Critic's Notebook: Ranking the Streaming Services in Times of Confusion

Current options, future options, how to cut the cord and not go broke: The future of TV is messy.
Ernesto S. Ruscio/Getty Images for Netflix
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

Given that 2019 is supposed to be a kind of streaming service Death Match and big, confusing changes seem to pop up every week in the TV industry as it transitions toward that streaming future, now seems like a good time to rank streaming services based on desirability. Hey, 2018 is rapidly approaching its end. This thing is starting, ready or not.

1. Netflix. Duh — this is the biggest no-brainer there is. You have to have Netflix. It's the Death Star — and anyone on this list wanting to challenge the Death Star better have some kick-ass content. And, oh by the way, all the hand-wringing/glee that surrounded Netflix stock diving on second quarter results lasted precisely one quarter, as Tuesday's results were robust thanks to increased subscriber gains. Robust makes the money rain. Subscribers make Netflix reign. Nothing in this equation changes until we see what Disney does. 

2. Disney. It won't be "a Netflix killer" so much as it will be its biggest rival. Only Netflix can kill Netflix and you shouldn't piss your money away on that bet. The only question is when the (non-ESPN) Disney streaming service arrives, what it's called and what the price point for the subscription is — all kind of moot because the service will include the Star Wars juggernaut, the Pixar juggernaut, the Marvel juggernaut and, well, the Disney juggernaut, and most people are going to subscribe to that almost immediately, making this service a juggernaut. 

3. AmazonAmazon Studios is on a big run. It's globally positioned and it's Amazon; those factors will successfully fend off anyone from overtaking this No. 3 ranking. If you're keeping track at home of how much these subscription prices stack up — and of course you're not, because you work in the business and you're not a normal American who is, in fact, worried about money — that's three must-have streaming services and we're just getting started. (Also don't be embarrassed if you don't think you need to get Amazon's streaming service but you're already paying for its two-day free shipping because, yeah, well, that's a narrative that still lingers but is slowly and thankfully fading; still, be kind to your confused self).

4. HBO GO/HBO Now. OK, this is where things get confusing, for many reasons. If you have HBO GO it's because you're still linked to cable and you're not truly a cord-cutter, but for this exercise let's group it with HBO Now and just say you need it. There is so much value in this brand. It's an essential streaming option. (And yes, this is only a tiny part of the confusion, which will unfold in the next few steps.)

5. Tie: FX, AMC, Showtime Anytime, PBS Passport, Acorn, BritBox, FilmStruck, etc. I'm ranking these all a tie because you should have access to all of them but how you get that access is confusing — or at least it is to many customers. But just on a content basis, these services separately are as important as the next two big names on this list. Among this group, my preference is FX first and then something British and then PBS and something with great films, but the larger point is that people who like quality content are going to seek these out in some kind of considered bundle or single OTT option, which actually exists. (And people should seek this out as there's a lot of great archival content there.) The question for many people will be, "After I subscribe to Netflix, Disney and Amazon, what other streaming services can I afford?" For lots of people, it will be one of these.

6. WarnerMedia. Ah, here we go with starting to explain the confusion. WarnerMedia wants to be a thing. It is not currently a thing. It wants to be Netflix. It's not. It's basically an idea, but certainly a future reality in the streaming world (end of 2019?), as colleague Paul Bond wrote in THR recently.  But WarnerMedia needs to get its act together not just swiftly but with some modicum of user-interface efficiency and broad-interest user appeal, which is a clunky way of saying that someone smart needs to melt down all of its existing WarnerMedia-owned streaming options (AT&T Watch, AT&T Unlimited and More Premium, DirecTV Now and whatever hideously named AT&T product I've forgotten) and create one great, useful streaming option. Assuming it does happen, this is where you could conceivably, in one place, find HBO and FilmStruck, virtually anything from the Warner Bros. vault, like the Harry Potter franchise, plus the DC universe and endless old TV options. Now that's a ready-made, motivated-to-subscribe, service. And if a person is contemplating HBO and FilmStruck from above, that solves two of their problems, thus overriding other options and making WarnerMedia more attractive.

