Netflix is raising rates on most of its plans this month. Only the basic plan will stay the same price, at $7.99 per month. But unless you're okay with watching programs in standard definition, this plan probably isn't going to do it for you. The standard HD plan is going up $1 per month, to $10.99. The premium plan, which includes Ultra HD (4k) viewing and viewing on up to four screens at once will be $13.99.
Too rich for your blood? No worries. Netflix isn't the only content provider that's spending a fortune on programming. Both Hulu and Amazon have budgets in the billions; and these services can easily find a place as "must have" apps. There's also CBS All Access, which is trying to become a major player with exclusive shows like The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery. Plus, there are niche services depending on what you like -- Dove Channel for family-friendly entertainment, Shudder for horror, FilmStruck for movie lovers, and much more. And soon, Disney programming will migrate off Netflix and onto its own branded Disney app. We don't quite know what that's going to be like, or even a target date for its debut. But you should expect a roll-out sometime in 2018.
For now, here's a comparison of the general entertainment services:
HULU -- With Netflix raising its prices, Hulu decided this was a good time to cut prices on its basic plan. The limited time offer is just $5.99/month (down from $7.99), but it includes commercials. I became a fan of Hulu when the service introduced its commercial-free option. For $11.99, Hulu has next day viewing of most ABC, NBC and Fox network shows with no commercials. My wife and I don't actually know what night This is Us airs, because we watch it commercial-free on Hulu. Same for The Goldbergs and Designated Survivor and Scandal. Why wait til the season is over to watch on Netflix, when you can watch the very next day? In addition, Hulu's $2.5 billion budget for content means a bunch of great shows -- including the Emmy-award winning Best Drama The Handmaid's Tale. Lots of great movies, too. If you're okay with commercials, all that content is available on the $5.99 limited time offer, too. But I'd spring for the extra few dollars and go commercial-free. For cord cutters, Hulu has rolled out a live TV streaming service, as well.
AMAZON PRIME VIDEO -- Amazon aims to be a one-stop shop for rentals, purchases, subscriptions to various streaming channels, and their massive Prime Video service. It can be a bit confusing, because you've got to pay attention to what's included with your Prime (or other) subscription. Amazon clearly marks every Prime video, though, so it shouldn't be overwhelming. The best news is that you may already have Amazon Prime Video without even realizing it. Many people sign up for Amazon Prime's $99/year two-day free shipping service without noticing the other perks of Prime. For $99/year or $10/month, you also get access to Prime Video, Kindle's Lending Library, and more. Or you can get Prime Video as a standalone for $8.99/month. Prime Video has some great original programming (my favorite is The Man in the High Castle), but they also have a large library of movies and network series. For now, they have an awesome library of HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire (although sadly, HBO will end that deal after next year). If you are an Amazon shopper, it's a no-brainer to get Amazon Prime for the shipping. Consider the Prime Video service a bonus. And without buying any other service, you'll always have plenty of good things to watch.
CBS ALL ACCESS -- The jury is out on this service. One of our co-workers signed up for it because he loves Star Trek and wants to watch the new show; he's not planning to keep it after the season ends. If you're a CBS fan, you can get network shows the day after they air. Plus, CBS owns rights to a lot of classic TV shows like Cheers and I Love Lucy. And you can watch the local CBS channel live. But CBS All Access really has just two signature original series -- Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight (a spin-off of The Good Wife). More originals have been announced, but CBS All Access isn't there yet -- not enough to justify the price of $5.99/month with commercials or $9.99/month commercial-free. We would really like to see Star Trek: Discovery, but we'll wait until it's available to buy.
FANDANGO NOW/VUDU/GOOGLE PLAY -- Picking one of these services to watch TV shows is actually a very good option for people who don't watch a lot of TV, or who don't want to buy a monthly service for just a single show. All of these will sell you a season pass for a bunch of great shows, and you can watch the day after it airs on its network. You'll have to wait for some shows, like Star Trek: Discovery, but expect that to be available eventually. And because you own it, it's always without commercials and without any worry that it goes away before you've had a chance to watch it. In addition, these services also rent movies at whatever the prevailing rate is. Want to watch The Handmaid's Tale, but don't want to get a monthly subscription to Hulu? Buy it, and be assured that you're only paying for what you're watching.
PBS -- This is the must have app for fans of shows on PBS. We really didn't watch PBS for drama until Downton Abbey took America by storm. But as it turns out, the network has a serious catalog of great British drama and incredible documentary series like Ken Burns' The Vietnam War. Access to recently aired PBS shows is free; but to really get the most out of this service, become a PBS donor to the tune of $5/month (minimum). That opens up PBS Passport, which may be the best service you've never heard of, giving you access to an amazing amount of content -- crime shows (I love The Tunnel), documentaries, period drama. etc. And lately, PBS has started to release entire seasons exclusively to Passport subscribers, before the show airs. For example, the 3rd season of Poldark just started (don't miss this one!) on broadcast TV, but you can watch the entire season right now on the PBS app. So you get two wins: You have access to great shows AND you can stop feeling guilty about the fact that you never donate to PBS.
NETFLIX -- Despite the price increase, Netflix is still a great value. And that $13.99/month plan allows four streams at a time. That could be four rooms in your house, or split the cost with friends. With an annual budget of $7 billion for programming, they've got a ton of content. So much, in fact, that it's hard to decide what new show to start watching. What Netflix hasn't been good at lately is movies. It's sadly lacking in older movies, art house flicks, etc. For that, you need one of the movie-focused services like Tribeca Shortlist (available standalone or with Sling TV), or the excellent Filmstruck service.
NICHE SERVICES -- If you like a particular genre of programming, from family films to British TV to health and fitness, there are a ton of choices. Many of them are part of Amazon Channels (with monthly fees), and it's a good place to get an overview of what's available. Unlike Prime Video, these are available monthly from Amazon or you can buy them as standalone services. And there are a bunch more that are available elsewhere, that you won't see on Amazon. Think of something you like (basically anything!) and do a Google search; you'll probably find a channel for it.
Remember, these are the services that have original programming not readilly available with cable or satellite TV. If you're a cord cutter, you may want to find streaming versions of HBO, Starz and Showtime, as well. And what about watching those awesome shows from FX and AMC (hint: season passes). You could easily spend whatever you were spending on cable or more. But the best news is that you can sign up for any number of services on a free trial, watch what you want, and then cancel anytime. "No commitment" may be the greatest thing that's happen to TV recently. So you really should be able to watch whatever you want; and if you're careful, without spending too much.