For cord-cutters, this is the year in which everything changes.
In 2019, we’ll see several new streaming services to compete with the likes of Netflix, major alterations to the live TV services that are aiming to replace cable, new ways to sift through an ever-larger array of streaming TV options, and perhaps some interesting new streaming devices. When the year is over, your options for cutting the cable TV cord will look a lot different than they do today.
Here’s what to expect in a wild year for streaming video:
New streaming services
Standalone streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime haven’t seen much new competition over the past few years, but that’ll change in 2019 with the arrival of several important new services.
First up will be Apple, whose long-awaited streaming service is likely to launch in the early part of 2019. Big names like J.J. Abrams, Jennifer Garner, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell, Chris Evans, and Oprah Winfrey are all involved in producing original content. Pricing is still unknown, but Apple has reportedly considered bundling the service with Apple Music and magazine subscriptions. And yes, you’ll probably need an Apple device to watch (more on that shortly).
Later this year, Disney will launch its own service, called Disney+. Expect a big focus on the studio’s extensive back catalog of movies and TV shows (including both Disney and Pixar films) at launch. Over time, Disney+ will become a destination for Star Wars and Marvel Universe fans as Disney pumps new original movies and shows into the service and shores up the rights to its existing films.
AT&T’s WarnerMedia will also launch a streaming service in late 2019. Exact pricing is unknown, but it will involve three tiers: The cheapest plan will focus on movies—presumably from HBO—and the mid-tier plan should look a lot like the current HBO Now. The top tier will throw in movies and shows from Turner, including films from the recently-deceased FilmStruck.
Some people will certainly gripe about these new options, yearning for a simpler (but largely fictional) time when Netflix offered everything they ever wanted to watch. The reality is that this new wave of competition will result in better television in greater-than-ever quantities, along with more control over what you’re spending. (Once more, with feeling: You don’t have to subscribe to them all.)
Live TV changes
As for live TV streaming services such as Sling TV and DirecTV Now, 2019 may be a year of reckoning. These services are reportedly unprofitable in their current iterations, and we’ve already seen some belt-tightening in the form of price hikes and fewer device giveaways. More sweeping changes could come this year as companies try to distinguish their offerings, make more money, and slow the overall collapse in traditional TV viewership.
Hulu CEO Randy Freer, for instance, has hinted at a cheaper version of Hulu’s live TV service that cuts out live entertainment channels in favor of just sports, news, and on-demand video. AT&T also wants to “thin the content out” on DirecTV Now, according to CEO Randall Stephenson, but the company also plans to raise prices to around $50 or $60 per month. We’ll see how that works out.
In any event, it’s clear that the previous trend in live TV streaming—toward more homogenous and bloated bundles—isn’t really working out. People are continuing to ditch traditional TV in record numbers, yet streaming TV bundles are neither picking up the slack nor turning the same profits as more people decide that Netflix, YouTube, and other lower-cost services are good enough. Don’t be surprised if other companies besides AT&T and Hulu tinker with their lineups this year as well.
Rise of the subscription marketplace
With so many new options to choose from, a common complaint is that it’s too difficult to sort through them all, especially when each service has its own dedicated app and billing system.
Later this month, Roku will try to tackle the problem with a subscription marketplace inside The Roku Channel. With just one app, users will be able to add subscriptions and start watching video from services such as Starz and Showtime. It’s a similar concept to Amazon Channels, which has become a huge success since launching a few years ago, and Apple is reportedly looking into the idea as well.
Granted, larger services like Netflix will probably keep pushing their own apps and billing systems (thereby allowing them to keep all the revenues). But for niche services and individual TV channels, these new marketplaces will make a la carte distribution much more viable.
New and improved hardware
Last year, Amazon was the only company that pushed the envelope on hardware, offering a killer new 4K streaming stick, a streaming box with built-in Alexa controls, and a whole-home DVR for over-the-air antenna users. Google’s new Chromecast, in contrast, was only a minor improvement over the 2015 version, and Roku’s new Premiere 4K HDR streamers were actually a downgrade from the slightly pricier Streaming Stick+. Apple didn’t release any new TV hardware at all.
2019 could be more interesting. Apple is reportedly considering a low-cost Apple TV “stick” to get its new video service into more homes, and Roku could finally make good on plans to introduce hands-free voice control to its players. (Google Assistant integration doesn’t quite get the job done.) As for Google, I continue to hope that Android TV will get the mass-market consumer hardware it deserves, even if I’m not holding my breath.
Will cable wake up?
With so many new and emerging ways to cut the cord, and so many people ditching traditional TV, maybe 2019 will also be the year in which cable presents a credible response.
Already, Comcast has been letting customers use Roku devices and Samsung TVs in place of cable boxes as part of a public beta. (With caveats: The cost of one box rental is already built into Comcast’s pricing, and it’s unclear if Comcast will stick to an earlier plan to charge bring-your-own-device fees after the beta ends.) Spectrum is also still working on an Apple TV app to complement its existing Roku and Xbox One apps, though the company has said that customers will still need to rent a cable box unless they’ve received an offer for streaming-only service. Smaller cable companies, meanwhile, have started offering streaming plans without rental fees.
The big question is whether cable companies will become more aggressive in marketing these offerings, and whether cable packages themselves will begin to evolve. Cable companies traditionally had limited power to slice and dice their offerings, due to contractual obligations with TV networks, but perhaps sinking subscriber numbers will compel both sides to take a different approach.
And if not, there will be plenty of other ways—new and old—to spend your TV budget this year.
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