Discovery+ isn't the cord-cutting service you think it is

The new streaming service has a huge reality TV catalog, but avoids too much cable TV overlap.

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Discovery has been talking about having its own streaming service for more than three years. This week, it finally launched one.

The new service, called Discovery+, costs $5 per month with ads or $7 per month without them, and brings together shows from Discovery-owned cable channels such as HGTV, Food Network, Animal Planet, ID, TLC, and Discovery Channel proper. It’s already available on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, and Xbox consoles, and it includes a seven-day trial.

But don’t let the name mislead you. While Discovery+ offers some of the same content that currently airs on cable, it doesn’t include the live cable feeds themselves or new episodes of hit shows such as House Hunters International or Chopped. That means you’ll still need a pay TV subscription to watch some of Discovery’s most popular content.

It’s a shining example of how TV networks are trying to have it both ways, offering new services that might appeal to cord-cutters while trying to prop up pay TV bundles.

What’s included in Discovery+

The biggest draw for Discovery+ right now is its back catalog, which promises more than 55,000 episodes of 2,500 shows across Discovery’s cable channels.

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Discovery+ includes on-demand shows from the network’s various cable channels.

One can easily be overwhelmed by the number of reality TV programs on offer. Just searching for the term “wedding,” for instance, returns dozens of nuptial-related shows, including Wedding Island, Wedding Cake Countdown, Secrets of the Royal Wedding, and, of course, Curvy Brides. Some shows even offer every episode from every season, including Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives; Love it or List It; and Finding Bigfoot.

Discovery’s ability to churn out reality content also extends to Discovery+’s original series, of which I count 40 already. Shows like American Detective with Lt. Joe Kenda and Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure have never appeared on cable.

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Like most other new streaming services, Discovery+ is launching with a slate of original series, separate from what you’d find on cable.

As for how the service itself works, Discovery+ allows subscribers to stream on up to four devices at a time, and each account can have five user profiles with separate watchlists. The service includes some 4K content, such as the nature series Planet Earth II, albeit only on Fire TV and Apple TV 4K devices for now. (You can find these options by searching for “UHD.”) Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find any shows streaming at 60 frames per second, even though many reality shows play at those smoother frame rates on Discovery’s cable channels.

At the very least, Discovery+ deserves credit for distinguishing itself from the likes of Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max. Discovery has a distinct brand of personality-driven reality TV, and that’s clearly what you’re getting when you sign up for Discovery+. For what it offers, I found the service enjoyable to use and easy to navigate.

What Discovery+ still lacks

The catch is that Discovery+ doesn’t quite overlap with what you’d get on cable. Start poking around the catalog, and you’ll find plenty of content that remains exclusive to pay TV.

Most notably, the live feeds for Discovery’s cable channels are not available on Discovery+. Instead, Discovery+ appears to be creating a separate lineup of marathon-style streaming channels for several of its hit shows. Those channels will launch on January 29 and will offer round-the-clock streams of Property Brothers, House Hunters, Fixer Upper, House Hunters International, 90 Day Fiancé, Deadly Women, Homicide Hunter: Joe Kenda, Say Yes to the Dress, and Chopped.

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Discovery+ is promising round-the-clock channels for hit shows like Property Brothers, but doesn’t offer on-demand episodes from those same shows.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that on-demand episodes of these shows are also absent from the Discovery+ catalog. That means you can’t watch some of Discovery’s most popular shows at all on Discovery+ right now, and come January 29, you’ll likely be limited to whatever episodes happen to be playing on their marathon channels. (As The Streamable has pointed out, some of those shows may be currently tied to Hulu, which made an exclusive deal to stream some Discovery content in 2018.)

To be clear, Discovery isn’t withholding all of its current cable shows from Discovery+—for example, I’m seeing new episodes of Kids Baking Championship, Dr. Pimple Popper, and Home Town available to stream—but it’s clear that the network is reserving some of its best content for cable. And while Discovery is currently offering a “preview” of content from Chip and Joanna Gaines’ forthcoming Magnolia Network, the company won’t say whether it will continue to stream Magnolia content once the channel launches later this year.

Walking the tightrope

These gaps in the Discovery+ catalog underscore the fine line some TV networks are walking as they enter the streaming wars. They need to make their streaming services compelling enough to justify yet another subscription fee, but not compelling enough to encourage mass cord-cutting or jeopardize their current carriage arrangements.

We’re seeing this happen with other streaming services as well. CBS All Access, for instance, started adding content from Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and other ViacomCBS cable channels last year, but it doesn’t include those channels’ latest shows. Peacock offers shows from NBCUniversal’s Bravo and Syfy cable channels, but doesn’t always have the latest seasons. AT&T’s WarnerMedia still puts new shows on TNT and TBS while leaving them off HBO Max.

But for TV networks, having their cake and eating it too is easier said than done. One of the clearest trends in the streaming era has been an explosion in new shows to watch, the majority of which don’t require cable to access. There’s so much to watch now that having everything is increasingly unrealistic; the best you can do is drink from the firehose.

Discovery may feel the effects of this trend more acutely than other networks. It has no must-watch sports content or round-the-clock news channels, and its shows have a reputation for being “comfort food.” If you’re just looking to tune out for a while, it may not matter if you’re watching the latest episode of Property Brothers or one from a few years ago.

In other words, Discovery+ is in some sense even more compelling than it seems, even if Discovery would prefer that it wasn’t.

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