Brow Beat

A Complete Guide to Apple TV+, Disney+, and the Streaming Network Explosion

Which streaming networks to watch (and how to get them free).

The logos for Apple TV+, HBO Max, Disney+, and Peacock.
Photo illustration by Slate

Like the great houses of Westeros—or those far-flung star systems toiling under the yoke of the evil Galactic Empire—the world’s gigantic media conglomerates are now shoring up their support for an epic campaign to capture your streaming service auto payments. No less than four major services are on the horizon, hoping to wrest control of the entertainment industry’s future from the tech industry usurpers at Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. Who will win the streaming wars? To whom should you pledge your fealty? And, at what cost? We have endeavored to resolve a few of these practical and moral quandaries below.

Wow, there certainly appear to be a lot of new streaming services slated for release in the near future!

Yes, indeed you are correct. Here are the big ones, listed in order of their launch date:

• Apple TV+ (Nov. 1)
• Disney+ (Nov. 12)
• Peacock from NBCUniversal (April 2020, exact date TBD)
• HBO Max (May 2020, exact date TBD)

Any clues as to what entertainment properties might be available on each? I’m hoping to triage this—by which I mean attempt to save money on subscriptions, while also keeping my finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist.

OK, well, let’s start with Apple TV+, which debuts this week. Apple is entering with the dual disadvantage of starting late compared with tech-industry rivals like Amazon and Netflix, as well as entering without its own preexisting archive of classic films and television properties. So, Apple’s making its initial play with a wild spending spree on big name creators and with a content slate designed to be more wholesome and nerdier than its competitors’.

Apple TV+ is launching with four tent pole series: Dickinson, a sexy teen period half-hour starring Hailee Steinfeld as the 19th-century poet and high school required reading staple Emily Dickinson; The Morning Show, a backstage broadcast news drama starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, and Steve Carell, that early reviews describe as a self-important, Sorkin-esque take on the Today show; See, a post-apocalyptic science-fiction series featuring Jason Momoa and a high concept premise about a virus making humanity blind; and For All Mankind, an alternate history drama series about Russia getting to the moon before the United States.

Past launch, Apple TV+ has promising projects coming from Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, J.J. Abrams, and Kumail Nanjiani—each more winsome and optimistic than the last. To give you a sense of the kind of material Apple appears to be most interested in, it’s producing a series of Peanuts specials with the hope of getting kids into STEM education, beginning with Snoopy in Space on Friday, and a Sesame Street spinoff wherein helpful monsters, or Helpsters, get kids to learn to code.

I want more! What about the other services?

After its Borg-like acquisitions of Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox, Disney is launching its streaming service with a titanic volume of popular culture under its command. Since it’s conceivable that you will need a Disney+ subscription in the near future to access your own memories, you might as well assimilate early.

Disney+ is launching (you know this already) with a $100 million live-action Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, in which the galaxy’s scum and villainy vie for position amid the power vacuum following Return of the Jedi. There will also be a computer-animated Lady and the Tramp movie for families and chaste furries to enjoy. Also on the way, of course, is a pile of new Marvel Cinematic Universe spinoff series, eight in total, chronicling the exploits of beloved also-rans like Hawkeye, Loki, Scarlet Witch, Vision, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, the Falcon, and the Winter Soldier. Later on, there will be more Star Wars, including a revival of the Clone Wars animated series and a reprisal of Ewan McGregor’s performance as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi.

In August, Disney CEO Bob Iger ominously announced that Fox’s family friendly IP would not be spared the reboot treatment—suggesting that Home Alone, Night at the Museum, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Cheaper by the Dozen are all likely to be “reimagined” for “a new generation” on the streamer. Fox institution The Simpsons will stream exclusively on Disney+ at launch as well, surely to be followed by Disney’s and cable network FX’s other beloved properties.

Aside all this, and the many movies from Disney and 20th Century Fox’s back catalogs, Disney+ will offer decades of tacky, rubber-cornered time-fillers for parents on autopilot, including The Cat From Outer Space (1978), First Kid (1996), The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000), and Mr. Boogedy (1986).

Uh-huh. What about Peacock and HBO Max? How exactly is HBO Max different from HBO Go and HBO Now?

As an NBCUniversal subscription service, Peacock is going to be the home to a lot of the “Must See TV” reruns that have curiously become some of the most-viewed content while licensed by established streaming partners like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. Favorites like Parks and Recreation and The Office (U.S.) will come exclusively to Peacock in October 2020 and January 2021, respectively. (The Warner Bros. co-production Friends, however, will be on HBO Max, which makes some sort of sense as the whole mess that is the streaming wars is ultimately about large production houses circling their wagons to battle Silicon Valley.) If you truly need a reboot of Battlestar Galactica, an adaptation of Brave New World, more episodes of A.P. Bio, or ostensibly fresh takes on Saved by the Bell, Punky Brewster, or the Real Housewives, then Peacock will become a must for you.

