The streaming market just got more crowded, with the arrival of Apple TV+ (Nov 2) and Disney+ (Nov 19) this month.
• Netflix vs TVNZ OnDemand, Spark vs Sky: Streaming numbers revealed
• Disney+ has already forced changes to NZ's entertainment landscape
• Spark vs Sky: How they'll square off beyond the World Cup
• Spark grabs more cricket, Sky extends netball deal
Here's how the newcomers stack-up against the incumbents in this seemingly ever-expanding field.
With more than 158 million subscribers worldwide, Netflix is the largest streaming service on the planet - and its 2015 launch into New Zealand was the catalyst to push streaming into the mainstream here. Netflix began by emphasising its "long tail" of content - mostly licensed from movie studios and TV channels - but it now focuses on making its own series and films or what's called original content. After a recent price increase, Netflix costs $11.99/month for a Basic plan (which lets you watch on one screen at once), $16.99/month for a Standard Plan (two screens) or $21.99 for four screens plus 4K - otherwise known as ultra-high definition.
Netflix has the jump over local services on several fronts, from offering a 4K option to captions (the norm on global services but rare on homegrown efforts) to the fact that its app is available on every brand of smart TV, every game console, Vodafone TV, and every smartphone and gadget in between.
Like nearly all streaming services, Netflix has no contracts - you pay by the month and or put your plan on hold when you like. Historically, Netflix has been streaming only - but now it's letting you download and store an increasing number of shows, which is useful if, say, you're about to take a long plane trip and want to take your tablet or laptop for some DIY inflight entertainment. If you're hearing-impaired - or struggling against noise from an open-plan kitchen/living room - you'll appreciate that all Netflix content has the option for closed captions (as does Amazon's Prime Video and Hulu). See device support links for all services at the end of this article.
Disney Plus will hit New Zealand on November 19 for $9.99 a month or $99.99 a year. Its launch will break Sky's longtime near-monopoly on Disney content. Sky has confirmed it will drop its two Disney channels from November 30, filling the gap with the CBeebies kids' channel from the BBC and a new family movie channel that is still being put together. Sky says it will retain some Disney content across its other channels until "well into 2020." But, beyond that, all Disney content will be exclusive to Disney+.
Of course, not everyone wants to watch wall-to-wall Mickey Mouse, but Disney has grown hugely through acquisition recently. Its stable includes Fox, Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilm (that is, the Star Wars franchise) and National Geographic.
And as well as being able to draw on Disney's deep well of content, Disney+ will also feature new series such as Star Wars: The Mandalorian.
Disney+ launched in the US earlier this month and suffered a few glitches as the Magic Kingdom's servers got overwhelmed, so as with any new service a bit of patience could be required at times.
But overall, Disney+ is looking like a very strong service with 4K (ultra high definition) and download options and device support only matched by Netflix (again, click the links at the foot of this article for the smart TVs and various gadgets supported by each service).
Unlike the a la cart Apple iTunes, Apple TV+ is an all-you-can-eat streaming service. It launched here on November 2, for $8.99 a month, as part of a wider 100-country launch.
The new service will feature Apple-original programming such as The Morning Show, a "cutthroat drama" starring and executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, and with Steve Carell (click to see below.) and a show featuring talk-queen Oprah Winfrey.
All up, Apple is spending some US$6b on original programming - putting it in the same league as Netflix, HBO and other top streamers and broadcasters.
Apple hasn't released any figures, but research firm Parrot Analytics reckons it's off to a slow-ish start, going by levels of social media chatter about its shows and other metrics.
But that was always going to be the case. While Disney+ has a stable of instantly-recognisable hits from the movie and TV worlds, Apple TV+ is starting from cold.
And with some of its fare, like Dickinson - a costume drama based on the life of 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson - it's definitely shooting for quality over quantity.
The service will be available on the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac and other platforms, including online at tv.apple.com, with a seven-day free trial. Some smart TVs will also get Apple TV+ support.
An aggressive promotion, starting today, sees anyone who buys an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch or Mac will get Apple TV+ for free for a year. Through Family Sharing, up to six family members can share one Apple TV+ subscription, the company says.
