How To Pick Streaming TV Services: Life Kit As more television streaming services pop up, consumers face more choice than ever. NPR's TV critic lays out a streaming strategy, so you know what options are worth your time.
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Stuck Inside? Here's Your TV Streaming Strategy

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Stuck Inside? Here's Your TV Streaming Strategy

Stuck Inside? Here's Your TV Streaming Strategy

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ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Welcome to LIFE KIT. I'm Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic, and I've got one question for you. Are you feeling a little overwhelmed and stressed out by all the TV that's coming at you these days, especially on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu? If so, you're not alone. Comic Jim Gaffigan summed it up pretty well on his Netflix special, "Cinco."

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "CINCO")

JIM GAFFIGAN: Sometimes I open my Netflix. I'm like, I don't think I can do it.

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: I'm not even going to make a dent here.

DEGGANS: He says the pressure to keep up gets so intense, talking with friends can feel like dealing with bill collectors.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "CINCO")

GAFFIGAN: You watch "Game Of Thrones"? I'm a little behind.

(LAUGHTER)

GAFFIGAN: Like, give me a week. My wife had a dumb baby.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: Jim, who actually wanted to talk with us for this episode but was doing something dumb like performing a standup tour across Spain, didn't know the half of it. And when they counted up all the TV shows now out there - including series, movies, specials, news programs, sports telecasts, kids' shows and beyond - they found more than 646,000 unique program titles were available to watch last year. Two big streaming services - Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus - debuted in November 2019, and three more - HBO Max, NBC's Peacock, and the service with 10-minute episodes called Quibi - will debut by May 2020. It's a new TV universe where you, the viewer, have never had more choices or power to choose what you see, when you want, where you want. So why does it feel so bad?

MELLINI KANTAYYA: I'm feeling overwhelmed.

DEGGANS: That's Mellini Kantayya, an actress and author who lives in Brooklyn.

KANTAYYA: Right before Apple jumped in, I felt like, OK, I can manage this (laughter.) I can keep up. But then Apple jumped in. I'm like, oh, God. I hope it's awful content. And it's not. It's excellent.

DEGGANS: Mellini, whose acting credits include HBO's "The Night Of" and Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," knows the TV business, but still can't keep track of all the shows. She even confesses to a secret wish.

KANTAYYA: Maybe some of these services will just sort of combine into one, just so there's just fewer choice. But I don't know if that's going to happen.

DEGGANS: Eh - probably not. In fact, the reason why there's so much choice now is because companies like Disney, Warner Media and NBC Universal have decided to take back their shows from big platforms - like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video - to create their own online destinations. But fear not. In this LIFE KIT, we're going to give befuddled TV fans - like Mellini, and you - the tools you need to figure out what streaming services are worth your time. Whatever big trends or changes in the TV industry happen, this episode offers some valuable tips.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: Here's my first tip to help you pick the right TV streaming services. Take a deep breath. Accept that this will feel a little overwhelming, at least at first. In the old days, viewers built themselves a static TV environment - bought cable channels, put up an antenna and continually searched for something to watch inside that unchanging ecosystem. Now you can change your media environment anytime based on what you want to see. Still, wrapping your brain around these new options will take time, and that's OK. But first, let's meet someone who can help us figure out why it's so hard to make these decisions in the first place.

BEIBEI LI: My name is Beibei Li, and I'm an associate professor of IT and management at Carnegie Mellon University.

DEGGANS: I reached out to Beibei because she studies the interaction between human decisions and disruptive technology. I wanted to know why decisions like this disrupt us so much. She had a pretty simple conclusion.

LI: I think people are pretty bad at making these decisions, from what I observe. (Laughter) Yeah, it's just they're - they're very terrible of this.

DEGGANS: She says people are terrible at these decisions for a couple of reasons. First, there's a lot of what she calls high dimensional characteristics to consider - lots of different factors that are difficult for people to compare.

LI: People care about price and also brand name. Is it from Apple or Disney or HBO or Hulu, right? So these are basically the big names that people would take into consideration. And then there's the content - right? So people are saying, hey, do I want to have free movies, or do I want to binge on the TV shows? And do I want to have more kids' stuff for families?

