For years, the running joke in media has been that if we keep inventing and bundling streaming services, we’re effectively going to reinvent cable. At first, it made sense to separate streaming titles; some were better for movies, some for TV, and still others for sport. At least one of them comes discounted if not free with the latest iPhone, while another is built into the subscription that gets you free shipping on toilet paper. But when it comes to quality and quantity of content, what streaming service really comes out on top?
Listen, before you go about choosing let alone ranking your streaming apps, you need to assess your streaming priorities. Below, four IndieWire staffers debate our top three streamers, acknowledging that each of us has different viewing preferences and lifestyles (try asking Tony Maglio’s kids to give up Disney+, we dare you). But with a bustling streaming climate, rising prices, and wide-ranging titles, these are the kind of tough discussion we need to be having with ourselves and our loved ones (or, you know, coworkers).
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So which streaming service has the most bang for your buck? There isn’t one right answer for everyone — but hear us out.
Erin Strecker, Executive Editor – TV
I watch a lot of television — a lot. Given my job, much of it is new stuff that I’m watching in advance of the premiere (and a lot of it…isn’t so wonderful), so when I want to veg out in my off hours, I’m all about the comfort rewatch. That’s where my picks come in. Max has all the Sunday night HBO programming you need to stay current on social media convos (“The White Lotus,” “The Last of Us,” etc.), but you also can’t go wrong diving into their back catalogue: Never seen “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City”? This is your moment. Mindlessly need to rewatch “Friends”? Max has you covered. Need a “Veep” rewatch to deal with 2024? You get the idea. If you were only going to pick one streaming service, Max is going to give you a ton of quality entertainment to work through.
The “comfort rewatch” idea comes back into play for my second, perhaps unconventional choice, Peacock. The interface is annoying as all get-out, but to my great surprise it is another one I’m regularly reaching for in the off-hours. It’s home to all of NBC’s classic comedies, from “The Office” to “Cheers,” and also has a ton of Bravo programming, if the “Real Housewives of Pick Your City” appeals. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by some of their originals, like “Poker Face” or “A Friend of the Family.” And they’ve got another buzzy one coming up in March: “Apples Never Fall,” starring Annette Bening and Sam Neill based on a Liane Moriarty novel (“Big Little Lies” author).
My final pick is a bit of a cop out but, yes, I’m going with the behemoth. There is just so much on there, that even though a lot of it is junk (let me save you some time: “Virgin River” isn’t for you) there really is something for everyone, an appealing prospect for families. A few favorites of mine include the under-appreciated “Never Have I Ever” and the recent romantic “One Day.”
Can’t wait to hear what those of you who don’t need to re-watch “Sex and the City” on demand think…
Tony Maglio, Executive Editor – Business
Any ranking without Netflix at the top is, in my opinion, prioritizing an anti-establishment stance over practicality. Netflix’s library is massive and its pipeline is consistent — and you can access pretty much all of it for $6.99. Sure, that’s with commercials, but here is the complete list of major streaming services with a cheaper tier: Peacock and Paramount+.
Where Netflix becomes mortal on the price argument is for its “Standard” and “Premium” tiers. They’re expensive, yes, but they’re also now a choice. And the fact that the vast majority of us continue to pay for ad-free Netflix illustrates the bang is, indeed, in the buck. It is no coincidence that Netflix has the most subscribers, with 260 million, and that most people start with streaming journey with the global leader.
I will concede a case here for the Disney Duo Bundle being the best value for specific households, namely adult cord-cutters with young kids and a taste for general entertainment. But we should avoid including bundles here (Paramount+ with Showtime is fine, it’s one service now) — the landscape is about to be flooded with all kinds — try topping this one pieced together by Verizon.
Disney+ is No. 2 for me based solely on my current circumstance as the father of two little girls, 7 and almost 4. But even at these ages, they are probably watching more programming on Netflix. A few very short years ago, Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “Doc McStuffins” were the thing; today, it’s “Bluey” and the occasional princess. In a few more short years, Disney+ will be easy for us to churn out; Star Wars and Marvel just don’t do it for the grownups here.
