We’re spoiled – or should that be cursed – for choice. So which TV streaming service rules them all in 2023?
This is an excerpt from The Spinoff’s TV newsletter Rec Room. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday here.
We’re aggressive, ruthless and relentless. We’re savvy switching like there’s no tomorrow: signing up, bingeing everything we can, then quitting after a month. We’re pursuing content like Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner. We will not stop until we find what we want, on the service we want to watch it on. When we’re done, we’re not-so-quietly quitting to go find something else.
Honestly, sitting down and enjoying some evening telly has become a second job these days. You want drama? Forget about Succession and try working out how to binge your favourite shows. You need Excel spreadsheets and password managers to keep track of where you can watch what, and when you can do so. The searching and scrolling can drive you insane.
Until I sat down to research this piece, I didn’t even know how many streaming services were available to Aotearoa audiences. When you tally them up, both the free and paid models, there’s (at least) 20 of them. Twenty! No one needs that many streaming services.
It’s complicated, it’s confusing, it’s a Carrie-from-Homeland wall map of chaos. Yet, in 2023, this is where we’re at. It’s rough out there for telly addicts. Trying to grasp the TV zeitgeist is harder than ever. To make sense of it all, the only sane thing to do seems to be attempting the impossible.
So, without further ado, here’s every streaming service we could find, ranked in order of how essential they are. Happy savvy switching, everybody.
Local content: Yes, a large selection of Aotearoa movies
Best content: Tickled, Come to Daddy, The Dark Horse, Waru
Terrible name – almost as bad as defunct services Quickflix and Ezyflix. For that reason alone, Beamafilm is in last place. Aside from that, this Australian movie streaming service has its heart in the right place, offering thousands of films for a low, low price. Around 30% of them are Australian, the rest are from all over the world, promoting “local, independent and diverse voices”. This includes plenty of Aotearoa offerings that can be rented on Beamafilm (or check with your local library – some offer them for free.)
Local content: Very little
Best content: Mr Bean, Police Ten-7, Extreme Couponing, Most Terrifying Places in America
It sounds like a foot disease suffered exclusively by Teletubbies, but Tubi is in fact a San Francisco streamer offering access to 50,000 shows and films absolutely free. This is basically a dumping ground for the stuff no one else wants to touch, the kind of ancient Westerns and war films your grandfather might watch in his underwear on a Sunday afternoon. But it won’t cost you anything, you don’t need to sign up and my kids enjoyed a pleasant half-hour wondering what the heck Mr Bean was doing with his steak tartare.
Local content: Yes, a large selection of Aotearoa documentaries
Best content: Pecking Order, James & Isey, Mister Organ, The Ground We Won
Documentaries remain a dominant medium. We are, it seems, obsessed with real life. DocPlay attempts to capitalise on this trend by offering an entire streaming service populated by the kind of fare that pads out film festival lineups – think highbrow, intellectual content for all you thinkers out there. Honestly, you could have a very good couple of weeks bingeing your way through the free 14-day trial. Beyond that, offering docos and only docos is a very hard sell.
Price: Free to sign up, films range between $4.99-$7.99
Local content: Yes, a large catalogue of excellent Aotearoa films
Best content: The Whale, Nude Tuesday, Coming Home in the Dark, Babylon
Yes, Aro Valley’s beloved Aro Video store has its own streaming service – and it’s pretty good! Rather than paying a monthly fee, users can sign up to rent the kind of films you’d normally only bother with after an intense conversation with a bearded guy behind the desk of a defunct DVD store. They cost between $4.99-$7.99 depending on how recently they screened in cinemas and the range covers 2,300 films. Being able to browse selections from different countries is a nice touch. (Seventeenth equal: Auckland’s indie cinema equivalent, Academy On Demand.)
Local content: Yes, a large selection of NZ-made shows
Best content: Newshub at 6pm, Married at First Sight Australia, Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont-Spelling Bee
With all that news and local content, as well as the ability to stream five live channels, ThreeNow should be competing for one of the top spots. Instead, it’s languishing down here near the bottom. Why? ThreeNow is a shockingly bad streaming service. It plays the same ads over and over again, crashes often, and rarely bothers to do the job it’s supposed to do. Recently, when I tried to watch Guy Montgomery’s Guy Mont-Spelling Bee with my kids, I was first shown an ad for Married at First Sight featuring a brutal marital spat, followed by a X-rated segment on Cara Delevingne’s Sex Planet. I have never covered the hallway-lounge run faster to cover my young daughter’s eyes than in that moment. I dare not return.
15. NZ On Screen
Local content: All of it is from Aotearoa
Best content: Give it a Whirl, bro’Town, Celebrity Treasure Island, Wheel of Fortune
Much more needs to be made of this free local streamer. NZ on Screen is where TV shows that cost millions of taxpayer dollars end up once streaming deals are over. That means it’s the only place you can watch episodes (but rarely full seasons) of expensive and groundbreaking local shows like The Cult, Insider’s Guide to Happiness, Super City or Harry. As The Spinoff reported in May last year, it needs more funding to expand, build an app and offer full series. Someone sort it out soon, please. New Zealand’s TV legacies can’t be allowed to die.