DEGGANS: And there's another reason.

LI: People don't quite know what they want to watch. This is like getting a gym membership. You thought you're going to go, but then you just like the idea. You'll have the membership, (laughter) right?

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

LI: So I think that this is the same thing, right? So you thought you're going to binge watch all these TV shows. You get a Netflix membership and then you didn't realize you didn't watch much.

DEGGANS: Wow. You have completely figured me out.

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: This is kind of frightening.

LI: It's the same way with - same with me, too (laughter.)

DEGGANS: OK, the less said about my Planet Fitness membership, the better. But this does lead to my second tip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: Track your viewing and create a TV diary. Spend a week or so and write down what you actually watch - even if it includes rewatching some old favorites, similar to the admission that I got out of Mellini.

KANTAYYA: Like, another rerun of "BoJack Horseman."

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: As opposed to that highfalutin PBS drama that you want everybody to think you're watching.

(LAUGHTER)

KANTAYYA: Over and over, or "Bob's Burgers."

DEGGANS: Guilty pleasures notwithstanding, your TV diet will probably reveal two things. First, you likely watch fewer shows - and outlets - than you think. And second, you'll know exactly what your ideal lineup of streaming services must include. In fact, when listener Ernise Singleton decided to drop her cable TV service and replace it with a streaming subscription, she had an even more powerful tool in hand.

ERNISE SINGLETON: My sister-in-law created a spreadsheet with all of the streaming services and the channels that they offered, which was very important. I am my mother's caregiver, and there's one channel that she wanted, which was Investigation Discovery. That is one channel she watches all the time. So whatever service I selected, I had to make sure that was an option.

DEGGANS: Ernise is an educator who lives in Baton Rouge, La. She's accustomed to using careful research to sort out any problem, so she dug into the question of finding a streaming service. She watched her brother make the switch and crowdsourced the answers to some questions among a network of friends on Facebook. The choice was important because Ernise wasn't just choosing for herself. She was choosing for her mother, who can easily be confused by new technology.

SINGLETON: My mom is 75. And it is getting tougher, mainly because over the last year, she was diagnosed with dementia. So even though she follows directions, she still forgets how to do it sometimes.

DEGGANS: Connecting her mom to her Investigation Discovery Channel was important. So Ernise did a little homework and developed a sound TV watching strategy, which I highly recommend. That's my third takeaway - focus on a few base services that have a wide array of offerings, then add smaller services to suit your needs.

Let's take a look at four different kinds of streamers to see how they might fit into your TV strategy. The biggest outlets I call the megaproviders. These are platforms that try to give you a wide array of programming to be your primary source of television - like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV or the soon-to-debut HBO Max, which introduced itself to potential customers with a video showing characters saying hello - from "The Big Bang Theory," "South Park" and "Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KALEY CUOCO: (As Penny) Oh, hi.

JOHNNY GALECKI: (As Leonard Hofstadter) Hi.

JIM PARSONS: (As Sheldon Cooper) Hi.

GALECKI: (As Leonard Hofstadter) Hi.

PARSONS: (As Sheldon Cooper) Hi.

MATT STONE: (As Kyle Broflovski) Hey, dudes.

TREY PARKER AND MATT STONE: (As Stan Marsh, Eric Cartman and Leopold "Butters" Stotch) Hey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT ALL STARTED WITH A FEELING")

JAI WOLF: (Singing) It all started with a feeling.

DEGGANS: Generally, they have original shows and huge libraries of older material. Some also have access to broadcast and cable channels. The next level is the add-on services. These are platforms that can't handle all your TV needs but still have lots of great material. Here, I'd put Amazon Prime Video, ESPN+, Apple TV+ and CBS All Access, which is courting viewers with "Star Trek: Picard," a new series featuring Patrick Stewart as a retired Starfleet captain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: PICARD")

PATRICK STEWART: (As Jean-Luc Picard) I am standing up for the federation, for what it should still represent.

ANN MAGNUSON: (As Admiral Kirsten Clancy) This is no longer your house, Jean-Luc. Go home.

