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Why are there so many TV streaming services?

Getting everything you want can be very expensive.
Billy Steele
09.27.19 in AV
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Will Lipman Photography for Engadget

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The days of television streaming with limited choices are long gone. The list of options grows longer almost daily, and some big names have plans to launch new services that will further silo the content you want to watch. Exclusives are the new streaming currency, and to get everything you desire, you have to hand over a lot more money than you probably want to.

How did we get here?

A decade ago, if you wanted to cut the cord, your options were limited to on-demand services like Hulu and Netflix. Now that streaming is all the rage, everyone wants a piece -- and the networks and companies that own attractive content want a bigger slice of the pie. This means that libraries of movies and shows are becoming increasingly divided up, with any company that owns the rights to something people want to watch launching its own service. Hulu has the benefit of being under Disney's wing to offset its original slate, but Netflix is increasingly dependent on the content it's making to keep up. Making that stuff isn't cheap, and the company regularly raises prices to offset those costs.

The power when it comes to streaming in 2019 is exclusives. If you can lock down a popular show or studio to your service, you're likely going to force people to add your plan to their list of monthly fees. Disney+ is doing this with Marvel and its other properties, WarnerMedia is locking Friends and Doctor Who on HBO Max and NBCUniversal reclaimed The Office for its Peacock service. Oh yeah, Apple TV+ is coming this fall as well.

Sports fans are in a similar predicament. You likely have to subscribe to a different streaming service for each league you want to follow. And because leagues and college conferences have deals with multiple networks, trying to get every game you want is a confusing mess.

Companies like Sling TV would eventually develop options for streaming live television, and now YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, fuboTV, PS Vue, AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now) and others all offer something similar. You don't get the total number of channels cable sometimes affords, but between 70 and 100 seems to be the sweet spot for these services. And because they're streaming first, you can access them on all of your devices -- assuming you have a solid internet connection. Live TV is still a luxury, and you'll have to pay around $40-$50 a month to get it. Unfortunately, not everything you'll want to watch is broadcast, so you can't rely solely on a live television service and its cloud DVR to meet your needs.

How much are we really talking?

To show that I'm not just another person on the internet complaining about having to pay for things he wants to use, I did the math. I picked everything I'd want to stream in an ideal scenario where money doesn't matter and I don't have other bills to pay. My list leans sports heavy because I love to watch soccer. That means I need a live TV service and probably one streaming option per league in order to keep up. If you're not a sports fan, replace my selections with CBS All Access, Showtime Anytime or any of the myriad options you need to watch anything you'd want if you could. The total is probably more than you think.

Current streaming wish list (monthly cost):

  • YouTube TV: Live TV (sports!), unlimited cloud DVR ($49.99)
  • Netflix: There are some originals I just can't quit (Patriot Act, The Crown, etc.) ($12.99)
  • Hulu: I keep the ads to soften the blow to my wallet ($5.99)
  • ESPN+: So much sports (lots of soccer), so little money ($4.99)
  • NBC Sports Gold: A must during Premier League season for everything not on NBC or NBC Sports in the US ($59.99/year - $12/month)
  • Fox Soccer Match Pass: Don't have mostly due the absurd price, but I'd love to watch more Bundesliga ($19.99)
  • Amazon Prime Video: For the sake of argument, let's just say have Prime only for streaming ($12.99)
  • HBO Now: Look, I might rewatch Game of Thrones... sometime ($14.99)
  • Disney+: It isn't out yet, but I know I'll want a Marvel fix. ($6.99)
  • B/R Live: Champions League and Europa League soccer. ($9.99)

Add all of that together, and you're looking at over $150 a month. Even if you take off Prime (let's be honest, I'm really paying for quick shipping) and factor in the upcoming Hulu/Disney+/ESPN+ bundle that will be $12.99, the total is still nearly $133. I could knock off a few more dollars by nixing Netflix (which I probably will), but I'm still looking at $120 a month plus any taxes and fees. There isn't enough info on Apple TV+ right now to sway me in that direction, and I haven't found what has been announced particularly compelling -- even at $4.99 a month.

All of which is to say: Streaming isn't the great deal it once was, and more options arrive all the time to entice us to spend even more.

Don't worry, it's going to get worse

Peacock

Disney+ is coming in November. So is Apple TV+. Next year, WarnerMedia will launch HBO Max. NBCUniversal is prepping its Peacock service for 2020 too. All four will have popular shows and originals that are exclusive to their respective libraries. And on top of those, Discovery is working on a streaming option that will also offer BBC content, and Quibi plans to offer "quick bites" when it launches. Who knows what else will be announced before the end of the year.

Another solution

All is not lost. As my colleague Kris Holt pointed out, you can save some serious money if you're willing to dedicate time to some serious planning. Since there are no contracts for these services (unless you opt for an introductory offer), you can cancel them monthly as you wish. This means you can pay for Netflix long enough to watch the Breaking Bad movie El Camino and switch to Hulu for The Handmaid's Tale in a few weeks. Yes, it takes effort, but it will save you a few bucks.

He also notes that you can save on the pricey live TV services that you need for sports by holding on to your free trials until you need them. No one wants to pay $50 for a month of live sports just to see their bracket get busted during the NCAA basketball tournament. There are also plenty of free options that may not be exactly what you want, but they'll help fill out your streaming library -- especially for things like news. Again, with some planning, you can save by only paying for what you really need when you need it. You just have to be willing to put in the time.

What next?

I'm not here to judge you for paying for a dozen streaming services so you have everything you want all the time. Heck, I've considered it myself many times. The fact of the matter is that there are way too many streaming services now, and if you want streaming to save you money (and headaches) over a cable plan, you have to put forth a little effort. Otherwise, you'll be spending over $150 a month before you know it, and there are only so many hours in a day for watching TV.

The streaming wars, and the race to lock down exclusives, are only beginning. As a result, your monthly streaming bill is only going to increase later in 2019 and into 2020 as more services become available, each with their own movies and shows you can't get anywhere else.

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