those questions and more.

I still have cable. Is now the time to finally cut the cord?

That’s a complicated question because it depends on what you want out of a TV service, and what you’re willing to give up to save money.

If you’ve held out this long because you’re tied to certain programming on traditional TV, you should wait a little longer. Soon, you’ll be able to get most of what you’d find on regular TV over the internet, as legacy networks move online. A few, like CBS All Access, HBO Now, and Showtime, are worthy replacements for their TV counterparts already—with live programming and robust back catalogs on demand. Others, like ESPN+ and Lifetime Movies are complements to their sister TV channels and don’t have all of the same programming. Online offshoots for other network groups like Disney and WarnerMedia are still on the way.

But definitely call your pay-TV provider and threaten to cancel so you can knock some money off your bill.

What if I do want to cut the cord, but hold on to live TV. What are my options then?

There are a slew of online bundles in the US looking to replace your regular TV bundle. Most start at around $40 for 50 or more channels and are available from providers like DirecTV Now, Hulu with Live TV, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV. Sling TV’s base packages start lower, at $25, but have fewer networks. Cheaper packages that don’t include dedicated sports channels from Philo and AT&T’s WatchTV start at $16 and $15, respectively.

I love sports. Where can I stream my favorite teams?

Most of the streaming-TV bundles mentioned above carry major sports cable channels like ESPN, Fox Sports 1, and NBCSN, as well as the big four US broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. But they only stream live broadcasts from select local stations. Internet-TV bundle FuboTV has a lot of sports channels, too, but not ESPN.

Access to live sports is fragmented on streaming TV, because of the complicated and very expensive deals for sports rights. That could change in the US in 2021, when rights packages to the big four sports leagues start to expire. For now, you can find a smattering of sports across platforms including:

  • CBS All Access – All the games that air on CBS broadcasts
  • Amazon – Thursday Night Football
  • ESPN+ – A variety of things, including baseball games and, soon, UFC matches

Of course, many leagues themselves have live streaming packages (save the NFL, which is currently tied up with broadcast and cable companies), like MLB.TV, NHL.TV, and NBA League Pass.

I love TV news. Where can I watch my favorite anchors?

If you want the full lineup on cable-TV channels like CNN or Fox News, you will need one of the live-TV packages above. Like sports, news from local broadcast networks are only available in select markets.

Facebook has been funding news programs for its Watch platform from TV news networks like ABC News, Univision, CNN, and Fox News.

And some news channels are launching their own services. CBS added news from CBSN to its streaming service CBS All Access. NBC News is launching a free network called Signal on platforms like YouTube and Pluto TV. Fox News is releasing an opinion platform called Fox Nation on Nov. 27, which will cost $6 per month. And then there are channels like Cheddar and Yahoo that are made for the internet.

So that whole “à la carte TV” thing—is that ever happening?

Not any time soon. Sling TV is the closest thing to an à la carte TV bundle on the US market, and it starts with base packages of 30+ channels you can add on to.

A rule borrowed from international trade negotiations is holding it back. The “most-favored nation” clauses in programming deals mean that if, say, Scripps Networks licenses HGTV to Sling without sister networks Food Network and the Travel Channel, it has to offer the same deal to every other TV provider it does business with, from Comcast all the way down to Philo. The networks benefit from keeping the bundle together.

Amazon Prime Video Channels is doing something unique by bundling together subscriptions for different streaming-video apps, like CBS All Access, HBO Now, and BritBox, a platform for British TV. Amazon carries more than 140 channels in the US, as well as channels in Germany and the UK that can be bought à la carte.

When Disney comes out with its new streaming service, does that mean all of Disney’s stuff (Mickey Mouse, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel) will only appear there? Same for WarnerMedia and DC, Harry Potter, and Looney Tunes?

Yes, and no. One of the byproducts of media companies like Disney and WarnerMedia launching their own streaming services is that they have less of an incentive to license their content to other platforms like Netflix.

Here’s an example: Netflix reportedly paid around $118 million—nearly as much as the first two seasons of The Crown—to stream the Warner Bros. TV show Friends in North America starting in 2015. The deal is set to expire next year, when WarnerMedia will also launch a new streaming service in the US. WarnerMedia could ask Netflix to pay a lot more to hold on to the rights to Friends for a few years. Or it could claim the rights for itself and use the beloved TV show to make its offering more enticing, even if it means missing out on Netflix’s 58 million US subscribers. Friends, which went off the air in 2004 after 10 seasons, remains extremely popular and continues to find new audiences thanks to streaming video and TV repeats that play on broadcast and cable channels.

Disney has reason to be stingy with big hits like Star Wars, too. People are already overwhelmed with the number of video platforms out there; most people in the US have access to four, but only use about two regularly. Entrants this late in the game—like Disney+, which is also due out in late 2019—will need to be compelling enough to convince people to part with more of their money, or drop an existing service for something new. Remember, Disney’s big advantage, apart from its studios, is its backlog of content that people already love.