As for HBO Max, a good rule of thumb for distinguishing it from other HBO services like HBO Go and HBO Now is to repeat, “It doesn’t matter,” over and over again. About a quarter of current HBO subscribers—basically those who subscribe through AT&T and DirecTV, or pay HBO directly—will get HBO Max for free anyway, and the price point for HBO Max will be nearly identical to HBO Now, their current streaming service workaround for viewers who want HBO without a basic cable package attached.

HBO is partnering with WarnerMedia and the BBC for a lot of its content on HBO Max, so you can expect a lot of shows from the CW and all the Turner Broadcasting cable networks like CNN, TNT, TBS, Turner Classic Movies, TruTV, Cartoon Network, and Adult Swim. (HBO Max, for instance, recently closed a deal for South Park’s entire run, which is now going to air its first-run seasons on the Cartoon Network.) New and classic BBC programs will also stream on HBO Max, including Doctor Who, The Office (U.K.), Top Gear, Luther, and The Honorable Woman—a deal that makes sense when you consider that HBO has been openly co-producing projects with the BBC for a while now, with shows like Gentleman Jack and Years and Years, when not outright poaching their talent for superficially American shows like Succession and Veep.

In terms of original content, there will be brand new Looney Tunes shorts; a new Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon; two new movies from Reese Witherspoon’s production company; a sci-fi series by Ridley Scott about two androids raising human children on some misbegotten other world; an animated series based on Joe Dante’s Gremlins; and an adaptation of a novel set in the world of Dune.

I get it. 

Well, to be honest, we’re only really scratching the surface. In 2020, HBO Max is promising 31 original series in addition to HBO’s originals, and it’s planning 50 more for 2021.

And then there are the movies: 1,800 movies (which seems like a lot but is actually smaller than what a local video rental store had back in the day) will live on HBO Max at launch, most of them Warner properties, including nearly every DC Comics live-action movie, films from New Line, anime courtesy of Crunchyroll, machinima–turned–indie film house Rooster Teeth, and most (though not all) of the beloved animated features from the Studio Ghibli library: Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away.

This is exhausting. Perhaps I should get into books or music instead.

Did you know that, according to the National Recreation and Park Association, 3 out of 4 Americans live within walking distance of a local park or other recreational facility? That could be you!

Good idea. What is this all going to cost me, anyway? I assume all these subscription fees will be in the same ballpark. 

They are actually more diverse than you’d imagine. With less to offer than its competitors, Apple TV+ is the cheapest at $4.99 per month, followed by Disney+ at $6.99 a month (or $69.99 a year), Peacock at an estimated $10 or $12 per month, and HBO Max at $15 a month.

OK. But are there any deals or free trials in the picture? Something that a savvy consumer could exploit for maximal couch sitting.

Yes. Thanks to a deal with AT&T, HBO Max will be packaged as one-year free subscription for wireless customers who subscribe to HBO through AT&T services like AT&T TV, U-Verse TV, or AT&T’s other mobile and broadband services. The weird tricky part about all of this is that if you subscribe to HBO through a cable or internet provider unaffiliated with AT&T, or off Amazon Prime or Apple, then you’re not going to get HBO Max free.

Apple says that Apple TV+ will come free for one year to anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac, or Apple TV and activates the deal within three months of the service’s launch on Friday.

Peacock may come free (with ads) to cable subscribers, although details are still vague.

And, lastly, Disney+ will come free for one year to new and current Verizon Wireless Unlimited customers, beginning with Fios home internet customers, and new subscribers to its 5G home internet service beginning with the streamer’s debut on Nov. 12.

Is it possible that you’re forgetting to mention anything?

I did not mention that there is some original content now on Facebook Watch, such as a live-action version of the podcast Limetown, starring Jessica Biel. I just didn’t think you’d be interested.

There is also a cascading panoply of smaller, boutique subscription streaming services: art-house and foreign films from the Criterion Channel, high/low kitsch trash from Shout Factory TV, some new Tyler Perry projects on BET+, horror classics and originals on Shudder, short-form programming on something called Quibi. Truly if you have even an ounce of personality, or any niche interest at all, you can subscribe to something that might help further distinguish your individual tastes.

For a price. 

Yes. Recurring.