DEGGANS: There's quirky faves, like horror-focused Shudder, or the Anglophile platform, Acorn. And there's free platforms like Pluto TV, Facebook Watch and Tubi. A good strategy would include a few megaproviders, a few add-ons and a quirky fave or two to round everything out. That may sound like a lot to sort through, but there's one guy who says none of this is as hard as people make it sound.

TIM GOODMAN: I'm Tim Goodman, former television critic at The Hollywood Reporter.

DEGGANS: Before Tim left his job at The Hollywood Reporter - and I have no idea how you leave a job as cool as getting paid to watch TV - he wrote several pieces about cutting the cable TV cord and choosing a streaming service. His takeaway was pretty simple.

GOODMAN: There's enough information out there that actually makes it very, very easy for people to do this, and it's really fast. So I - one of the things I wanted to communicate was - when I wrote the piece was like, this is not as hard as people say it is.

DEGGANS: That's because Tim built on the work of others. Plenty of other writers, including some smart-alecky TV critics, had already written stories comparing and contrasting the various streamers out there. Instead of reinventing the wheel by doing his own research, he did a few Google searches and called up those articles. His groundwork busted other myths, too. Turns out, subscribing to a bunch of streaming services isn't nearly as expensive as some cable or satellite TV contracts. He cut his TV expenses by more than $100 a month, even though he replaced DIRECTV with several streaming services. And despite all the options, Tim says viewers' personal budgets quickly provide a ceiling on how many services they can sign up for.

GOODMAN: You can't just, like, keep going out to eat at fancy restaurants all the time if you don't have the money. So you can't be adding on Disney+, Apple TV, HBO Max - those things - if you can't afford it.

DEGGANS: You don't need a smart TV. Inexpensive devices like Roku or more deluxe options like Apple TV connect streaming apps to nonsmart TVs pretty well. And most streaming service subscriptions don't involve long-term contracts, so you can start and stop them with the click of a button. That means you can subscribe to a service when it has new episodes of a series that you love and drop it when that season ends. That's what Mellini Kantayya does.

KANTAYYA: When "First Wives Club" came out on BET+, I hopped on over to that one, watched, you know, everything I wanted - that and everything I wanted to watch over there, and then I canceled it. And that's basically what I've been doing. I've been kind of having my base and then just picking and choosing for that month or for a particular program.

DEGGANS: There are even smartphone apps to help you track when your favorite series begin and end new episodes, like Binge Buddy or TV Time. But I think Tim Goodman's most important discovery can be summed up in my final tip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: Sorting through all of this can be fun if you relax, allow yourself to experiment and show some patience. So what have we learned about picking a lineup of streaming services? Tip No. 1 - accept that it will feel overwhelming at first. It's an understandable fear, but it's also a bit overblown if you take a little time to get your mind around the challenge.

Next, track your viewing and create a TV diary to see what you actually watch. Part of the fear in picking streaming services comes from the worry that you'll accidentally give up access to programs you really care about. So make sure you don't.

Third, develop a strategy for your subscriptions that includes a few megaproviders and some smaller services. You want access to a wide range of programming, but leave room to pick up a few smaller services that reflect your specific tastes. And as Tim Goodman stresses, don't buy into myths about the cost or the difficulty of switching.

GOODMAN: It was just less messy. I was, like, not paying for channels I didn't want to watch. And yeah, I saved a ton of money. And again, the other, I think, myth and the narrative is that it's difficult; it's not difficult at all.

DEGGANS: Most of all, make sure you experiment and have some fun while you're figuring all of this out. After all, it's television. It's supposed to be enjoyable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEGGANS: And before we go - a completely random tip, this time from Bethany Cerellas.

BETHANY CERELLAS: When you need to spray a pan - like muffin tins, which always make a mess on the counter - you should open your dishwasher, set the pan on the open door and spray. Any excess oil gets sprayed on the door and washes off next time you run the dishwasher.

DEGGANS: If you've got a good tip - maybe it's about your own TV streaming strategy - leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. And if you want more LIFE KIT, find our episodes at npr.org/lifekit. While you're there, subscribe to our newsletter.

This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Eric Deggans. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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