I STREAM, YOU STREAM, we all stream. Okay, not all of us. But 74% of U.S. homes had a video streaming service in 2019, up from 52% in 2015. Odds are you live in one of those homes. At the beginning of the pandemic, as Americans sheltered in place, consumption of all forms of in-home media shot up.
For a long time, the streaming choices were fairly limited, but not anymore. Giants such as Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix have been joined by dozens of others, including Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max and Peacock from NBCUniversal.
Some services, like Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV, offer live TV channels just like cable TV. Many others, such as Acorn and BritBox, provide niche movies and television series. One thing they all have in common is that you have to pay a subscription fee—and just about all of them have been raising prices.
Most streaming video services offer free trial periods. In 2020, a number of companies have extended the length of those free trial periods. I typically avoid them because, unless you make a point of canceling, charges start automatically once the free trial is over. I don’t trust that the process of doing so will be hassle-free.
Budget-conscious consumers can also stream movies free from services that are usually supported by ads. Some of the best options include Crackle, Kanopy, Pluto TV, Roku Channel, Tubi, Vudu and Xumo.
I can’t share a personal experience about every streaming service. I don’t spend that much time bingeing on TV shows and movies. But I have saved some money by negotiating reduced rates or by finding shows on free services that I’d otherwise have had to pay for.
Apple TV+. The company I work for gave me new iPad mini—to be used for business purposes, of course. If that wasn’t a big enough windfall, it came with a complimentary year of Apple TV+. I’m not a big spender and wouldn’t have bought access. But if you’re lucky enough to buy or be given an Apple product that comes with a free subscription, I recommend Defending Jacob (Michelle Dockery), Greyhound (Tom Hanks) and The Banker (Samuel L. Jackson).
Prime Video. My husband signed up for Amazon Prime eons ago to get free shipping. It wasn’t until years later that we started watching movies and TV shows on Amazon Prime as a “free perk” of our subscription, which now costs $112 a year. Although it offers a lot of good programming, it isn’t all free, even with a subscription. These shows are free and worth watching: Goliath (Billy Bob Thornton), Downton Abbey (British historical drama), Red Rock (Dublin crime-drama soap opera), Grantchester (British detective drama) and Poldark (BBC Masterpiece series).
Hulu. I would have said that I’m too cheap to pay for Hulu. But a few years ago, it offered a one-year subscription for 99 cents a month. I was willing to pay $11.88 plus tax to try out The Handmaid’s Tale and the rest of a large entertainment library for a year. When I cancelled at the end of the year, Hulu offered me six months for $1.99 a month. I decided it was worth it to watch Fargo (the TV series), Mayans MC (try it if you liked Sons of Anarchy) and Normal People (the series does the book justice). Hulu does make it easy to cancel. By now, it must know that I’m not willing to pay $5.99 a month (with ads), so it keeps offering me a better deal. I currently pay $2.99 a month.
Hoopla Digital. This is a digital streaming service for library users to access eBooks, eAudiobooks, music, movies and TV shows using portable devices like smartphones and tablets. It gives you access to tons of content via a free digital app and a library card number. I don’t use it often because the shows are generally older. But once in a while I discover that Hoopla has something I’m specifically looking for. Case in point: I recently started watching Mystery Road, a terrific mystery that takes place in the Australian outback. After one episode, it was no longer available on Amazon Prime for free. Instead, I would’ve had to pay $2.99 an episode. I checked Hoopla on a whim and found that it had all the episodes I was looking for.
Tubi. I’d never heard of this until I watched several episodes of The Man from Snowy River: The McGregor Saga. It was free on Amazon Prime—until I got to season three, episode 15, and found out that it would now cost $1.99 an episode. I was enjoying the show but not enough to pay for it. When I Googled “how can I watch McGregor Saga free,” I discovered Tubi. I downloaded the free app and was watching the show within minutes—at no cost. Tubi has ads, but they aren’t as intrusive as the ads on Hulu’s ad-subscription service.
Kanopy. Like Hoopla, Kanopy can be accessed via a free digital app and a library card number. It’s also free to university students and faculty. The content includes a diverse catalog of more than 30,000 critically acclaimed world cinema, documentary, classic and independent movies. New titles are added every month. There are no ads. Libraries provide the service, paid for with tax dollars or tuition. Access is offered by 4,000 libraries in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. My husband and I enjoyed Bicycle Thieves, a 1948 Academy Award-winning movie hailed around the world as one of the greatest ever made. You can also watch Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet), Moonlight (Mahershala Ali) and The Florida Project (Willem Dafoe).
Bottom line? Here’s what I’ve learned about streaming services:
Are you wondering why the behemoth Netflix isn’t on my list? I’m too cheap to pay for it.
Jannette Collins, MD, MEd, FACR is a radiologist and former chair of a university radiology department. Her passions are finance and education. She is Director of Medical Content for MRI Online, an educational platform for radiologists, and blogs about radiology jobs, finance and education for The Reading Room. Follow Janni on Twitter @JanniMD.