Pandemic Binge Watching and the Big Three Channels

Let me just get out the obligatory “TV was a lot different when I was young” before we move on.  I tell my daughter about the days before DVRs or VCRs, when you had to be there and ready to watch at a specific time in order to see a show or movie.  A whole weekly magazine was devoted to the TV schedule, which was kind of amazing logistically because the channels were different in every major media market.  The LA TV Guide was useless in Chicago or New York.

And don’t even get me started on the pre-cable days and fiddling with an antenna to get the TV signal.  And I am just old enough to remember pre-solid state TVs, where you had to turn them on and allow a couple of minutes for them to warm up before a clear picture would resolve itself on the screen.  Or a fuzzy picture, if the antenna wasn’t just right.  It was a different time.

Today we have a Roku Stick that juts out from the side of our 46″ LCD TV.  I bought that back in December because there was demand in our house for the Disney+ channel and the PlayStation 3, our streaming device up until that moment, was just seconds from being completely out of support, so no new apps were being made for it.  And, when I looked at it a couple month later, all the old apps were dead too.  So it was just in time.

And, as the pandemic has gone on, we have spent more and more time streaming content over the Roku and very little time watching traditional commercial television.  I’d cancel the cable TV service, but Comcast would raise my monthly charge to just have internet.  So we just leave it there, idle, though I may go in and trim some features, like the extra we pay for HD channels.  The Comcast Xfinity HD compression algorithm was changed a couple years back and what you get now looks pretty bad.  If it even qualified as 720p I’d be surprised.  Maybe sports will come back and we’ll want to watch something like that.

Anyway, this will be a few posts running down of the channels in order of length and depth of investment in each, and I will start with the big three staples of our house currently.

HBO, or Home Box Office back in the day, is probably the first premium channel I ever ran into.  Our friend Gary had a bootleg HBO receiver on their antenna mast back in the day when it was broadcast via line-of-sight transmission from Mount Umunhum into the valley.  It was just movies back then, and the occasional filler 30 minutes of Video Jukebox, which might have pre-dated MTV.

I have subscribed to HBO as part of cable or satellite or streaming a number of times over the years, and I always end up cancelling it after a while.  They never have many movies that interest me, and for a long time they only had a few shows, and none of this was on demand.  But that has changed.

Upside:

Usually has a couple of recent release movies we might want to watch.

Has a deep field of good TV series that they have produced on which to binge like The Wire, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Succession, Generation Kill, and a few others.  I could watch the first two seasons of The Wire on repeat.

Downside:

Priced at a premium tier.

Like a lot of movie channels, there are a bunch of movies you’ll skip right past because you’ve seen them or know you’ll never watch them.  Oh, and they come and go monthly, so you have to keep an eye on that.

Has some series that are decent but which got cancelled quickly, so you have a few episodes and a longing for more.

The UI of the app is not very sophisticated, though I will admit that the UI of none of the streaming apps are ideal.  We are once again up against the limitations of screen real estate and exactly how big things need to be to be able to see/read them from the couch.  But HBO, for all its prestige of being one of the elder services, is behind the pack when it comes to features, at least when compared to the two services below.

Has clung to the old school “episode every week” format for new show content.  This works for topical shows, like Last Week Tonight, and worked during Game of Thrones, when everybody was talking about that at the water cooler on Monday, but that was an exception, not the rule.  Most of the time it feels like they drag shows out week by week because they have nothing else new coming and just want to keep you subscribed.  Our general house rule is to let a series get at least six episodes in so we can watch them in pairs, though it is better still if we just wait until the season is over and watch at our own pace.

I also remain confused as to their branding.  I have HBO Now, or I did, but there is now HBO Max, which I cannot have because they are in a fight with Roku, though I can get HBO Max if I cancel HBO Now and subscribe to HBO via Hulu.  Or something like that.  I am not sure what I am missing by not having HBO Max.  Also, wasn’t there HBO Go for a while?

Current Status: Still subscribed.  Waiting for Lovecraft County to get further along.

Our original stop for binge watching, back when Netflix used to just send disks through the mail.  We burned through seasons of the show 24 three disks at a time.  With no commercials and using the chapter advance to get past the “previously” and the credits, each hour long episode boiled down to under 30 minutes, so we would watch a disk a night.

Eventually Netflix managed to get to the “net” part of its name and started streaming back before that was much of a thing.

Anyway, fast forward to today where Netflix is your prime location for streaming old episodes of Friends, a show we only used to watch because it was adjacent to Seinfeld at one point and the once place where you can watch Tiger King.

Upside:

Overall, lots of stuff available.

Lots of new and original content showing up all the time.  When they drop a new series, it is all episodes on the table, ready to binge.  And they have hit the mark multiple times with shows like Stranger Things and Tiger King.

Top of the class when it comes to features like “skip the ‘previously’ segment” at the start of a series show and “skip credits” so you can get straight into the content.

Tries really hard to flag content you might like based on your viewing, and isn’t that bad at it.  And it allows you to make profiles so when your daughter binges anime on her profile you don’t end up with the weeabo selection on your own recommendations.

