Subscription video services like Netflix and HBO Go are quickly becoming the dominant way that people consume movies and TV shows. The good news is that there’s plenty of quality to be found in these places. Whether you’re addicted to “Veep” or keen on watching the latest genre excursion from Bong Joon Ho, you’re best bet is a home subscription.
But even as these platforms provide audiences with a wider array of options, many people are struggling to get the most out this abundance of choice. Here are some tips for spending wisely and getting the home entertainment setup that suits your needs.
Don’t Try To Replace What You Had
One of the disadvantages of cable was that you ended paying for junk you didn’t want. The most classic example was $5 of a basic cable bill going for ESPN and its expensive live sports broadcast rights — a must for the average sports fan, but a waste for others. This is why the a la carte approach of streaming was so attractive: Pay for the stuff you actually watch.
The problem is that, as the streaming business grows exponentially, platforms are spending huge amounts of money for great original or exclusive mainstream content, while dozens of great niche services are emerging to fill the gaps. The result is that your ability to build a package that incorporates all your favorite shows and feed your movie needs has become extremely expensive.
These days, there are reasons to seriously consider three or more subscription services as a part of your household needs. Maybe you relied on Amazon Prime, Netflix and HBO Go, but suddenly the popularity of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime, “Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, and the emergence of great movie services like FilmStruck have you thinking about spending much more.
In addition to the hefty price tag, the 2017 streaming equivalent of channel surfing can be so much worse than the old cable version – as you have to switch in and out of platforms (sometimes devices), while breaking past algorithm curation to unearth the depth of each library requires light hacking and Google searches.
Committing to One Platform Doesn’t Work
There are also those who are busy and have erratic home-viewing habits – or others just trying to keep it cheap – who get stuck with one or two platforms. This approach can feel like settling for less – as inevitably there are new shows everyone is talking about that you don’t have access to, while you constantly bump up against the curatorial limits of a platform like Netflix or HBO as it relates to movies, being forced to scrape every last drop of their libraries and having to settle for mediocrity.
The result of both divergent paths is the same: people are spending too many frustrating hours figuring out what to watch, rather than enjoying great content. There’s an irony to that fact that in the streaming era of freedom and abundance of choice, the streaming experience can often feel almost more limiting.
Use the Bookstore Approach
The key is to embrace both the abundance and flexibility streaming offers and make positive choices. Think of each platform like an enticing section of a great bookstore – which one or two books do you want to read over the next couples of months?
Let’s say “Game of Thrones” is one of those shows you have to watch the Sunday night it premieres. So in July through August subscribe to HBO Go, but figure out how to get the most from that $15 a month. In addition to your Sunday night programming, pick one of their classic shows you have always wanted to see. For example, I work with this smart guy Ben who keeps saying “The Leftovers” is the best thing of TV, so of course I want to watch it. Maybe you’re the one person in your group of friends who hasn’t seen “The Wire.” Or if you need a 30-minute comedy show in the rotation as late night comfort or for when you have a short chunk of time to kill, HBO has awesome choices: “The Comeback,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Flight of the Conchords,” “High Maintenance,” “Silicon Valley,” “Mr Show” and more.
On the movie front, instead of focusing on what a platform doesn’t have, queue up the four to five movies to you missed or have been dying to revisit. I just did this and came up with “A Bigger Splash,” “Deadpool,” “Broadcast News,” “Catch Me If You Can” and Don Siegel’s “Beguiled” (adapted from the same book as Sofia Coppola’s upcoming version) all of which I’m now super excited to watch in the coming weeks. And don’t forget, HBO funds a ton of great nonfiction filmmaking as well.
I personally need a bigger selection of movies, but with the money I’m saving I’ll buy or rent the individual titles the day I want to watch them – I can also do this for a show I want watch in real time on another channel – and I’ll look at the schedule of my local art/retro house to make sure I hit the big screen a few nights this summer as well.
That’s two great months of viewing: a couple current shows I’ll enjoy week to week, binging one or two of greatest shows ever made, great 30 minute comedy comfort food, four great movies I actually want to see, sampling of some of the better nonfiction and spending savings on movies or another show I have to watch now. And when August and “Game of Thrones” comes to an end, if I’m feeling limited by HBO, I’ll go back to the bookstore.
You are no longer in an abusive relationship with a cable company. You’re not with a person who demands a longer-term commitment, but then after a year – and without warning – radically changes the terms of the relationship and makes breaking up a painful experience. You are single now. Cancelling is a click away, some platforms even let you temporarily suspend your account, and it’s not like HBO isn’t going to make it super easy to get back together.
Get a New Book
It’s time to expand your horizons, go back to the bookstore and figure out what you want to watch next.
When you walk in you see Aziz Ansari’s face on the shelf, and you’ve read that “Master of None” is so good, so you walk over the Netflix section. Like in a bookstore, focus on what you want, not the limits of section. One small example: I’ve been on big action film kick lately and I was pleasantly surprised to find how deep and exciting Netflix genre selection had become: John Carpenter classics from the ’80s, a ton Asians masters (Bong Joon Ho, Stephen Chow, Zhang Yimou and Jee-woon Kim), along with some new stuff – all of which is a welcome reprieve from what’s at the cineplex this summer.
Does “Twin Peaks” mania have you shelling out $11 a month for Showtime, or is “Handmaid’s Tale” requiring you try Hulu for the first time for $8? Don’t just endlessly scroll through their vast selection of mediocre movies. Queue up the stuff they do well. Showtime has great new docs like “Risk” and “Weiner,” while Hulu has a good selection of current shows and is starting to make good acquisitions of smart movies.
My tastes really vary month to month and often become hyper-specific. Sometimes I’ll pick a director and watch his/her whole body of work, or I’ll focus on a particular genre, or crave out of the box indie fare. With countless services emerging – like Shudder for horror, or FilmStruck for cinephiles, or Sundance Now for indie film – you can fall down that rabbit hole for a few weeks and never reach the bottom. Feeling really adventurous and want to expand your horizons? For $4.99 a month, the cinephile curators at Mubi will pick you out one compelling film from around the world and give you 30 days to watch it. Traveling this summer with unreliable wifi? Pick one of the smart platforms like Amazon Prime that allows downloading and offline viewing.
Speaking of Amazon Prime, it’s one of the only major subscriptions that require a year-long commitment, but chances are strong that you have it for other reasons like shipping, free books and music. Prime can be a great compliment to other month to month services. In particular, the platform has a huge percentage of the best recent films: the A24 library (“Moonlight,” “American Honey”), little seen indie gems and all the great stuff that Amazon Studios has produced of late (“Manchester By the Sea,” “The Handmaiden” and “Paterson”), plus the ever-reliable small screen accomplishments of Jill Soloway (“I Love Dick”).
None of these platforms will satisfy all your needs, but each has things you really want to see and will enjoy. In the era of abundance of choice, it’s healthier to think about what you really want to watch in the immediate future, rather than worry about what you don’t have or building a library. And if you are someone who needs to have all the platforms – or just has the funds to do so – may I suggest you nonetheless still take a similar approach. If you don’t make positive choices about what to watch, you are going to be spending your time endlessly scrolling rather than screening.