14. Sky Go
Price: Free with your (expensive) Sky subscription
Ads: Yes, on live TV streaming
Local content: Yes
Best content: SoHo, Sky Sport
If you’ve already got a Sky Box at home, Sky Go is how you can watch Sky’s massive library of channels, combined with its on-demand services, when you’re out-and-about. Honestly, it’s so good it’s a wonder Sky didn’t flag its new Sky Box and Sky Pod and just upgrade this service so it could be offered on all smart TVs and app-driven boxes. I guess that’s thinking too far outside the (ahem) box.
Local content: No
Best content: Poirot, Midsomer Murders
It is the king of one-word shows. Collision, Cardinal and Injustice are all series you can watch on Acorn, the streaming service that specialises in the kind of British dramas your mum loves. You know what you’re getting with almost all these shows, and the plot of Dalgliesh – a widowed, poetry-loving cop in the 70s investigates complex crimes – pretty much sums them all up. Buy your mum a subscription for her birthday. She’ll love it.
Local content: No
Best content: The Walking Dead, The Fog, Slasher, Cursed Films
Boo! If it’s grisly, bleak and blood-soaked content you’re after, Shudder is the place to go. It’s not something I’ve used a lot, but it has films, TV shows, and a live streaming channel that promises 24/7 gore. I’ve got friends who say Shudder’s pretty much the only streaming service they use. Maybe I should rethink who my friends are.
11. Spark Sport
Price: $24.99/month ($19.99 for Spark customers)
Local content: Yes
Best content: The cricket, UEFA Champions League
It has the Black Caps and White Ferns’ home games, Super Smash, some NBA and netball, motorsport and pay-per-view UFC fights… Also, annoyingly, while Sky Sport has all the Premier League games, Spark Sport has the UEFA Champions League, meaning diehard football fans need to run with both. But not for much longer – it’s being shut down later this year, with some of its rights set to transfer to TVNZ for the remainder of the contract.
Local content: No
Best content: Dead Winds, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Portlandia
One of the newest entrants to New Zealand streaming market is actually a pretty good deal – for $7.99 you get the full library of AMC shows (minus Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, which are on Neon), plus Shudder and Acorn for free. Dead Winds has been on my list for a while, so the free seven-day trial period might be next on my list.
9. Whakaata Māori+
Ads: Yes, on the livestream
Local content: Yes
Best content: Ahikāroa, The Legend of Baron To’a
Who knew Whakaata Māori had launched such a good streaming service? This combines live TV with comedies, kids’ shows, Te Reo language shows, news, documentaries and movies. It also has the Will Ferrell film Everything Must Go, which is an odd inclusion on a surprisingly excellent, and mostly local, streaming service. See, ThreeNow, this is how you do it.
8. YouTube Premium
Local content: Yes
Best content: Coachella’s livestream, plus all the videos you want, ad-free.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent the past two weekends bingeing my way through Coachella’s livestreams, but the idea of YouTube as a service I’d actually pay for is growing on me. The ads are brutally annoying and getting worse, but $16.99 is a high price to pay to make those disappear. The Spinoff’s resident YouTube Premium fan Sam Brooks reliably informs me it has other benefits: YouTube has a bigger music library than Spotify or Apple Music, and paying for a sub means you can stream content in the background on your phone. If, like Sam, you’re in the habit of falling asleep to YouTube videos, you’re far less likely to woken by creepy ads, or have them infiltrate your subconscious. It’s also the easiest way to rent and stream films glitch-free, if you’re in the habit of doing so.
7. Prime Video
Local content: No.
Best content: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Power, Swarm, Homecoming
If you’re a savvy switcher, Prime Video is the service you turn to when you’ve watched everything on Disney+, Apple TV+ and Netflix and you’re feeling a bit bored. There’s more than enough content on Prime Video to keep you entertained for that low, low price. Right now, we can thoroughly recommend The Power, with an electric performance from Toni Collette, as well as the seductive Donald Glover serial killer series Swarm. It’s a janky user experience, though, and only Jeff Bezos himself knows what the endgame is for Prime Video, but if you’ve got a month of winter bingeing to do, Prime Video is the place to do it.
Local content: No
Best content: Andor, The Bear, Atlanta, Reservation Dogs
New Zealand’s second-favourite streaming service is in sixth position for one reason only: the kids. If you’re a parent, Disney+ is as essential as jam is to bread. Here is where you can buy yourself a few hours of peace with Pixar’s entire library of content, or all 38 seasons of The Simpsons, or any Marvel or Star Wars movie the age rating allows them to watch. Once the kids are in bed, there’s stuff for the adults too, most notably Star Wars’ excellent attempt at adulting in Andor, and the recent kitchen carnage of The Bear. Disney doesn’t release enough consistent content, and nor is it cheap enough, to be any higher on this list. But it’s probably the most-used streaming service in our household, and it’s not me that’s watching it.