Unfortunately for Disney, it gave up a lot of those rights before solidifying its streaming plans. Turner, for example, has certain rights to Star Wars films through 2024, which Disney reportedly tried to buy back. Netflix has streamed new Disney releases like the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns since 2016, with the films remaining on the service for about a year and a half after they’ve been added. That deal expires in 2019, which is part of why Disney is waiting until late in the year to launch Disney+. Movies like Captain Marvel, Avengers 4, and the ninth Star Wars saga film will be among the first releases to go to Disney+, which will have more than 500 movies and 7,000 TV episodes.

All this means that Disney+ probably won’t be your one-stop shop for Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, and Disney-branded content when it launches. But expect to see more of the older content migrate there when the current commitments expire.

Disney and WarnerMedia also both have stakes in Hulu and will probably continue licensing some content there, or bundle their subscriptions with Hulu.

But if I want Game of Thrones I still have to pay HBO $15 a month, right? That doesn’t get folded into any new Warner thing?

It’s unclear, because WarnerMedia hasn’t announced what specifically will be included in the service or how much it will cost. From the way WarnerMedia has talked about it, it sounds like content such as DC movies and series, and the classic collection of Criterion films could be sold as add ons to the $15 HBO Now service.

Ellation’s VRV, a niche streaming platform AT&T owns through subsidiary Otter Media, could offer a clue as to what this will look like. VRV combines tiers of subscriptions like the anime service Crunchyroll, Nerdist, AMC’s horror platform Shudder, and Rooster Teeth for animation. You can get everything on VRV for $10 per month, or subscribe to channels individually for a few bucks each. Crunchyroll is the most expensive at around $7 and others, like Nerdist, are cheaper at around $3.

I see I can get HBO (and Showtime, and smaller networks like Cheddar) either directly from those brands or via Amazon Prime Video Channels. Any reason I should or shouldn’t do that?

It comes down to convenience. If you have a $119-per-year Amazon Prime membership, which you’d need in order to buy other video subscriptions through Amazon, you can integrate those apps into Prime Video. Buying through Prime Video Channels lets you search for content across apps and means you only pay one company for your video services each month.

What’s Apple going to add to my Apple TV that I’m not already getting? Am I going to have to pay for that stuff?

Apple is working on about two dozen shows (paywall) with Hollywood A-listers like Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg. It is releasing a drama about morning TV with Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell and rebooting the cult classic anthology series Amazing Stories with Spielberg, among other programs. Apple hasn’t said much about the video service these will be released on, but it’s expected to be free with Apple devices.

Similar to Amazon Prime Video Channels, Apple is also reportedly trying to sell subscriptions through its TV app the way it sells news through Apple News, as well as bundle video with other services like iCloud storage.

What happens to all that TV advertising if people stop watching traditional TV? Will there be ads on Netflix?

No doubt, TV advertising is not what it used to be in the US. Outside of events like the Super Bowl and big shows like The Big Bang Theory, advertisers can no longer depend on tens of millions of people to sit around at the same time watching TV. Spending on TV advertising is forecasted to slip 0.5% to under $70 billion this year, while spending on digital ads climbs to $107 billion, according to eMarketer. And online video, led by Facebook and Google’s YouTube, is estimated to account for one-quarter of all US digital ad revenue.

The new generation of legacy TV networks that are moving online are also hungry for those digital ad dollars. Like Hulu, CBS’s subscription-video platform CBS All Access, sells a package with ads. Viacom is preparing to launch a streaming service that will likely be ad-supported. And Disney’s ESPN+ subscription service has limited ads. It’s unclear whether WarnerMedia’s upcoming service will have ads, but AT&T’s new ad division Xandr is on a mission to better target TV and online video ads to people.

The upside is the ads subsidize the cost of the streaming services, so they’re a little cheaper than their ad-free counterparts. If you really can’t stand commercials, Hulu, CBS All Access, and FX+ (the latter only works with select pay-TV providers) are upselling people on packages that reduce or eliminate the ads.

As for Netflix, people were miffed when it merely tested trailers (paywall) in between episodes, so real ads would cause an uproar. Then again, Netflix was adamant that its subscribers should be able to see all its movies as soon as they were available, and now it’s starting to release some movies in theaters before putting them on the app to qualify for awards. Never say never.

Is TV going to change? Like, is the 30-minute sitcom that has 22 episodes a season dead?

It’s not dead, but it’s not the only option either. With a cerebral mini-series like Maniac on Netflix, you can have episodes that are 47 minutes long and others that are 26 minutes. The show doesn’t need into fit into a programming slot or pause for commercials. It comes down to however long it takes to tell the story.

Platforms like Snapchat are also working on telling minutes-long stories that match the quality of those on TV. Snapchat released its first slate of 5-minute shows last month. And WndrCo’s Quibi, an upcoming mobile-video platform from DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman, wants to create series on par with Game of Thrones that are told in 10 minutes or less.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, by the way, has also talked—at the risk of sending HBO boss Richard Plepler into a panic—about the possibility of 60-minute shows like Game of Thrones being cut down to 20 minutes to work better for mobile.

Does this actually make anything cheaper?

It is starting to get a little out of control. Many people cut the cord to save money. But it is hard to do that when you have to pay separately for CBS, HBO, MLB.TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu with Live TV separately (which can total $100+ per month), on top of your internet service.

We have choice, now. And choice can save you a lot of money if you’re savvy about how you package your services. But, at the end of the day, we’re still paying for it.