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How to Choose a Premium Channel

Maybe you watch a lot of movies and you’re tired of commercials interrupting the action. Maybe there’s a show you keep hearing about that is exclusive to a certain channel. Or maybe you’re just curious about what makes these channels so special. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you want to try a subscription to a premium channel. But which one? On the surface, subscription-based TV channels all appear to be pretty much the same. So what makes one better than the others? How do you decide which one to buy?

What makes them special?

The major players in premium television are without a doubt HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax. What makes them premium? They air their programming nearly commercial free; the only advertisements you’ll see on these channels are for other programs on the channel, and there are no ads during the programs themselves. They’re able to forego commercials by charging a subscription fee on top of your normal cable subscription. For many people, this lack of commercials is reason enough to subscribe, as the constant barrage of interruptions on regular cable television can get old pretty quickly.

In terms of content, the majority of the programming still consists of movies, but in recent years a lot of the focus has shifted towards original programming like the extremely popular Game of Thrones series.

It’s all about priorities

When it comes to deciding which channel is worth your money, the best thing to do is decide what your priorities are. For example, if movies are important to you, take a look at the schedules and see which offering matches best with your tastes. Movies still make up the majority of the programming on the premium channels, so if one channel plays more films that you like, that’s going to be a major factor in your decision. Each channel has the currently running lineup featured prominently on its website, so it’s pretty easy to get a feel for what each one offers.

Exclusive content

Often, the major deciding factor is the original content available on each channel. Some of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on TV right now are exclusive to these channels (Game of Thrones, for instance, is only available on HBO), and this exclusivity will likely play a large part in deciding which channel to choose. Here are the currently-airing dramas and comedies on the main premium channels:

Network HBO Starz Showtime
Dramas
  • Game of Thrones
  • True Detectives
  • The Leftovers
  • Vinyl
  • Black Sails
  • Power
  • Outlander
  • The Missing
  • The Girlfriend Experience
  • Shameless
  • Homeland
  • Ray Donovan
  • Masters of Sex
  • Penny Dreadful
  • The Affair
  • Billions
Comedies
  • Girls
  • Veep
  • Silicon Valley
  • Ballers
  • Survivor’s Remorse
  • Blunt Talk
  • Ash vs. Evil Dead
  • Episodes
  • House of Lies
  • Dice

A large chunk of Cinemax’s original programming is confined to the Max After Dark late-night block, which airs adult films and TV-M rated series. The channel is producing several more mainstream original series, though, including The Knick, Outcast, and Quarry.

If you want to keep up with any of these shows, you’ll have to go with the channel that airs them, which should make your choice easy. If you don’t have any specific shows in mind, know that each channel offers excellent original content, so it’s hard to go wrong.

Living the mobile life

If being able to watch while on the go is important, these channels have you covered, although some better than others. They all offer streaming to their subscribers through apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as in a web browser, allowing you to take advantage of your subscription even when you’re not at home with your TV.

HBO, Showtime, and Starz take it to the next level by also offering the option to subscribe directly through their apps, bypassing the need for a cable subscription entirely. If cord cutting is in your future, it allows you to keep your premium content without needing a separate cable subscription, and it also allows you to try the service before you buy.

Cable companies don’t tend to offer trials, but HBO and Showtime offer 30-day free trials through their direct streaming services, so if that’s important to you, these two should be at the top of your list. Starz does not appear to offer a trial period, and Cinemax doesn’t offer standalone service at all; the only way to watch, streaming or otherwise, is with a cable subscription, which may rule it out for some.

On a final streaming note, if you already have subscriptions to other streaming services, Showtime and Starz offer a unique way to get their service: as an add-on. If you have a Hulu, Amazon Prime, or PlayStation Vue subscription, you can add Showtime and watch it through those apps at a relatively cheap price. Starz is also available as an Amazon Prime add-on.

The add-on availability and free trial period put Showtime in the lead for streaming options. Cinemax, lacking the ability to subscribe directly, is way behind the pack here.

Pricing

If pricing is your primary concern, know that these channels generally cost about the same as part of a cable subscription. The exact price will vary depending on your geographic area and cable provider; on XFINITY in the Savannah area, for example, they are all right around $20 per month. Additionally, your provider may run special offers on one or more channels, especially as an incentive when you first sign with a new provider. If you can get a really good deal on one of the channels, that may give it an edge.

The cost of the standalone streaming services is lower, though you do need additional equipment, like an Apple TV or Roku box, to watch it on your TV:

HBO Now, HBO’s standalone service, is $14.99 per month.

Showtime’s service is $10.99 per month, or $8.99 if you add it to a Hulu or Amazon Prime subscription.

Standalone Starz service is just $8.99, and the Amazon add-on is the same price.

Taking these options into consideration, Starz is probably the cheapest service overall, while HBO is generally the most expensive.

Popularity contest

Lastly, it may help to see the channels ranked, since often (though not always) the better services tend to be the most popular as well. In March 2015, HBO ranked as number 1 by a fairly large margin, with over 30 million subscribers. Starz came in second place, followed closely by Showtime, with approximately 8.6 million fewer subscribers than HBO. Cinemax brings up the rear. HBO has been number 1 for a while, in large part thanks to its excellent lineup of award-winning original series.  

In the end, which of these channels you choose is going to have a lot to do with your taste in movies and television, as they all offer more or less the same features for the same price. The differentiator is the content, and even in this area, it can be hard to pick one that really pulls ahead. Fierce competition is driving the channels to put out some fantastic content, which means that at the end of the day we all come out ahead. Good luck and happy watching!

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