Shared cultural moments are powerful, especially when they are based in tragedy and struggle. But the world is sharing much more than the fear, loss and sickness of living through a deadly virus. Now more than ever in our history, we are sharing the need for escape and connection provided by home entertainment. With the isolation and boredom of pandemic times, we are craving the comfort, laughter, love, mystery, drama and distraction provided by TV and film in particular, but also true life stories, documentaries and “reality” television that allows us to forget the troubles of the real world, if only for a moment. Thankfully this and more is all available via our television, computer, tablet and phone screens thanks to streaming services.
Even before the coronavirus changed our way of life, streaming services were emerging as an unstoppable force in entertainment. Sure, cable subscription services such as HBO, Showtime, Starz and the like created the template, expanding our viewing choices, offering provocative and adult fare without network TV restrictions, but we had to pay a pretty penny for it. As cable TV transcended the options we had before, the prices seemed to increase exponentially — more so as internet became bundled into the billing packages — leading to exorbitant fees that at some point simply didn’t seem worth it anymore.
For those who already had Netflix (Seems like eons ago when it was just a DVD rental service, doesn’t it?), Hulu and Amazon, there was enough to cut the cable cord the past few years, especially when supplemented with Sling TV for certain cable channels and a bargain-priced TV antennae from Best Buy for local stations. But many of us wanted more and with the genie out of the bottle in terms of services, we got ’em.
And now we’re all stuck at home in need of something to fill a myriad of hours and satisfy multiple tastes within individual households. From families looking for educational and fun programming for kids to classic and cult film fanatics, to blockbuster buffs, to niche lovers attracted to horror, animation, documentary, sitcoms and more, there is thankfully something for everyone, plus a lot of weird stuff we didn’t know we needed. TV, like real life, is full of villains, and yes, heroes too, but beyond local and national news programs, we want more. As we stay safer at home and wait for a happy ending to our current global distress, at least we can enjoy a few of them on the slew of streaming services out there. Here, a Top 10 list of the best based on price (many are free) and content.
10. PLUTO TV
The leading free streaming television service in the U.S., with an audience of over 22 million and over 250 live, linear channels and thousands of movies and television on demand, Pluto is one of the most bountiful and diverse streaming options available — and it’s 100 percent free.
“We offer ease of access with infinite streaming options,” says Jodi Lederman, head of Global Communications at Pluto TV. “[Plus] a wide array of branded partner channels in addition to our own Pluto TV original channels that are thematically curated from a library we cultivated from our 200 major media partners. Our favorite feature on Pluto might be its signature “Binge Watch channels” which feature marathon-style programming. Yes, they have entire channels running Bond films (oo7 on 24/7 is good idea whose time has finally come), plus The Hills channel (if we can’t go clubbing at least we can watch annoying people do it), an Addams Family channel and the nonstop beach babe-a-thon that is Baywatch.
Touted as the world’s largest ad-supported video-on-demand service, Tubi reports that new users are up 50 percent since the coronavirus led to stay-at-home orders across the country. “Our growth over the last year is a clear testament to the success of our focused strategy in a now-cluttered marketplace,” says Farhad Massoudi, CEO of Tubi, in a press release.
With a great selection of cult films and hits from the ’80s and ’90s, Tubi offers a unique alternative to Netflix and Hulu, and they planned it that way. Its campaign to get noticed last year included billboards and sky banners in L.A. and NYC with taglines like “Dear Netflix, I had my first freesome last night. Tubi was amazing” and “Dear Hulu, I was with Tubi last night, but I only watched.” Pretty bold, but they got the goods to back it up. The service offers over 20,000 movies and television shows from nearly every major Hollywood studio, and it is also completely free!
When the streaming horror TV service called Shudder increased the free trial period from seven to 30 days post-pandemic (just enter the code SHUTIN during the subscription process) it was just the opportunity many needed to check it out, and we’re betting many will keep this one too. From horror blockbusters to low budget gore-fests to sci-fi to apocalyptic films (yes, many are seeking out this kind of fare right now as a way of reflecting on the current state of world and feeling better by comparison). Highlights here include the new Creepshow series, Cursed — a fun documentary series that looks behind the scenes at famous scary movies — and of course, the spine-tingling films that gave us nightmares as kids, including the original Hills Have Eyes, Slumber Party Massacre and Phantasm. After trial, cost is 5.99 monthly.
While many said goodbye to HBO subscriptions after Game of Thrones ended, just as many probably said hello when the service offered 500 hours of programming during pandemic earlier his month. The WarnerMedia-owned network’s #StayHomeBoxOffice initiative made select movies and popular TV shows available without a subscription. The list of free programming includes every episode of nine iconic HBO series, such as The Sopranos, Veep, Six Feet Under and The Wire; WB blockbusters from HBO’s current catalog like Pokémon Detective Pikachu and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and 10 HBO documentaries and docuseries, including McMillion$ and The Case Against Adnan Syed.
