How to Choose a Premium Channel

Here’s a step-by-step guide to picking the best premium TV channel(s) for you and your family.

Written by Easton Smith
Jan 15, 2020
Difficulty level:
Easy
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Difficulty level: Easy
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Television has gone through an amazing transformation in the last decade. TV shows now rival Hollywood movies in their production value and star-power. Millions of people tune in to watch series finales. It’s truly the golden age of TV.

So why are you still watching reruns of Seinfield and Law and Order?

Maybe it’s time to upgrade to premium channels like HBO, SHOWTIME, and EPIX. This article will tell you everything you need to know about the best premium channels and how to get them.

What makes a channel premium?

Unlike regular cable TV channels (like Comedy Central and ESPN), premium channels offer commercial-free programming. That means no sitting through endless commercials for Zytiga, Incivek, and Eliquis—woohoo!

Premium channels also tend to have access to newer, “first-run” movies and Hollywood-sized budgets so they can produce shows like Game of Thrones.

The catch is that you have to pay extra for these channels (unless you have a really premium cable or dish package, in which case you’re already paying a boatload of cash).

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Want access to premium channels without the cable package?
For many years, premium channels were only available as add-ons to existing cable and dish TV packages. But that reality is rapidly changing.

All of you cord-cutters out there can get HBO, SHOWTIME, and other premium channels through streaming services like Sling TV, DIRECTV NOW and Amazon Prime Video. Many premium channels also offer their own streaming services, like HBO NOW.

All right, that’s the end of the opening credits. Here’s the feature event: a step-by-step guide to choosing premium channels.

1. Know your options

Subscribing to a premium channel is kind of like dating someone new: you want to do a little bit of background research before you seriously commit. Thankfully, we’re like your super-gossipy friends who will tell you all the dirt.

Here are the details on the “big six”—HBO, SHOWTIME, STARZ, CINEMAX, The Movie Channel (sometimes called TMC), and EPIX.

HBO

HBO was already a huge name in the entertainment industry before it upped the bar for television with The Sopranos. Now it’s an industry behemoth, delivering the most popular shows (like Watchmen and Silicon Valley) and the newest platform innovations.

When you subscribe to HBO through cable, you’ll get access to multiple channels, including HBO Latino, HBO Comedy, and HBO Family. You’ll also get free access to on-demand (and downloadable) content on any device through HBO GO.

Features include the following:

  • HD-quality content
  • Spanish programming (HBO Latino)
  • Multiple streaming options
  • On-demand programming
  • Offline downloads (through HBO app)
  • HBO NOW available as standalone streaming service

SHOWTIME

SHOWTIME, like HBO, has been around since the 1970s. But the channel has only recently gained prominence with popular original shows such as Homeland and Dexter. It also features sports, documentaries, movies, and more.

SHOWTIME is available through all major cable providers and also as a standalone subscription option.

Features include the following:

  • HD quality content
  • Multiple streaming options
  • On-demand programming with SHOWTIME ANYTIME
  • SHOWTIME app supports offline downloads

STARZ

STARZ Entertainment was a latecomer to the cable lineup, but the company has managed to make a name for itself by broadcasting the movie library of its huge parent company, Lionsgate.

It’s also broken into the original programming scene with popular shows like American Gods and Ash vs. Evil Dead.

Features include the following:

  • HD-quality content
  • Multiple streaming options
  • On-demand programming
  • STARZ app supports offline downloads

CINEMAX

CINEMAX first launched as a sister channel to HBO that only broadcasted movies—usually second-run movies. While the channel is still cinema-focused, it has also begun to offer its own lineup of original content, like Jett.

Features include the following:

  • HD-quality content
  • Multiple streaming options
  • On-demand programming

The Movie Channel

The Movie Channel (TMC) is owned by SHOWTIME, and usually comes free with a SHOWTIME subscription. It features popular movies, both new and old. It’s known for broadcasting plenty of adult content, from steamy late night shows to its weekly “Splatterdays” horror marathon.