On to No. 3. Like the purposeful omission of the Disney Bundle, I don’t think it’s appropriate for this story to consider Amazon Prime Video’s value as part of an Amazon Prime membership. We have included the Prime price below simply because that is how the vast majority of Prime Video users access the video-streaming service; Apple One doesn’t drive as much relative Apple TV+ memberships, so we left that bigger-picture product out.
With all of that in mind, I’ve got Max in third place. My argument is twofold: 1) Though a pricey service, the quality of HBO programming alone makes Max a must-have, and 2) the implementation of Discovery+ programming makes it a value play. Warner Bros. movies are a mere bonus for me, though likely a primary driver for many.
I should acknowledge here that my rankings are pretty chalk. Prime Video aside (due to the specifics surrounding motive to subscribe to Prime proper), I selected the top three streamers, exactly in their order of subscriber totals. Lame as that may be, this is literally why statistics and probability work with a large-enough sample size.
Ben Travers, Deputy Editor & Critic – TV
First, I would like to state that the set-up to our little survey is antithetical to how people should subscribe to streaming services. You, dear readers, should not commit to three services and stand by them — not for a year, not for half-a-year, not for anything longer than one month (or as long as your free/discounted trial period allows). Churn may be Big Streaming’s No. 1 enemy, but it’s subscribers’ best friend: If a service isn’t earning your money every month, cut it. Better still, look at the release calendar, decide what you want to watch, and plan out when you’ll subscribe to whatever services carry your top choices. If you can fit in four or five shows a month (plus however many movies), then it’s going to be worth whatever you spend — what matters is that you are making the selections, not some algorithm for a service you forgot you were paying for.
That being said — and despite my esteemed business colleague’s wild assertions — I stand by excluding Netflix from my top three. Honestly, when I ranked all of the services considered here, Netflix came in seventh. Why? For me, the “bang” in “most bang for your buck” isn’t about practicality; it’s about quality. And as the person who’s been picking what to watch on Netflix every month for nearly a decade, I’ve seen a steady decline in quality at Netflix, especially in TV. Now that other streamers are back to licensing their shows and movies to the undisputed streaming king, its overall quality may tick up. But it still doesn’t have routinely good movies, any sports programming worth speaking of, or anything that tantalizing on the horizon. (Though I will watch “Ripley.”) So when it comes to superior entertainment, Netflix isn’t anywhere close to the top value.
If you’re looking for the best home viewing options, Max still provides the greatest return-on-investment. HBO’s 2024 lineup is stacked (and that’s from someone who isn’t overly invested in “House of the Dragon”), the library is vast, and its distribution deal with A24 is already paying dividends for this Sofia Coppola fan. Now that Max also offers sports, including this year’s March Madness tournament, it’s the only service I can justify signing up for every month — and it’s the only service I’ve subscribed to for the full year.
The rest of my rankings are more fluid. When trying to make a general recommendation for 2024, Peacock is pretty tempting. There’s the summer Olympics, of course, but you also get access to a number of NFL games, a pretty solid library (“30 Rock,” “New Girl,” and “Superstore” are endlessly rewatchable), and a fairly consistent supply of new movies. (Everyone should watch “The Holdovers”!) But there’s just not quite enough supply to justify it higher than No. 4. Apple TV+ is in a similar position: Its MLB deal for Friday Night Baseball is helpful (or its MLS games, if you’re into soccer), and it’s probably got the second-best original series of all the streamers… but you could cover everything on Apple in three months per year, tops. I even considered Paramount+ with Showtime, in part because access to a live broadcast channel is a huge plus (CBS also has NFL games, basketball, and college football), but in a year without “Yellowjackets,” I’m going to pass.
Hulu is my official second choice, even though what once was a must-subscribe streamer has seen better days. “Only Murders in the Building” is the only great Hulu original series, there’s no built-in sports or live TV component (and the Hulu with Live TV add-on is outrageously priced), and the movie offerings are only so-so. But Hulu is where FX originals live, and FX originals are still elite television. Without the cable channel, Hulu wouldn’t have its biggest hit — “The Bear” is an FX production — nor would we be waiting with baited breath for “Shogun” later this month. The FX library is also full of must-see TV, whether you’re filling in long-standing blind spots or re-watching some of the best TV this century. Plus, as long as Hulu carries new ABC shows (like “Abbott Elementary”) and Fox animated favorites (“The Great North” is still quite good), it’s consistently surfacing TV that’s worth your time. (Even if you could easily catch up every other month or so and save the subscription fees.)
