Old-school media guys like me follow the same patterns we’ve established over years — okay, decades — of behavior. I look for the Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) on my driveway every morning, and wait for the day’s magazines to arrive: Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Money …
I also have one more media vice that holds me hostage: cable. But that might just have to change. Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) and its many competitors are thriving and appear to be here to stay — and might just be the death of traditional cable packaging and pricing.
Netflix service, for one, costs $7.99 per month for a limit of two subscribers on simultaneous streams. Sometime this year it will offer an option allowing up to four simultaneous streams … for a whopping $11.99 per month.
I pay a lot more than that for my viewing habits.
So what’s a dinosaur to do? Well, I can get virtually the same options as I have today on cable — like sports, movies, around 40 different channels offering an infinite variety of programming, and more sports — using a variety of devices and streaming choices.
There are basically two flavors: the content-streaming providers themselves, and the hardware set-top boxes that allow you to stream the content. Here’s a look at the major players for each option:
Let’s start with the content-streaming providers.
For $6.67 per month, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) Prime gives you access to all its streaming channels and movies on Amazon Instant Video. Downton Abbey is available, as is The Good Wife, Falling Skies and The Shield are among your options, there — of course, all the episodes are from previous seasons.
Top movies? Amazon lists All the President’s Men, Chinatown and Cool Hand Luke. All are absolute classics … and absurdly old.
You can find some current programming like the Walking Dead and Psych, but the offerings are mighty limited.
The programming and content leaves me cold. However, upon enrollment I get free two-day shipping on products sold by Amazon and one free book a month from the Amazon Lending Library to use on its Kindle device.
Still … meh.
How did Netflix get to 30 million subscribers? By offering perhaps the widest variety and breadth of content. In fact, Digital Trends estimates NFLX has two to three times more content available than Amazon.
For $7.99 per month, you can watch … well, a lot. Netflix offers 21 genre options, from television to sports movies, all on demand. In addition, Netflix offers original programming like House of Cards and new seasons of Arrested Development.
Still, I’ll admit that Netflix’s content also is wholly unimpressive. I have no interest in scrolling through Scooby-Doo reruns, or watching 1980s movie or television classics.
But what do I know? Nearly 30 million people can’t be wrong, right?
For $7.99 per month, you can download programming similar to almost any cable package, including prime network shows and movies, although it might take a few cycles (or months) for you to get to those first-run movies fresh off theater release.
Generally, your favorite network or cable shows are available a day later than their first run, so watching HBO’s Girls will be a Monday event, not Sunday. Still, you’ll get those shows during the season they air — fans of The Office won’t have to wait two years to see if Pam and Jim make it through their rough patch. Hulu Plus also offers some original programming with Battleground and A Day in the Life.
How’s it all playing in the market? No so badly: Hulu recently ran past the 4 million premium subscriber hurdle, while racking up nearly $700 million in sales. While behind the other big boys, those numbers should keep stakeholders Disney (NYSE:DIS) and News Corp (NASDAQ:NWSA) happy.
As for me? Hulu’s not too bad, but it comes with commercials, so you don’t have that benefit.
Now for the content delivery systems.
Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) portable set-top digital media receiver retails for $99. Buy it and set it up, and you can stream programming wirelessly from your Apple iTunes account.
Apple TV allows you to draw content from Hulu Plus, Netflix, Google‘s (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube, MLB.tv, NBA League Pass, movies and anything you can rent-to-watch or listen to through the iTunes store. Movies, television shows, music videos — you have all of them at your disposal. You can pick and choose what you want to hear or watch, thereby completely controlling the costs.
And at some point — perhaps in the not too distant future — Apple has promised to deliver an actual television set to marry with the set-top box. That will make me sit up and take notice.
Similar to Apple’s offering, Roku provides a small set-top box, only in this case it comes in four variations. The cheapest package costs $50 for basic acccess; the latest model includes instant replay, 1080p video and even Angry Birds Space all for $100. And again, that’s just the price you pay for the setup.
R0ku offers access to 750 channels, including Hulu Plus programming and Netflix movies and content at those companies’ standard pricing for the service. Roku also offers Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO, NBA Game Time and Prime Flix among other offerings.
Trying to find out the cost of every channel available will take you some time; options like HBO GO require a subscription to HBO. So it pays to scroll through to figure out what you want, and how much it will cost you to watch.
Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox 360 console actually is a video game console, though it has evolved into a portal to television and movie programming.
Since Xbox is a complete system that includes video gaming, this one will set you back some coin: the existing version of the console system can run up to $300 per set.
Xbox 360 users can access the Internet, Twitter, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), ESPN apps, YouTube and thousands of movies, TV shows and songs. Xbox users also can subscribe to Hulu and Netflix, and they also get the benefit of programming available from both Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), both of whom inked a deal with Microsoft back in 2011 to stream content from their respective Fios and Xfinity services.
Rumors abound that the soon-to-be delivered Xbox 720 will have the ability to stream live broadcast television. To this point, price is speculative, as is a firm release date, so stay tuned.
It all comes down to what’s more important to you — content or costs. If it’s the latter, you’re stuck parsing all the choices above. But if you care about watching whatever you want, when you want (as I do), none of the streaming options currently hold a candle to cable.
So while I might eventually become a streamer one day, that day is far down the road.
Marc Bastow is an Assistant Editor at InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he was long AAPL, MSFT, and VZ.