Cable costs a lot. If you’re still a subscriber, it’s probably the most painful item on your monthly utility bill. According to the latest annual survey from Leichtman Research Group Inc., the average cost of cable or satellite service for pay-TV subscribers in 2019 was $109.60, a figure that will likely increase in 2020. Driven by rising programming costs and sneaky, unexpected fees—which a new law requires cable companies to disclose—cable TV price hikes have outpaced inflation for years.
Partly in response to skyrocketing charges, millions of subscribers have trimmed their TV packages or cut the cord, lowering the percentage of TV households that subscribe to live pay TV from 87 percent in 2009 to 75 percent 10 years later. The pandemic-driven combination of business closures, a lack of live sports, and a socially distancing populace looking online for entertainment has only accelerated the decline of cable. So has the ever-expanding profusion of subscription-based streaming services competing with cable, which have enjoyed a collective uptick in traffic and robust subscriber growth this year. Disney+ launched last November, as did the less popular and less equipped Apple TV+; HBO Max launched last month, and NBC’s Peacock will enter the fray in July.
Although the dozens of streaming services now vying for eyeballs may make it seem as if the streaming economy has re-created cable without the convenience of bundling, basic subscriptions to the most popular streaming services—Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+, and HBO Now/Max—would produce a combined bill of less than $50, making a suite of several streaming services a less expensive alternative to the average cable package that would still serve up more content than anyone could watch. Whether you’re deciding which service to subscribe to or simply picking which library to browse, you need to know how they compare. That’s where we come in.
The growing array of streaming services and the enlargement of their catalogs have made it more difficult to keep track of what content is streamable, and where. As Holly Gibney, the protagonist of Stephen King’s new novella If It Bleeds, says upon receiving a streaming service gift subscription, “So many new things, and all the time!” Websites such as JustWatch and Reelgood, which specify the streaming availability of any given TV show or movie, have also enjoyed recent surges in usage, as evidenced by the graphic from JustWatch below.
Those websites’ streaming inventories require constant maintenance, because the streamers’ selections are always in flux. According to JustWatch, each of the major streaming services added or subtracted hundreds of movies or shows from mid-March through the end of May.
By necessity, then, any analysis of streaming service offerings is a snapshot of a moving target: New shows and movies debut, old IP disappears from back catalogs, and bidding wars break out over the hottest streaming properties, often transferring prized series from one service to another. On June 24, for instance, the 23 seasons of South Park will migrate from Hulu to HBO Max, and next year, Hulu will lose Seinfeld to Netflix (which itself recently lost Friends to HBO Max and will lose The Office to Peacock in 2021).
By dissecting updated data from Reelgood, though, we can get a good sense of the present size, strengths, and weaknesses of each major streaming service, which—when coupled with price—should allow you to determine which subscriptions make the most sense for you. We crunched the numbers for Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Now, and HBO Max. (HBO Max confusingly includes everything on HBO Now—namely, the full HBO TV and movie catalog available via the cable network and HBO Go—as well as many more WarnerMedia properties. The two services cost the same amount, and existing subscribers to the former were automatically upgraded to the latter.)
The first criterion we can compare is the sheer size of each streaming service. The chart above of recent net gains in streaming options makes it look like Prime Video lost a lot of content, but Prime boasted by far the most content to lose. Prime Video includes more than 2,000 TV shows—narrowly edging out Netflix and Hulu, which have slightly fewer than 1,900 and 1,700, respectively (although Hulu has the most TV episodes). But it also offers more than 12,000 movies, dwarfing any other service’s selection. (Netflix is next with fewer than 4,000.) And no, that’s not counting its additional tens of thousands of films that are available to buy or rent.
Streaming Service Library Breakdowns (Based on Data From Reelgood)
|Total TV Shows
|Total TV Episodes
|Movie:TV Show Ratio
|Total TV Shows
|Total TV Episodes
|Movie:TV Show Ratio
Many of Amazon’s movies are either not in English or so obscure or low quality that they wouldn’t factor into most consumers’ subscription decisions. For example, Amazon has almost as many movies with no IMDb rating (493) as Disney+ has in total, as well as more movies with an IMDb rating below 4.0 than Hulu, basic HBO, or Disney+ each has overall. (To put that into perspective, Sharknado 5: Global Swarming ties for top quality in that group at 3.9.) A selection that large and indiscriminate offers something for everyone, although it also lowers the average quality of a Prime movie to a point well below the corresponding figures for services with smaller (and maybe more discerning) samples.