HBO MAX is a brand new offering coming out May 27, and subscribers of NOW will get access at no extra cost. HBO subscribers through AT&T and Charter cable will also be automatically upgraded to HBO Max. The channel will feature Turner Classic Movies, CNN, TNT, TBS, truTV, Crunchyroll, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Rooster Teeth, and Looney Tunes and boasts old TV faves such as Friends and South Park, and movies including Joker and Shazam. The original programming looks pretty cool too; previews for a hanfdul were released this week including an Anna Kendrick romantic drama and a kids crafting competition.
HBO Max will cost subscribers $14.99 monthly, the same price currently attached to HBO Now. Pay for the service and you unlock even more, including Thrones. HBO Go comes with subscription, NOW is $14.99 a month.
NBC’s new Peacock service is on its heels (coming this July), but CBS’ streaming service came out with a bang first, boasting Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot (which didn’t quite deliver) as well as Christine Baranski’s The Good Fight, live feeds from Big Brother and the opportunity to watch all the network’s shows the day after broadcast on regular TV. Currently, its best offerings include the Star Trek update Picard, and a nicely curated library of films and family shows. It costs $5.99 per month with advertising and $9.99 per month without.
5. Apple TV+
Putting their money where their mouse is, Apple TV+ kicked off with an impressive selection of shows, each production as lavish and star-studded as the next. The breakout hit on the platform was definitely The Morning Show, which saw star Jennifer Anniston win big in last year’s award show circuit, but other inspired programming includes originals such as Home, exploring the world’s most imaginative dwellings; Servant, a supernatural thriller; and See, the Jason Mamoa vehicle (he can’t see us, but thankfully we can see him). This week, the service debuts the Spike Jonze-directed Beastie Boys Story live documentary which is worth signing up, if only for the trial (7 days). It’s $4.99 per month after that or free for one year with the purchase of Apple hardware.
This ad-free streaming service is chock-full of the classic animated films you’d expect, Star Wars-themed shows and over 50 days worth of The Simpsons. The dizzying Disney array also features content from Pixar, Marvel Studios, National Geographic, 20th Century Fox, Lucas Films and Muppets. If you’ve got kids at home or kids at heart, there’s not much else to say — it’s worth it. They offer a week free and then it’s $6.99/month or $69.99/year ($5.83/month). You can also get the service as part of a new bundle with an ad-free version of Hulu along with ESPN+.
Though all of the above have sought to unseat them, these services make up the holy trinity of streaming and probably won’t be getting knocked off the top anytime soon. Solidifying their standing as entertainment juggernauts and omnipresent cultural influencers, each service deserves props for never resting on its laurels. Prime’s highpoint thus far was probably winning Emmys for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag, and now that the latter is over, it has some great shows to fill the void (such as the Project Runway wannabe (but better) Making the Cut and the Pacino Nazi thriller Hunters). Over at Hulu, shows in conjunction with FX top our favorites list such as the white nerd rapper comedy Dave and the feminist drama Mrs. America. (And by the way, you probably noticed that every network, service and movie company continues to merge and merge over again, so yes, one day everything on this list will probably be owned by one entity and we have no idea what that will mean, but as long as they work with talented people, it shouldn’t matter too much).
Finally, there’s Netflix, which has seen a record 15.8 million accounts added between since coronavirus hit. The service has proven anything but chill in terms of new content too, especially original stuff designed to engage us all. As many a think piece has noted, Tiger King for example, couldn’t have come at a more well-timed moment in history- its WTF slice of oddball docu-drama providing a much needed mind-blower when we all really needed to think about something other than our own lives.
As we all do our part to stop the spread of sickness and death, streaming services’ (with social media as amplifier) offer endless options and new ways to connect with each other and marvel at this crazy world we live in. When this virus thing is all over, and we all struggle to get back to normal, one thing is for sure, home entertainment will still be there, more alive and full of humanity (or not) than ever. We’ll need it.
Amazon Prime is $119 annually/$12.99 a month; Hulu (Basic- $5.99 per month, Premium- $11.99 per month, Basic + Live TV- $54.99 per month and Premium + Live TV- $60.99 per month); and Netflix is $8.99/$12.99/$15.99 a month.
In some ways Sling should be numero uno on this list. Long before the commercials with Maya Rudolph on “couch arrest,” asking if we’d rather “Sling in or go out” (at first these seemed like perfect foreshadowing, but now they seem taunting) – people were quitting their cable and opting to stream the same channels with the service. Picking the right package is key with Sling, and even when you finally score a semblance of what you had with cable you might be missing some local channels. But all in all it’s a much better bargain. Various packages and price points- click link above for more info.
Touted as the newest next big thing in streaming, Quibi is tailor made for the ADD generation, with short form (less than 10 minutes long) entertainment formatted for TV and smartphones featuring huge stars creating the content. The brainchild of former Disney chair Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Ebay CEO Meg Whitman, this one’s seemingly got it all but it remains to be seen if lack of length equals lack of depth (Chrissy’s Court is its most talked about show, so who knows). So far, reviews have been mixed. Due to pandemic, the service is offering 90 days free. It’s $4.99 a month after that.