The Spark-owned Lightbox is like Netflix but without original programming and with the addition of pay-per-view movies. You can stream all the TV shows you like on a $12.99/month (two screens) or $15.99/month (four screens) plan. Movies cost between $4.99 and $6.99. Spark recently said it was seeking a partner for Lightbox. The basic plan is free for Spark broadband customers. Just before Christmas, Sky said it had reached a deal to buy Lightbox from Spark, and that it will merge it with its own Neon around June 2020.
Most of us know Spark Sport from its $90 Rugby World Cup Tournament Pass, but it also has a regular $19.99/month service that has been running since March, offering a range of sports including English Premier League football, Formula One racing and (from next year) domestic cricket and highlights of international cricket. Content is available live, on-demand or in highlight form, making it the most full-featured streaming service in terms of viewing flexibility. After a few wobbles in its early days Spark Sport offers an excellent quality stream - but it's restricted to one device at a time.
Although owned by Sky, Neon operates separately as a Netflix-style service that costs $13.95 a month. There's no original programming, but there is a lot from the award-winning US network HBO (which Sky also leans on heavily for its Soho channel). It's a good option to binge on hit HBO fare like Game of Thrones, Chernobyl or Big Little Lies without having to take a Sky contract. Neon began its life with relatively thin content as Sky fretted about cannibalising its traditional business, but these days it's a lot bolder and more fleshed out - so it's worth taking a second look.
Sky Sport Now (nee Fanpass)
Also owned by Sky TV. Offers streaming versions of Sky Sport channels 1 - 12, plus highlights and selected events (often big-name boxing bouts or UFC brawls) offered on pay-per-view. Sky Sport Now costs $19.99 for a no-contract week pass, $49.99 for a no-contract month pass, or $39.99 a month on a 12-month contract. Restricted to one device at a time. Like the rival Spark Sport, it offers 60 frames per second in full HD - so if your broadband's up to snuff, and all the stars are in alignment, the picture will be just as good as the best broadcast TV.
Read about the best hardware and internet plans for streaming our Idiot's Guide
Sky Go lets subscribers to Sky TV's traditional service watch selected channels - including most of its sports content and boxed sets, on a PC, tablet or phone. In its early days, Sky Go was famous for falling over and blank-screening during big events, and it got a well-deserved shellacking on social media. But Sky has continued to incrementally upgrade and tweak it, and it's now pretty solid service. The cost is included with your Sky TV subscription.
Sky TV On Demand
A lot of the content that Sky TV broadcasts can now also be streamed free by subscribers. It can be a good alternative to recording a show to your decoder's hard drive. The selection of content you can access on Sky TV On Demand depends on the channels you're subscribed to with the pay-TV broadcaster's traditional service. If you Soho is part of your channel mix, you'll be able to stream Soho content from Sky TV On Demand, for example. To use Sky TV On Demand, you have to connect your Sky decoder to your modem via a Wi-Fi dongle called a Sky Link (contact Sky and they'll send you one free) or ethernet cable, which you can pick up at any computer or consumer electronics store. A DIY guide is online here.
Amazon Prime Video
Netflix's biggest global competitor, with around 90m subscribers. Owned by Amazon as in Amazon the giant online retailer. Like Netflix, it's made a big push into original programming including its showpiece The Grand Tour, fronted by Top Gear alumni Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond (who it turns out are a bit dull when they are given complete artistic freedom. They were more fun when they had BBC rules to subvert) plus a lot of other big-budget series. Prime Video has also made a number of sports documentaries, including a series covering English Premier League side Manchester City and a reverential-to-the-point-of-dullness effort on our own All Blacks. Prime Video charges Kiwis in US dollars and costs US$2.99 ($4.30) a month for your first six months then US$5.99 ($7.20).
TVNZ OnDemand and 3Now
Our big two free-to-air broadcasters offer an increasing amount of content via their streaming services. And TVNZ, especially, is offering some series via is online service only, such as the recently added Catch 22. The streaming services can be a good alternative to recording a show. But as with all online services, their subject to "windowing" - or only being able to get rights for content for a certain period of time - so a lot of content disappears after a while. Freeview's streaming service is also a good way to tap into TVNZ and 3's online content, plus that from other free-to-air broadcasters. If you have a smart TV, it'll offer you these apps. If you don't, then Apple TV, Vodafone TV and Freeview's SmartVu all good options for turning a dumb TV into a smart TV.
