What is the right price for streaming programs?

It really is the question of the day. What’s the right price to pay for your streaming content? What is an hour of entertainment worth to you? The world of streaming is changing fast and it’s hard to know exactly where it’s going to go. One thing for sure, it’s going to get more confusing before it gets easier.

First, a little prehistory.
In the beginning, streaming was free. When you talked about streaming services, you were talking about YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu. YouTube content was all driven by average folks, so there were a lot of cat videos but also a lot of pirated material out there. By the late 2000s it was pretty easy to find low-quality rips of a lot of old TV shows and movies. Because YouTube is part of Google, it was easy to search too.

Netflix and Hulu started their lives as free services. Technically Netflix wasn’t free because you did have to pay for a DVD plan, but you got the streaming portion completely free. Hulu’s content was free for the first several years and then they rolled out a service originally called “Hulu Plus” where most of the content you really wanted tended to go.

Then came “authenticated” services.
A real break in the world of streaming came when individual content providers started offering streaming versions of their content. These were (and still are) free to the consumer because in order to use them you need a cable or satellite subscription. The cost of the streaming service is all baked into the price your pay-TV company pays so they can carry the service. Some of the early authenticated services were WatchESPN and HBO GO, not surprisingly, and both continue to be popular today. DIRECTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket streaming app also came out early and has always been very successful.

The breakout players
Here’s where it starts to get interesting. By the late 2000s there were two companies out there who wanted to reshape the way you streamed TV, and make money doing it. An early pioneer in offering streaming-only content, MLB.tv offers not only a lot of the content included in the MLB Extra Innings package without a cable subscription, but offers other features as well such as the ability to go month-to-month. This is perfect for baseball fans if their teams aren’t doing well. Because MLB.tv is operated by the league itself, it also offers programming that isn’t available on some pay-TV systems, like Sportsnet LA (aka “The Dodgers Channel.” For one fixed price you got every team, every day, subject to blackouts. Later, they added a single-team-only package as well.

On the other hand, Apple got into selling and renting videos very early on as well. They built their success around their hot-selling hardware, which is why their store succeeded while similar ones like Best Buy’s CinemaNow and the Blockbuster service failed. Walmart was hot on Apple’s heels and their streaming store turned into the now-popular app VUDU.

It gets interesting with Live TV
In 2015, Sling TV became the first live TV streaming service to hit the market. It offered a friendly selection of live channels at a price lower than traditional pay TV. Similar services from DIRECTV, YouTube, Hulu and just about everyone else followed suit.

And that brings us to today.

So, is it better to get the programs you want totally a la carte on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and others? Is it better to pay a service like Netflix or Hulu, or is it just as well to get some sort of live TV service like DIRECTV Satellite or DIRECTV NOW and use the apps that authenticate to it? Right now most folks are doing an “all of the above” strategy. Over 100 million homes and businesses still have a live TV package from a conventional provider, and a similar number also have Netflix subscriptions. Apple, Vudu, Amazon and tons of others report rental revenue that keeps them afloat, so lots of people do that too.

In short, you’re paying more for TV than you ever did, and you’re definitely paying more companies than ever before. At some point it has to stop.

The streaming ecosystem is fracturing fast. Almost every “basic cable” or broadcast channel is available on Hulu for about $7 a month, but you’ll pay the same $7 a month just to get CBS programs. If you’re not mooching off a friend, you’ll pay another $10-$15 each for Netflix and HBO Go. Then there’s live TV. Chances are you’re paying someone for it, and you’re paying between $35 and $300 a month.

It’s getting worse. Disney is pulling its content off Netflix and other services and if you want to get it, you’ll have to pay them. And, there’s so much good content out there, you’ll end up paying for a lot of different things.

It’s hard to know what the right price is for streaming programs. Netflix’s 5,000 or so titles come at a pretty reasonable price, unless you’re only subscribing to get one show you like. Same with HBO, Showtime and Starz, which come with a big back catalog to match their premium price tags but if you only care about that one dragon-packed show you’re not going to get value out of it. CBS has recently come under fire for forcing lifelong Trekkers to dish out $6 a month for Star Trek Discovery when there’s little else to see. But is $6 — equivalent to $1.50 per hour of Trek really that bad?

The one thing I know is that I don’t know. That, and I’m pretty sure that most streaming content is probably undervalued. In other words, you shouldn’t pay $10 a month to get access to 5,000 titles, sooner or later the economics of that are going to catch up with you. That means bad news for cord-cutters and it makes traditional pay-TV, which has already solved a lot of these issues, a much better bet. I can see it being very possible in the next 5 years that we’ll pay as much as $10 per episode of popular shows, and that may just strangle the cord-cutter movement.

But when you’re talking about slaying your enemies with fire, journeying to deep space, or even just attracting top acting and directing talent, these things cost money. It’s got to come from somewhere. And, my friends, somewhere usually means “your pocket.”

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.