We're in television limbo. The cable model is fading away, but streaming has become just as crowded, expensive and frustrating. Hit television shows are scattered across services, and watching even a handful of the best requires more than one subscription.
There's no quick fix for the streaming blues, but there are some tips on new things you can try.
First, let's dig into what the rules are for sharing and who is cracking down.
1) Share accounts, as much as you're comfortable
Yes, you are able to share logins for your streaming accounts, but the exact rules vary from company to company. Penalties for breaking these rules are typically murky and mild.
There's little evidence any companies have taken legal action for casual sharing, but it's more serious for people stealing accounts or sharing with many people for profit.
If you're worried, start by checking the terms of service for each company to see if they specify who you can or cannot share with (we break some down below). Most will use the term “household”, but the companies we spoke to largely declined to say if that definition included close family living elsewhere, or if people had to share the same primary addresses for a certain amount of time.
Some specifically allow sharing with immediate family, regardless of location, such as HBOMax and Apple TV Plus. (Netflix has come out to say “household” means you share the same primary address most of the time, which would rule out college kids, second homes, and possibly anyone who travels full-time for work).
There's been an industry-wide lax approach to account-sharing enforcement, and it's created an odd situation for many TV watchers, who mix and match logins with family or friends.
The companies are vague about what they enforce and how, and have a history of embracing sharing accounts to build up buzz and user numbers. They could be keeping the door open to cracking down, if and when it's better for business.
Netflix: The company is going to start going after those sharing with people outside the same home and will use your IP address to track offenders. It's currently testing enforcement in three countries, by pushing people to pay for their own streaming for a lower cost. You can stream on one to four screens at a time, depending on your plan.
Prime Video: You can share a Prime account with one other adult, but Amazon did not clarify if they need to live at the same address or say if it is enforcing unwanted sharing.
Disney+: Disney terms do not specify who you can or can't share your login with, but a Disney account allows four streams at a time, seven profiles, and downloads on up to 10 devices. The company says it has technology to flag “suspicious” activity, but did not say what actions it takes or what qualifies as “suspicious”.
Apple TV Plus: This is a unique one in the bunch because of Apple's family sharing options and greater control over its services. You can share your Apple TV account with up to five family members, anywhere in the same country, using Family Sharing, but it's also difficult to just lend someone your password and login like you would with other services (you can sign in to watch Apple TV through a browser).
2) Cancel or pause your accounts
You can, in theory, pause or cancel your accounts based on what you're watching that month. That way you're not paying for all the subscriptions at the same time.
Not surprisingly, most streaming companies make it difficult or impossible to pause your account. Netflix will only let you cancel your account and has no option for pausing. Apple TV Plus, however, makes it simple to pause payments for the service in your device's settings.
One hack is to sign up for as many of these services as possible through a third party on Apple's App Store or Apple TV platform, Google Play or Amazon's Prime video (not all are available). This gives you a place you can easily toggle them on and off so you only pay for ones you're using.
3) Sign up for bundles, use free trials
You can hunt around for bundles that combine your favourites. Many services also offer a free trial. but you can only take advantage of these offers once and you have to remember to cancel before the automatic payments start hitting your bank account (set a calendar reminder).
When you buy a new Apple device, it comes with three months of Apple TV Plus. Check with your cellular or internet provider for any offers, and look for free trials when you purchase any new hardware.
4) Other money-saving tips
Sometimes you can get an “add-on” version of a service for less, through a provider like Prime Video. However, most of the time it costs the same amount as it would directly through the provider. Compare any prices before deciding to start a subscription.
If there is a service you know you'll watch every month of the year, see if there's a cheaper annual price, instead of a monthly option.