Accessing television shows has never been easier, but this blessing has a lot of consequences. Now that TV-watchers are no longer confined to viewings during prime-time hours with the onslaught of DVR and VoD -- not to mention the hundreds of other new media outlets -- the question isn't when are you going to watch your favorite shows, but how?
I strongly believe that the best dramas aren't appearing on the Big Four (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox). They're on cable or Pay-Per-View stations. HBO, for example, is about to launch three new dramas already receiving a monumental amount of buzz: Girls, Veep, and The Newsroom. As a college student, it's impossible to watch any of these without being able to watch it online. I began to ponder my options, and was immediately overwhelmed. It's not just about wanting to watch shows not available on basic cable: how do I watch even the most basic shows when I don't have a DVR? When I have an exam the next day? When I have work? How do I catch up?
I went through the three most popular ways to watch television every other way than on your television: iTunes, Netlfix, and HuluPlus. These three options don't require you to have a certain cable provider and/or Pay-Per-View service (like Comcast/Xfinity or HBO/HBOgo). While each have their pros and cons, no service truly does everything I'd like it to do, and in order to fulfill all of my needs I'd need to use two services. Maybe this will be rectified with the upcoming Amazon on-demand player, or even the new AppleTV, but for now, the following should temporarily satisfy all you binge-watchers.
The gist: The idea that you can not only watch television on not your television, but on your various Apple products, changed forever how television is viewed, literally. Networks were skeptic of this new scheme, and it took quite a while to get many of them on-board. NBC famously pulled its shows from the service, only to offer them a few months later at a new price. Now, almost every television show currently airing can be downloaded the following morning to be viewed on any of your account-approved devices, which includes streaming to your television. But watching more than one show on iTunes is expensive: a season pass for any one show (especially if it's currently airing) is upwards of $35. Then again, that content is yours to keep forever, unlike HuluPlus or Netflix.
Pros: Ability to own all of your own shows, and being able to watch it on multiple devices.
Cons: Price -- watching more than one show becomes expensive.
The bottom line: Apple will soon be announcing it's long awaited TV (not to be confused with the already-on-the-market iTV), which will definitely bring more options to the field. Hang around for that before spending your money here.
Per month: $1.99 per episode SD/$2.99 per episode HD.
The gist: While anyone can make a normal Hulu account and see recent episodes -- which is an advantage -- most episodes aren't available past the four most recently aired. With possibly the largest backlog of old television series, the HuluPlus system is quite efficient: like Netflix and Xfinity, you can catch up on shows en masse, but you can also watch current episodes after they air. What HuluPlus lacks is many cable shows, including those on AMC (due their contract with Netflix) or Pay-Per-View channels (like HBO and Showtime). HuluPlus also features a large backlog of films, but many are dated.
Pros: Offers a wide variety of Big Four shows available to watch the next day, and is compatible with many devices including iPhone, iPad, and PS3.
Cons: No Pay-Per-View shows.
The bottom line: Being able to watch shows in bulk and essentially doubling as a DVR makes this a service worthy of consideration.
Per month: $7.99/month
The gist: Netflix started the idea of watching shows in excess -- that is, watching seasons of a show all at once based on various reccomendations. This idea has become the mode of how people watch shows today. Netflix has a deal with AMC to exclusively stream shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Furthermore, it will be premiering the long-awaited return of Arrested Development. Depending on your plan, you can get movies delivered to your home as well. What it doesn't have are shows available to watch next-day, and the instant-watch film service isn't that significant (though may change with their forthcoming deal with Miramax.)
Pros: It's worth it just for the upcoming Arrested Development series.
Cons: For a monthly service, it's the most expensive option out there, but the ability to rent movies is an addition that HuluPlus has yet to offer.
The bottom line: There's certainly a lot to consider in terms of content, making this one of the best options out there.
Per month: Starting at $7.99/month; additional fees apply for other services.
All things considered, I found that HuluPlus was the best option in terms of content being available when I immediately wanted it. Of course, my desire to watch anything on HBO, Showtime, or AMC goes unfulfilled, which reasserts the claim that two of these three are necessary to fulfill my needs. Television is about to be revolutionized, and the three services listed above are just a taste in what's to come.
Follow Bethany McHugh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bemchugh