It’s only been a few years since it arrived in our living rooms and on our mobile devices, but it’s almost impossible to imagine life without streaming TV.
However, with the recent announcement that Netflix will be bumping up the price for its service, and last year’s revamping of Crave, resulting in a $20 price tag for the premium service, couch potatoes who’ve cut the cable cord might be reviewing their options. In this era of peak TV, it’s impossible to keep up with every award-winning prestige show, let alone indulge in guilty pleasures. So which service provides the most bang for the buck?
Of course, a lot depends on your personal preferences and your degree of impatience. Devotees of HBO shows will crave Crave (and want its premium tier), while fans of Nordic and Scandinavian crime series can’t live without Netflix. And the bonus of free Amazon delivery and lower monthly cost makes Prime Video a great deal.
We break down three of the major paid streaming services (and one cool free one) below. By our calculations, Netflix still comes out on top, but the next few years will see more horses enter this race, possibly putting an end to its reign.
Cost: After one free month, choose from among three tiers: basic ($9.99/month); standard ($13.99) or premium ($16.99). Basic is available only in standard definition and can be watched on just one screen at a time; standard is available in HD and allows viewing on two screens simultaneously; premium can be viewed in ultra high definition and on four screens simultaneously.
The skinny: Netflix is practically synonymous with streaming entertainment. Available globally, with the exception of mainland China, Syria, North Korea, Iran and Crimea, it has 139 million paid subscribers worldwide. That global reach is reflected in its content, which contains shows and films from all over the world. Director Ava Duvernay — whose documentary on the Central Park Five, When They See Us, will start streaming May 31— recently praised the company on Twitter, saying: "One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far/wide. One hundred and 90 countries will get When They See Us... I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not Selma. Not (A Wrinkle in Time). It was 13th. By Netflix. That matters."
Of course, it’s not all about Oscar bait and socially conscious films — Netflix also carries a wide range of reality TV, whether you like bridezillas, chef meltdowns or toddler beauty queens. It also provides true-crime selections, a vast collection of documentaries and movies from Hollywood blockbusters to indie darlings.
Offline viewing?: Yes. Many shows and movies can be downloaded to your phone or tablet for a period of time.
Netflix Originals: Many of the movies and shows labelled as such — including excellent imports such as British comedy Sex Education, Icelandic crime drama Trapped, Irish comedy Derry Girls and German detective period piece Babylon Berlin — are not actually created by the streaming giant, just exclusively distributed. However, among the true originals are such watercooler mainstays as House of Cards, Ozark and Orange Is the New Black, comic-book series Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and Oscar-nominated film Roma. As more networks and studios opt to start their own streaming services, original content will become even more important to Netflix; currently, network shows like Friends and Grey’s Anatomy account for a huge number of its subscriber views.
Imports: If you’re a fan of British police procedurals — and who isn’t? — you’ve come to the right place, guvnor: check out Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey, The Fall, River, Broadchurch and many more.
Standup comedy: Netflix has replaced HBO as the essential spot for standup specials, with live shows from such big names as Sarah Silverman, Jim Gaffigan and John Mulaney. However, Canadian Netflix’s commitment to this country’s standup acts is, ironically, laughable, unless you count Seth Rogen.
For kids: Endless options abound for tots and older kids alike, from claymation movie Shaun the Sheep to Netflix original Fuller House.
Check out: Bittersweet Australian dramedy Offspring follows an unlucky-in-love ob-gyn and her dysfunctional but loving family.
Cost: $89.99 annually ($7.50/month) which includes all the perks of Amazon Prime membership, such as free two-day shipping and deals on Prime merchandise, plus access to Prime Music.
Offline viewing?: Yes, selected videos can be downloaded through the Prime Video app to a mobile device.
The skinny: In general, Prime’s offerings are probably the weakest, both in terms of the number of original productions and the movie selection, which leans toward middle-brow, middle-of-the-road films. (The documentaries include such cut-rate titles as Kate Middleton: Working Class to Windsor and The Ideal Companion, a "visual guide" to choosing a feline friend that even the most ardent cat lady would be embarrassed to watch.)
However, there’s a decent collection of licensed network television series, including bingeable prestige dramas such as Friday Night Lights, The Good Fight and Justified, and comfort-TV, watch-’em-again sitcoms like Parks and Recreation, Will & Grace and 3rd Rock From the Sun.
The interface is not as intuitive or well-organized as Netflix’s — everything seems to require pressing an extra button on the remote — and it does not appear to use any algorithms to tailor content to individual viewers, but it does include a cool feature called X-Ray. Thanks to the fact that Amazon head Jeff Bezos’ media empire also includes movie site IMDb, when you pause a Prime Original show or movie, the names of the actors onscreen appear, with links to their IMDb profiles, as well as the name and artist of any song playing on the soundtrack at that moment.
And the original productions are impressive, including Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking dramedy Transparent, about a trans woman coming out to her family in her 60s, and the Philip K. Dick adaptation The Man in the High Castle.