Downside:

Has, over time, dramatically decreased the amount of third party content they have licensed.  There are still some good third party items in the mix, and of course Friends, but they are more about their own stuff these days.

A lot of their own content isn’t that great.  Some of it is okay.  I was good with a pass through once on things that otherwise got mixed reviews, but it can be really hit and miss.  A bunch of it is foreign television that has been dubbed in English and branded as “Netflix Original” and dumped into the listings.  Some dubbed stuff is okay, though a dubbed show really has to have a strong underlying plot for that not to become a distraction.

Really wants stuff playing on your screen.  The only service where I will leave something selected, walk away to do something, and come back to find myself starting episode three already.  You can tone that down some in the settings, but they don’t make it easy.

Current Status: Still subscribed, waiting for the next bit of binge fodder to drop while I get through Parks & Recreation.

Amazon Prime is the streaming service we sort of backed into because we had Amazon Prime for free delivery and suddenly it included a video service.

Upside:

Has content for Prime members, which occasionally has a movie I want to watch when I want to watch it.  I caught The Battle of Britain the other day.

Continues to ramp up some decent original content like The Man in the High Castle, The Boys, and Hanna.  If you’re going to dub something, Comrade Detective is how you do it.

Has caught up to Netflix on the “skip this” features without trying to start playing video at you every time you pause the cursor for a moment.  Also, just added profiles.

Can subscribe to a variety of other services like Showtime or Starz in their interface.  Also has a huge library of pay per view titles in its catalog.

Downside:

Not a lot of selection when compared to Netflix when you consider the price differential.  But maybe the free shipping takes a bite out of the content options.

Not as easy to navigate as Netflix.  Not that Netflix is great, but on Prime everything is smaller and less intrusive and feels like they are not trying as hard.  Prime also lists out each season of a show as its own entry, which feels like they are trying to look like they have more content than they actually do.

Searching for titles will lead you to a lot of things that are pay per view.  This sets it apart from the other two where everything you find on the service you can watch without additional payment.

The last time I tried a pay per view movie I had to get up from the TV and go into my office to order it on my computer before I could watch it on the TV.  I guess that keeps down the accidental purchases.

Some spotty or indifferent shows.  Also clings to the “one episode a week” idea of content deliver, except when it gets impatient and suddenly releases half a season, the doles out the rest more slowly.

Status: Still subscribed for free shipping, Twitch games, and other stuff, while finishing up Counterpart and waiting for all the episodes of The Boys season two to become available.

Next time I’ll look at Hulu, Disney+, and Starz.

3 thoughts on “Pandemic Binge Watching and the Big Three Channels

  1. bhagpuss

    I now have Prime and Netflix. I wouldn’t care about HBO except they just acquired DCUniverse, which has a ton of stuff I wanted to watch. But DCU stuff seems to turn up on either Prime or Netflix in the UK anyway so maybe that won’t matter. Depends whether they elect to push HBOMax over here, I guess.

    I watch all of my video on a Kindle Fire. We don’t own a TV and I almost never watch shows or movies on the desktop. On the tablet version of prime there’s a toggle top right that swaps between showing everything or only what you get for free. I toggle that to “free” as soon as I log on so I no longer see any of the paid-for stuff. Before they added that it used to be really annoying, clicking on something that looked interesting and then finding out it wasn’t included.

    Coming late to Netflix, the choice seems overwhelming. I put about fifteen series on my List and so far I’ve finished two of them, Titans and Umbrella Academy. Currently I’m watching Bojack Horseman on the back of mentions on TAGN and Friends because I haven’t seen it for what feels like forever and I wanted to see if it was what I remembered. Bojack is excellent if frequently harrowing. I literally put my fingers over my eyes during the penultimate episode of season two because I couldn’t bear to watch.

    Friends is kind of what I remembered and kind of not. I think it’s probably better but less funny. The acting, plot continuity and foreshadowing are all deeper and more nuanced than i remember but the jokes don’t land as solidly and frequently. Then again, when it aired at 10pm on Fridays, I was always well into a bottle of wine when I watched it, which would tend to make the jokes play better and watching one episode a week rather than three or four a night would make the meta-narrative harder to follow.

    I still can’t get into the habit of watching movies. It’s just too long a stretch of time to commit to. I blame MMORPGs for that.

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  2. anypo8

    Re HBO options, I found this analysis pretty precious.

    I really only watch Jeopardy, the Amazing Race and Fool Us for the most part, so while my wife has all the television things at this point it hasn’t affected me much. I’m not really a binge-watcher anyhow. Spending a lot more time on YouTube than with the TV these days.

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  3. Yeebo

    I am still using the PS3 as my main streaming box. It works with netflix, amazon, and youtube. That’s all I care about. We are waiting for the PS5 to come out so we can skip a generation, or at least get a maxed out PS4 at a bargain price.

    We still watch HBO, Hulu originals and movies on DVD. Ten more dollars to Netflix a month to literally be able to watch almost anything we can think of made more sense than another streaming service (or which there are more and more to pick from). I keep threatening to sign us up for random services a month or two at a time (you can get most of them indirectly through amazon), but I have yet to pull the trigger.

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