HBO should (and will) still be available separately, and let's hope FilmStruck is as well. That said, a WarnerMedia streaming service needs to happen soon. But if you think this is really going to magically appear by the end of next year, you have more faith than I do and you're less jaded as well. Still, just the concept of such a service made me put it above Hulu, which was probably just irrational exuberance.

7. Hulu. The service is built, it has value, existing network and cable shows you might have missed plus a strong original series lineup that will undoubtedly get stronger and better. As I've written before, Hulu is already a value and you're likely already a subscriber. If not, you should be. When Comcast sells its 30-percent stake to Disney (come on, you know it will), then Disney will own 90 percent of Hulu and put a ton of content on here that's not fit for its self-branded upcoming family-friendly streaming service. A lot of that content will likely be FX series plus plenty of Fox stuff you still want, like Bob's Burgers and, uh, well, older stuff from the archive.

Then Disney will likely take the whole Hulu enterprise global, increasing its reach and building its original content. Which means it will be worth even more than it is now — so long as there's no disqualifying spike in the subscription price.

8. Apple. Why so low? Because so little is known about how it will roll out (some guesses are just ridiculous), so little has been written about existing issues on shows it's creating right now and what we do know and what I've been writing about for a while doesn't actually fill me with much confidence that Apple will be the big industry disrupter it was predicted to be — especially if it goes for a please-everybody PG content approach. That will make it harder to lure in creators who don't want to be bogged down with content restraints (when there are none at Netflix and Amazon). Apple's notorious secrecy thing has also annoyed some potential creators because they don't know what they're signing up for. That will change in a couple of years when familiarity sets in, but in a couple of years it might be a couple of years too late. Remember that by then there will be at least three international players (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu) and they won't lack for cash — that Apple money won't go as far or be as alluring because those other companies (and maybe WarnerMedia as well) know how to stockpile it. You're seeing the red flags here, yes? Although there's been speculation about Apple rolling out its content for — wait for it —free and then somehow making money by providing subscriptions to other channels via the Apple TV device (much like Amazon does — though, notably, not as a business strategy), that makes no sense. Apple is not going to say, "We've spent billions of dollars on our original TV shows. If you have our hardware and software, they're free." No. You might get a free three-month trial, sure, but after that you will have to pay a subscription price for whatever Apple produces and whatever platform it puts them on. And since 2018 is almost over and this magic is supposed to happen in less than a year, that's why Apple now sits, generously, at No. 8 on this list.

9. Comcast/NBCU. Um, yeah. All that you need here is scale and content. No big deal. And yes, the acquisition of Sky in the UK gives Comcast a potential worldwide platform with a good catalog of content and distribution options, but it could also be a contractual rights mess and a hodge-podge that would send international subscribers to something more streamlined like Netflix or Amazon or, you know, Hulu, which Comcast will probably be out of soon enough. It certainly needs to be in the game. The future is streaming, even if NBCU has lots of railroad tracks through the linear universe of network television and myriad cable holdings. It will get there. It will be a thing. But how many little things will have popped up by then and eaten away at the subscription budgets of people in the real world? Disney is going to scale up in a 2019 nanosecond. Apple will, um, do and be something. Is this a race between Comcast and WarnerMedia? (And wasn't it more fun to say Comcast vs. AT&T and laugh that the telecom types were never going to figure out TV content and its lure? Yeah, it was.) Anyway, thinking of Comcast trying to make something that isn't an elephant built by committee is exhausting. But it will happen.

10. CBS All Access. Yes, I understand that after reading about No. 9 it seems cruel to put CBS All Access at No. 10. But right now it's not my jam because you couldn't pay me to watch a CBS show much less have me pay to watch one, even one all gilded-up to appear like it wasn't a CBS show. And I'm not a Star Trek person, but I can see paying for the service if you are.

11. Facebook Watch and YouTube Premium. No and no. For these reasons.

12. Everybody else. It's a race for subscriber dollars. You are all in 12th place. Godspeed.

And just so we don't go out on that negative note, based on recent history — like, this week — all of this could change by next month. Who doesn't love confusion?