Let’s look at that. The density plot below displays the distribution of IMDb ratings for the movies available on each service. The vertical black bars indicate the median scores.
The movie medians range from 5.9 (Amazon) to 6.9 (HBO Max). The extremely long left tail in the Prime plot reflects the cornucopia of crap that you won’t want to watch unless you’re a host of How Did This Get Made? HBO Max, meanwhile, is a movie paradise that includes classics from Warner Bros. and the Criterion Collection, as well as the complete canon of Studio Ghibli.
We can scope out the same plots for TV series:
Here the median figures range from 7.0 to 7.7. Unsurprisingly, basic HBO has the highest score, which will happen when your limited selection includes Chernobyl, Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Deadwood, and other marquee names. Equally unsurprisingly, Disney+ suffers from the lowest score, which will happen when your even more limited selection declines quickly from highlights like The Simpsons and The Mandalorian to relics from the Disney Channel bargain bin. (Sorry, Bizaardvark.)
Another way we can examine this is by combining quality and quality. The graph below shows the number of movies on each service with IMDb ratings above 7.0 (the red bars) and 8.0 (the blue bars).
As we’ve established, Prime Video has many more bad movies than the other services. But because its archive is so vast, it also has many more good movies than the other services—almost 2.5 times as many 7.0 or higher movies as runner-up Netflix, and orders of magnitude more than Disney+ or the TV-centric Hulu.
Now, on to TV:
When we shift focus to non-movie content produced for the small screen, Netflix takes the lead, paced by Breaking Bad, 1980s Indian epic (and 2020 phenomenon) Ramayan, recent addition Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Sherlock, in addition to originals including Stranger Things, Narcos, and Dark. Hulu and Prime aren’t far behind, but the HBO variants can’t compete on quantity, and Disney+ finishes a distant last.
We can also see whether some services skew toward certain common genres. Roughly two-thirds of movies and TV shows in Reelgood’s listings for these streaming services fall under drama, action, or comedy, but the big three genres make up different-sized pieces of each pie. The following graph displays the genre classifications of each service’s selection of movies with an IMDb rating above 7.0.
Disney+ is extremely light on dramas, which are a strength for HBO Max. Netflix, home of stand-up specials and rom-coms, has a heavy comedy presence. And Prime Video’s vast collection gives it the greatest proportion of films that don’t fit into any of these three boxes.
When we limit our sample to quality TV shows, Hulu is the king of comedy. Again, Disney+ is devoid of dramas, a relative strength for basic HBO.
The drama divergence between Disney+ and HBO hints at another source of separation between streaming services. If you have kids—or you are one—you may wonder which services are the most and least family friendly. We’ve got graphs for that too. The following chart shows how each service’s movie library breaks down by parental rating—suitable for all viewers, older kids (7+), teens (13+), young adults (16+), and adults (18+).
Most of the major services are roughly the same, but as one would expect, Disney+ is the outlier, with roughly 60 percent of its movies deemed appropriate for all viewers. There’s nothing dirty on Disney+, although Reelgood classifies a single Disney+ movie, Life-Size 2, as 16+, either because of a quirk in the database or because living dolls are an inherently creepy concept. (If Life-Size 2 didn’t traumatize you, stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion to the trilogy.)
The TV breakdown shows the same puritan trend for Disney+, but it also reveals a wide swath of adults-only green in the third column from the left, highlighting HBO’s fondness for tits, dragons, and exquisite swearing.
Lastly, let’s reunite with our old friend, the density plot, and look at a breakdown by release date. Movies first:
If you want to indulge your inner film historian, you’ll invest in HBO Max and its hundreds of Warner and Criterion classics. If you’re cool with cartoons, Disney+ delivers in the decades-old department too. Hulu and Netflix lean toward recent releases, whereas Prime provides more of a middle ground.