So that leaves Prime Video. Amazon’s service took a hit when it made ads the default option, and its originals aren’t as strong as they once were, but 2024 is off to a strong start with “Expats” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” “The Boys” new season is on the horizon, and I’m curious about “Fallout” (mainly because I’ll watch anything with Walton Goggins). But what really seals it as my No. 2 is its 20-odd Yankees games (my wife must see every Aaron Judge at bat, while I remain loyal to my forever Cub, Anthony Rizzo) and its 20-thousand movies. Every other service is lucky to have 10 percent of that, and it’s the only place I can watch “Ricky Stanicky.”
Proma Khosla, Senior TV Writer
As my esteemed colleagues have made clear, there are benefits to every streaming service — what matters most is which of those benefits apply to you, dear reader. I landed on my three perhaps largely out of sentiment, but because it is genuinely hard to imagine living my day-to-day life without any of these platforms. I’ve been a Netflix subscriber since the DVD days, and while the library has dwindled when it comes to titles owned by different companies, the original content continues to thrive and holds a cultural position that others merely covet but never occupy. Think about it — even a subpar Netflix show can dominate the TV discourse for weeks, to say nothing of a superior product like “Squid Game” or “Beef.” Netflix’s international reach means I can tuck into beloved Hindi movies from my childhood at any point, as well as new Indian films and series that are simply not accessible otherwise.
And while I haven’t subscribed to Max for nearly as long, I’ve been in on almost every iteration since its inception. We’re talking HBO Max and HBO Now — an account and password that my roommate and I shared so freely we eventually lost track of who had access and didn’t reset the password until Max itself.
But I digress. Like Netflix, Max is the rare streamer to actually create buzz, whether it’s “House of the Dragon” or “The White Lotus” or “The Last of Us” — and it is the only streamer that still creates Appointment TV, that rare and coveted legacy of the pre-peak era and watercooler discourse. Of the main streaming platforms, Max has the most formidable movie library, particularly dozens of classics I claim I will eventually “get to.”
And finally there is Hulu, which I have had since Alec Baldwin and Will Arnett were growling “Mushy mush” through our airwaves, another platform with Indian titles thanks to Hotstar and with its own solid slate of originals, even if they aren’t as strong as the competition. For a cord-cutter like myself (I haven’t had cable since 2013), Hulu is essential for next-day viewing — worth keeping for as long as it has “Abbott Elementary” alone — and for keeping up with the fantastic FX lineup. Whether you want to know what all the fuss is about “The Bear” or are finally going to listen to our advice and watch “What We Do in the Shadows,” you gotta have Hulu to make those dreams come true.
Below, we’ve listed the available plans and prices for each of the major streamers.
Amazon Prime Video
Prime Video only (with ads): $8.99/month
Prime Video only (without ads): $11.98/month
Prime (includes Prime Video with ads): $14.99/month
Prime (includes Prime Video without ads): $17.98/month
Disney+ Basic (with ads): $7.99/month
Disney+ Premium (no ads): $13.99/month
Disney Bundle Duo Basic (ad-supported Disney+ and Hulu): $9.99/month
Disney Bundle Duo Premium (ad-free Disney+ and Hulu): $19.99/month
Hulu (ad-supported): $7.99/month
Hulu (no ads): $17.99/month
Disney Bundle Duo Basic (Disney+ and Hulu, both with ads): $9.99/month
Disney Bundle Duo Premium (ad-free Disney+ and Hulu): $19.99/month
With Ads: $9.99/month
Ultimate Ad-free: $19.99/month
Standard with Ads: $6.99/month
Essential (with ads): $5.99/month
Paramount+ with Showtime (no ads): $11.99/month
Premium (with ads): $5.99/month
Premium Plus (ad-free): $11.99/month
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