Amazon Originals: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a dramedy from Gilmore Girls’ creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, is a sheer delight, with Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan playing a housewife-turned-standup-comedian in 1960s New York. Homecoming, Julia Roberts’ first small-screen project, is a compelling 30-minute psychological thriller about a military treatment centre.
Import: Catastrophe, a BBC production written by and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, is a brilliant, caustic comedy about a married couple that’s pretty much worth the admission price to Prime. Bawdy, hilarious, painful and real, it’s also notable for being the late Carrie Fisher’s final role. Season 4, the final six episodes of the series, starts streaming today.
Standup comedy: A weird grab-bag of mostly dated stuff here, including many, many George Carlin specials, but there’s a wealth of Hindi-language comedians.
For kids: There are quite a few options under the Kids tab, from movies such as E.T. and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs to shows like Caillou (that sound you hear is parents shrieking in dismay) and Yo Gabba Gabba, but the content is larded with a lot of down-market offerings.
Check out: Patriot — a deeply weird, darkly funny series about a U.S. intelligence officer who goes under non-official cover at an industrial piping firm to prevent nuclear armament in Iran — deserves way more attention than that description would imply.
Cost: $9.99/month for the basic streaming service; $19.99 for upgraded service that includes content from what was formerly The Movie Network (TMN). (In November 2018, streaming service CraveTV combined operations with Bell Media’s linear pay-television service TMN, rebranding the combo simply as Crave. The former TMN service effectively became Crave’s second tier. Subscribers to the former TMN got access to the former CraveTV library, while the streaming service launched an add-on tier including TMN’s film library, current HBO programming and streams of the former TMN’s channels, plus HBO Canada.)
Offline viewing?: Yes
The skinny: The draw of this Bell Media-owned service can be summed up in three words: Game of Thrones. The hotly anticipated HBO fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin’s book will begin its eighth season on April 14 and Crave is the only place to catch up on the convoluted machinations of the Lannister and Stark clans before then — not to mention the only place to stream all other HBO shows, such as Veep (whose seventh season begins March 31; unlike the way Netflix series are released, episodes of HBO shows are available to stream only after they’ve aired on "real" TV).
It also features such must-watch Showtime offerings as Killing Eve (whose second season premières April 7) and Starz shows such as twisty sci-fi thriller Counterpart. And the TMN connection means lots and lot of movies (the menu even offers a list of Bechdel Test-approved fare, and though it barely requires one scroll of the thumb, it’s the thought that counts). It’s heavy on Hollywood films and light on documentaries and indie movies. There’s also reality TV, from Jersey Shore to Masterchef.
Crave Originals: Again, this mostly refers to shows Crave didn’t produce, but to which it has exclusive airing rights. They include the Jason Reitman dramedy series Casual (which streams on Hulu in the U.S.) and heist drama series Snatch (on Crackle in the U.S.). Among the true originals are Canadian comedy Letterkenny and a whole whack of Canadian standup shows.
Imports: Nothing notable globally, but Crave is a good place to see domestic movies and shows you won’t find elsewhere.
For kids: Crave is weak in this category, with just a handful of movies and a smattering of shows (a lot of dicey-looking animated stuff) specifically aimed at a younger audience. Preschoolers fare best, with Peppa Pig, Yo Gabba Gabba and other familiar series.
Standup comedy: Lots of HBO specials, including such big comedy names as Pete Holmes and Amy Schumer. Plus, thanks to Bell Media’s affiliation with Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival, there’s a stronger lineup of Canadian content here, including specials from Debra Di Giovanni and Juno nominee D.J. Demers.
Check out: Mark Forward Wins All the Awards is a 60-minute standup show by Ontario comedian Forward that defies every expectation about what standup should be.
Cost: Free with your Winnipeg Public Library card, Kanopy gives viewers access to up to five films a month, with three days to watch each offering.
Offline viewing?: No.
The skinny: A cineaste’s dream, this treasure trove of more than 30,000 classics, independent films and world cinema is so exhaustive, you’ll have to keep reminding yourself it doesn’t cost a cent. It includes a section focusing on films in the Criterion Collection, almost 5,000 documentaries, movies about art, dance, commerce, LGBTTQ* issues, instructional videos — the list goes on. It offers more than 500 indie features, shorts, Oscar winners, movies you’ve never heard of and movies you’ve always said you should get around to watching.
Imports: With a whole category dedicated to films from around the globe, it’s impossible to single out one or two for special notice, but here goes: Vietnam’s A Scent of Green Papaya; Iran’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Italy’s Bicycle Thieves; and Senegal’s Tall as the Baobab Tree.
For kids: Many of the films under the dedicated Kanopy Kids tab won’t drive parents to distraction, as they cater to family viewing. Lots of gentle animated takes on favourite children’s books (Where the Wild Things Are, for example), as well as less typical fare, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films.
Check out: Brand Upon the Brain!, Winnipeg director Guy Maddin’s avant-garde 2006 film about a man who returns to the island he grew up on, where his parents ran an orphanage in a lighthouse.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
Updated on Friday, March 15, 2019 at 4:26 PM CDT: Corrects information on Amazon Prime offline video.