On the TV side—where we go by debut year—there’s less of a spread:
Still, there’s some distinction between Netflix, which specializes in recent properties, and Prime Video and Hulu, the latter of which lays claim to a variety of TV touchstones from the ’50s to the ’80s, including I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, The Golden Girls, and The Wonder Years.
Now that we’ve sliced and diced the data, let’s sum up the appeal (and the monthly price) of each option in one paragraph apiece. (We’ll omit basic HBO, because there’s no reason to opt for the original over HBO Max unless you like getting less for your money.)
Netflix ($12.99 for a standard plan, $15.99 for a premium plan)
The pitch for the OG streaming service and reigning market leader is simple: It’s the streamer that boasts the greatest amount of quality TV. The company’s deep pockets and broad user base give its subscribers access to an enviable lineup of exclusive, original, zeitgeist-dominating TV of domestic and international origins, and although its licensed movie library has dwindled as it’s morphed from DVD deliverer to streamer, it’s compensated somewhat by producing some of its own titles. Netflix isn’t the place to fill in the holes in your knowledge of old-timey movies or TV shows, but it’s your best bet if you want to keep close tabs on the new and most buzzed-about TV.
Prime Video ($8.99)
Easily the most binge for your buck. Not only is Prime Video cheaper than HBO Max, Netflix, and ad-free Hulu, but it features the most TV shows and nearly twice as many movies as the other four services combined. Yes, you have to wade through tons of trash to find the movies worth watching, but even Prime’s well-regarded movies way outnumber the equivalent counts on other services, and its array of quality TV shows trails only those of Netflix and Hulu. Plus, who wouldn’t want to give your boy Jeff Bezos a boost in his heartwarming quest to become a trillionaire?
Hulu ($5.99 with ads, $11.99 ad-free)
If you’re willing to stomach some ads—we know, what is this, cable?—Hulu is the least expensive of these options. It’s also the only one with more TV shows than movies, and the movies it does have muster a median score barely above Prime’s, which means this is not the service for cinephiles. However, Hulu does have almost as much quality TV as Netflix, a wide assortment of nostalgia-inducing throwback shows, the latest episodes of current TV seasons (the day after they air), and more total TV episodes than any of its competitors, thanks in part to a wide selection of reality TV and anime. (We see you, but may not have time to watch you, more than a thousand combined episodes of One Piece and Naruto Shippūden.)
Disney+ has the fewest movies and the fewest TV shows. What it does have is Disney stuff, and for more than 50 million subscribers, that’s enough. The studio’s animated classics, all of on-screen Star Wars, and the MCU make for an intoxicating combo that costs less than the other ad-free services. Where else are you going to get Bart Simpson, Baby Yoda, and the comfort of depositing your spawn in front of a screen for hours on end without worrying that they’ll see something that prompts uncomfortable questions?
HBO Max ($14.99)
Befitting its name and its slogan, basic HBO is the most movie-oriented service, with a 6.4 ratio of movies to TV series. But HBO Max strikes a better balance, delivering an eclectic mix of classic movies, beloved HBO shows, and crowd-pleasing sitcoms such as Friends, The Big Bang Theory, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which results in the highest median movie score and a higher median TV series score than any non-HBO-based service. Considering the relatively steep price, the lack of Max-only originals, and the larger overall libraries of Prime and Netflix, there isn’t a clear-cut case for streaming supremacy, but the newest big combatant in the streaming wars is already carving out territory of its own, particularly among more mature audiences.
One could consider other, non-library-related factors when deciding between streamers—portability, user interface, recommendation algorithm—but as Bill Gates declared decades before he predicted (but didn’t create) the coronavirus, content is king. Whichever services you subscribe to will supply plenty of entertainment to occupy your hours, and whichever ones you forgo will give you FOMO from time to time. In that sense, subscribing to a streaming service is like buying a “best of” album that omits a few famous tracks reserved for a rival “greatest hits” record: No single solution will satisfy you. But no matter how many major streaming apps multiply on your smart TV after you cut the cord, take some solace in this: It probably won’t cost you quite as much as cable.
Rob Arthur is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and data science consultant.