The New Zealand version of Apple's iTunes offers a selection of pay-per-view movies on-demand (unlike Netflix, it's not all-you-can eat for a fixed monthly sub, though Apple is teeing up a new service that will offer that option). Some people like to sneak on to the US version of iTunes, too, which offers a broader selection of movies and adds a lot TV series, too. Apple is in the process of splitting up iTunes, which began life as a music-only service, into music, podcast and TV apps.
ABC is Australia's state-owned broadcaster, and it's just made its iView streaming service available to New Zealand and other countries.
There are a couple of catches, however.
Kiwis have to use iView's via its Apple or Android apps (Aussies also get web, smart TV and other options).
And hits like The Gruen Transfer and Diary of an Uber Driver are AWOL from the on-demand section (a spokesman says it's an international rights issue, and ABC hopes to add to the lineup).
But you can watch an ABC livestream, plus on-demand versions of its various news and documentary series, including Q&A, Four Corners, Insiders, Media Watch, Foreign Correspondent and The Drum, and documentary and entertainment content including Triple J's One Night Stand Up.
A self-styled "Britflix" service Acorn is a UK TV specialist. Actually created by an American company (AMC Networks), Acorn has garnered around 1 million paying subscribers for its mix of British, Canadian and Australian "quality dramas" such as Broadchurch and Line of Duty. A competitive $7.99 a month (or $79.99 a year) will give you all-you-can-eat access to a raft of British shows, though for some their appeal will be dimmed by the fact that many are also available in NZ through Netflix.
Google Play, YouTube Premium
Google's online store (which also features apps, music and e-books) offers a selection of pay-per-view movies for streaming at $6.99 to $7.99 a pop, with catalogue titles cheaper. As with Apple's service and others, rights issues mean Kiwis get a smaller selection of content. Elsewhere in its empire, Google offers YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) for $15.99 a month - a paid version of its popular video-sharing service that lets you avoid ads and access additional content created by various YouTube stars.
Hulu began life as a cooperative venture involving most of the US free-to-air network and movie studios, though recently Disney has bought out others to build a majority stake. Hulu makes some original programming, including The Handmaid's Tale (which streams on Lightbox here) but the bulk of its content is drawn from shows currently screening on US TV (in contrast to Netflix, which mostly shows library content outside its original programming).
If you want to watch Saturday Night Live just hours after its screened in the US, Hulu is your place. Hulu is geo-blocked to Kiwis but relatively easy to access and subscribe to using a VPN and gift cards (see "What about piracy?" below). It costs US$5.99 ($8.60) a month with ads or US$11.99 ($15.80) per month ad-free.
Hulu has around 30 million paying members, making it the third-largest commercial streaming service behind Netflix and Amazon Prime.
The Beeb's iPlayer service features its radio and TV content. It's free for Brits (or, at least, included in their TV licence fee) and geo-blocked to others, but it's another service that Kiwis can sneak a peek at relatively easily.
The US$14.99/month HBO Now is a service that delivers content straight from the US network to its audience via the HBO Now website or app - cutting out the middle man from old-school aggregators like Sky TV to new-school players like Netflix and Amazon Prime. HBO Now is not available here yet, because Sky TV owns local HBO rights, but the trend of content creators using the internet to reach their audiences directly is one to watch - particularly as sports organisations get in on it too. You might see references to HBO Max, which is an expanded version of HBO Now that's due to be launched next year.
Q: Is it piracy to access the US version of Netflix?
A: It's still not hard to find out-and-out pirated content on the internet; sites and services that will let you download new release Hollywood movies and other content without paying a bean. That's illegal, and with so much low-cost content now available to Kiwis through street-legal channels, you no longer have the excuse that NZ is being ignored and you have no other choice.
But then there's virtual private network (VPN) software that's easy to find, which lets you access, say, the US version of Netflix or iTunes, which both boast more content than their NZ incarnations, plus the likes of the UK-only BBC iPlayer or the US-only Hulu. And gift cards can be used to pay for a monthly sub, eliminating the need for a local credit card. Is that legal? It's a gray area. Sky TV would argue "no", but a number of lawyers and legal commentators - including Lowndes Jordan partner Rick Shera - who argue it's just the online equivalent of parallel importing and perfectly legal. There has never been a test case to resolve the issue. The Copyright Act (1993), which was authored before the internet went mainstream, let alone anyone conceive of streaming, is about to get an overhaul, which should help clarify things.