Features include the following:

  • HD-quality content
  • Multiple streaming options
  • On-demand programming

EPIX

EPIX is the youngest of the premium cable channels, but it can still hold its own against its older siblings. Beyond its large collection of movies, EPIX delivers top-notch original content like The Godfather of Harlem.

Features include the following:

  • HD-quality content
  • Multiple streaming options
  • On-demand programming
  • EPIX app supports offline downloads

2. Decide what kind of content you want

If you’re wondering who wins in a competition of HBO vs. SHOWTIME vs. STARZ, the answer is it depends.

Some people want to watch science-fiction action, while others would prefer true crime thrillers. Some folks just want to watch the same shows as their friends (so you can ask each other what the heck just happened on the latest episode of Westworld).

Here’s a look at what we think the best premium channels are for various kinds of programming.

Best for movies: STARZ and CINEMAX

While all of the premium channels broadcast and stream movies, some have a better selection than others.

STARZ has up to 12 separate movie channels (depending on your cable provider) that showcase everything, from recent blockbusters like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle to classics like Scarface.

If you’re an adrenaline junkie, then CINEMAX might be a better fit for you, with movies like Justice League, Dunkirk, and Goodfellas.

Best for original series: HBO and SHOWTIME

Premium channels are a great way to watch movies. But they’re the only way to watch the latest episodes of your favorite shows.

It hardly needs to be said that HBO has some of the best, and most popular, shows ever produced. Indulge your inner history buff with Chernobyl or feed your inner fantasy nerd with His Dark Materials.

When it comes to original content, SHOWTIME has been fast on HBO’s heels for nearly a decade with shows like Weeds, Californication, and Shameless.

Best for sports: EPIX and SHOWTIME

If you’re more interested in seeing your favorite quarterback let loose a Hail Mary pass than you are in seeing your favorite actor nail a line of dialogue, then check out EPIX and SHOWTIME.

EPIX features boxing matches, NHL games, and shows like NFL: The Grind. SHOWTIME delivers tons of behind-the-scenes sports content and commentary like All the Smoke, a weekly video podcast with NBA champions Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson.

Best for family content: HBO

HBO is known for wowing audiences (and TV censors) with its gritty, adult shows like Deadwood and Rome. So many people were shocked when the channel obtained exclusive rights to air the first run of new Sesame Street episodes.

But Sesame Street is actually in line with HBO’s eclectic mix of content. The entertainment giant actually has a whole channel—aptly named HBO Family—with shows and movies for everyone, from toddlers to teenagers.

Best for mature content: The Movie Channel

One thing that separates premium channels from standard cable channels is the content. While most basic cable channels keep things PG-13, or even PG, premium channels tend to offer more . . . risqué fare.

If you’re interested in shows with names like Cabana Cougar Club and Zombie Honeymoon, then The Movie Channel is the premium channel for you.

3. Compare prices

The price of these premium channels will depend on how you subscribe. Every cable provider has its own pricing. Standalone streaming services have more uniform pricing, but it can still fluctuate.

That said, here’s a look at some common price points for various premium channels.

Premium channel pricing
ChannelPrice with cable packagePrice for streaming service
HBO$17.99/mo.$14.99/mo.
SHOWTIME$13.99/mo.$11/mo.
STARZ$13.99/mo.$8.99/mo.
CINEMAX$13.99/mo.$9.99 (sometimes bundled with HBO subscription)
The Movie ChannelFree with SHOWTIME subscriptionFree with SHOWTIME subscription
EPIX$9.99/mo.$5.99/mo.

4. Subscribe

You’ve compared the content, cost, and availability of these major premium channels. Now all you need to do is sign up.

If you’ve got an existing cable or satellite provider then call (or log on) to talk about subscription rates. Don’t forget to ask about free trials and bundles!

If you’re looking to skip the cable conglomerate and go straight to the source, you can sign up for your favorite channels’ streaming services online. Many of them will offer a week- or month-long free trial—sweet!

How’d we do? Do you have any favorite premium channels we didn’t cover? Or what’s your favorite way to get those channels? Let us know in the comments section below!