Ads: Not yet, in New Zealand, but potentially soon
Local content: Very little, just Taika Waititi’s Boy, David Farrier’s Dark Tourist, and, bizarrely, a single season of The Gulf (Pulp Fiction does not count as NZ content)
Best content: Beef, Wednesday, The Good Place, Sweet Tooth
It’s huge, a titan that touches all quadrants, a behemoth. It’s also nervous, unhinged, and a little desperate. Netflix has had a rough ride over the past year, losing millions of subscribers and watching its share price slump while struggling to land the kinds of huge shows it’s known for. Making things worse are big hits The Crown and Stranger Things soon coming to an end. But Netflix remains the dominant streaming service, one with such a vice-like grip on Aotearoa that not only is it the most popular paid streamer, bootleg versions of the US service – accessed through an American credit card and VPN blocker – also beat some of its main competitors. While Netflix’s fifth placement might seem shocking, even scandalous, it’s there because it’s the most expensive service, it airs very few local shows and throws so much shit at the wall it’s impossible to know what sticks. Worse: aside from Beef, it’s had very few hits this year.
4. Sky Sport Now
Ads: Sort of. If you stream live games, you’ll likely see ads. If you watch them on demand, you likely won’t.
Local content: Lots
Best content: The rugby, the league, the Premier League
Do you watch sport? Do you need sport? Do you love sport? Then there’s really only one option – and it’s going to cost you big bucks. Whether you support the All Blacks or the Silver Ferns, follow the Premier League or run the gauntlet supporting the Warriors or the Wellington Phoenix, there’s only one service showing up every week and delivering sporting thrills and spills on the regular. Yes, Sky Sport Now is expensive (a monthly sub just rose to $44.99), clumsy to use and its search engine sucks. But it gets the basics – streaming sport straight to the eyeballs of sports fans – exactly right. You may not like it, but it’s the only option we have.
3. Apple TV+
Local content: Just the NZ-shot Mr Corman via Apple TV+, or a smattering of films for rent via the Apple TV app.
Best content: Bad Sisters, Severance, Ted Lasso, For All Mankind
It’s quiet, won’t shout at you, and doesn’t pester you with emails, notifications and updates. Apple TV+’s interface is easy and intuitive, especially if you’re using it with the excellent Apple TV box. Plus, if you’re already an Apple One subscriber, you can get it at a bit of a discount. (If you just bought an iPhone, you probably have it for free.) Apple TV+ has been in stealth mode for the past couple of years, quietly releasing quality shows and building up its content library. Suddenly, it’s emerged as a dominant force in the streaming wars. Ted Lasso and Bad Sisters were huge hits, but have you also seen Severance, Slow Horses and For All Mankind? How about Prehistoric Planet, The Mosquito Coast and Shining Girls? Apple TV+ appears to have a plan, and you’d be a fool to bet against it now.
Local content: Probably the biggest streamer of local content out of them all.
Best content: One News, Shortland Street, Poker Face, Taskmaster
Up until very recently, I was sure TVNZ+ was going to take out the top spot. It may seem strange to have an ad-supported local freebie ranked this high, but look at the facts: TVNZ+ doesn’t cost a cent, and during all this year’s weather events One News became an essential service. Then there are the shows. It has so many, from local heroes Shortland Street, Taskmaster NZ, Educators and Duckrockers to acclaimed recent imports like Poker Face, Rogue Heroes, Rabbit Hole and Lucky Hank. TVNZ+ is putting in the effort to acquire quality content (The North Water and Stath Lets Flats are two excellent recent additions) and it shows.
Then came Tuesday. While trying to watch Lego Masters NZ with my kids on Anzac Day, TVNZ+ glitched during the ads. Then it glitched again. When I asked around the office, many other complained about the glitches too. So did friends on Twitter. The glitches are a problem. Fix those glitches, TVNZ, and you’d be top dog.
Local content: Yes: Flight of the Conchords, Get it to Te Papa and others
Best content: Succession, The White Lotus, The Last of Us, Barry
Yes it’s on the pricey side, loaded predominantly with content from one major supplier, and with Warners Bros. Disovery’s new global service Max due to arrive next year it may not be in it for the long haul. But, as of right now, Neon remains the only streaming service offering the kind of prestige TV drama everyone froths over. Where were you when Tanya fell off a boat in The White Lotus? What were you doing when Logan collapsed on a plane in Succession? How about when Ellie nuzzled a giraffe in The Last of Us? You were almost certainly right there, on Neon, eyes wide, loving every second. Add in a suite of major recent film titles, a solid line-up of local content, a deep library (including all-timers like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and The Wire) and the ability to rent new releases, and Neon deserves to be No. 1. Let’s see how long it can stay there.