Are ad-supported streaming services worth it?

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Adam Birney / Android Authority

The streaming market has been booming for a few years. As the shutdowns began, Netflix and other streaming services saw massive subscriber gains as more of us stayed indoors. However, all good things must come to an end, and 2022 has been a much tougher year for streaming services as inflation has run wild. It also didn’t help that many of us started going back to our daily lives. As subscriber growth slowed, many of us also reduced the number of streaming services we subscribe to. To counter this shift in the market, many streaming services are now offering ad-supported tiers. We’re also seeing established paid services offering their own FAST (ad-supported free streaming) alternatives, such as Amazon’s Freevee.

Personally, I don’t mind the ads. Of course, I’d rather go without, but I can’t deny that it’s an easy way to save money. Unfortunately, the current state of ads is not without some quirks or sacrifices.

Are ad-supported streaming services worth the savings?

6 votes

Most streaming services don’t know how to serve ads properly, at least not yet

netflix ad choice

Traditional television tends to offer a wide range of advertisements for all types of interests. Extensive market research has been done on who watches what time of day, how much they earn, etc. This allows for relatively decent targeted ads.

Streaming services tend to be a little more hit or miss. Some, like the Netflix ads plan, actually try to find out a bit more about you before fetching the ads. Others, like Hulu, seem to vary depending on what you watch, indicating that they do audience research at least to some degree. Still, I can’t help but feel like the majority of ads are completely irrelevant to me.

For example, I launched a few different shows on Hulu. Some were older gems like 30 Rock; others were newer, such as Abbot Elementary. I also chose a few items outside of my usual viewing habits, to get a better idea of ​​the ad lineup.

Ad-supported streaming tends to have the same ads over and over again. And they don’t seem to be targeted to my actual tastes.

Regardless of what I appeared to be watching, the majority of the ads were either trying to sell me drugs for issues I didn’t have or trick me into signing up for a dating app. Progressive insurance was also highlighted, with most shows featuring “don’t turn into parents” ads at least twice. I’m married and already have Progressive as an insurer, so clearly individualized targeting isn’t at work here.

A similar story was found just about everywhere I looked, although I have to say Peacock tended to have the most interesting ads for me. Probably because it was mostly spotlight on their own content, and sometimes bearable ads on Honda’s cars. There were also drug ads, so I guess my TV is trying to tell me I’m getting old. As if my body wasn’t already telling me the same thing!

No one seemed to really target ads well. The solution? I’d like to see more personalized ad systems, whether it’s filling out a survey and other basic information when you first sign up, or a simple system that lets you respond to your ads by telling you if they interest or not.

Ads shouldn’t be disruptive, and I’d like more consistency in when and where I see them

ad Hulu

Of course, it’s not just about which ads are shown, but also when. There’s nothing more disruptive to your viewing experience than a misplaced ad. Maybe the pause happens abnormally when someone in the show or movie is currently speaking. When the show returns, it might even repeat some of what you’ve already watched. This mostly happens with the truly free options, but some shows on Peacock also have poorly timed breaks. Even HBO Max ended up placing them at pretty illogical times sometimes.

Broadcasting and cable television are certainly doing much better here, but the good news is that the situation is improving. I remember having this problem on Hulu and others only a few years ago. Now it’s mostly the free options, or just a sometimes misplaced ad.

Even the amount of ads can be everywhere. As an example, let’s look at HBO Max. Most of HBO’s premium content (think Game of Thrones or Silicon Valley) has had completely ad-free experiences. Other shows and movies would have a few minutes of commercials at the start, and maybe a break or two in the middle.

Ad length and placement can vary greatly from show to show and movie to movie, even within the same service.

Regardless of the streaming service I used, the ads tended to be hit and miss in terms of placement and execution. I understand the logic here. By making ads predictable, people are less likely to watch them. When you know an announcement is coming, it’s easier to schedule bathroom breaks or run to the kitchen for a snack. This is obviously the opposite of what advertisers want. Still, it would be nice to have a bit more transparency about when I will receive ads and when I won’t.

Video quality may not be as good as premium tiers

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Okay, this really only applies to some of the completely free streaming services and Netflix. Netflix doesn’t have a Full HD option for those willing to put up with ads. If you get Netflix Basic with ads, you’ll be stuck with 720p.

Most completely free services are also limited to 720p, or even lower in some cases. For example, Pluto TV seems to have such aggressive compression that it often looks blurry and pixelated even though it’s supposed to be 720p. Some options like Freevee can go up to 1080p, but again, this sometimes feels slightly aggressive with its compression and can be blurrier than expected.

The upside is that every other major ad-supported paid streaming service had 1080p on the table. Some even had 4K options, though they were usually limited to a few select titles. For someone with less than excellent internet service, 1080p is fine. However, 720p seems a little too backward.

You won’t be able to download shows and movies to watch later

Every free or ad-supported service requires you to be online to watch it. It’s logic; otherwise, you would be watching the same ad over and over again. Still, this could be a sticking point for those who travel frequently or have poor internet connections and want to keep a few shows on a tablet or phone. The lack of offline downloads was one of the things that made me re-subscribe to the more expensive HBO Max plan.

Read the fine print: you may not have access to everything

Ralph Macchio, Tanner Buchanan and Mary Mouser stand together at night in Cobra Kai - best youtube originals

Most ad-supported streaming tiers have a full library of content, but due to licensing restrictions, you may sometimes find something not available in an ad-supported plan that you would get if you paid for a premium subscription.

This situation mostly applies to Peacock’s free plan (which is more of a sampler than a functional service) or Netflix Basic with ads. As far as I know, Disney Plus, Paramount Plus, and HBO Max had their full catalogs available to all subscribers.

Netflix is ​​the only paid option that lacks some of its typical content. The company says around 5-10% of its movies and shows won’t stream on the new service, though a full list is hard to come by. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s mostly third-party shows that aren’t available, but big hits like Cobra Kai and House of Cards are completely missing. Other missing programs include Breaking Bad, Good Girls, The Good Place, The Bad Guys and Skyfall. It’s far from a complete list, but anything that doesn’t play shows a lock icon in the library.

Are ad-supported streaming services really worth it?

netflix ad plan

Everyone is tightening their wallets in 2023, but is this a good place to save money? Honestly, it depends on how many movies and series you stream and if any of the above points are a deciding factor for you.

There really is no one-size-fits-all approach. In my case, I pay for a few ad-free subscriptions like Peacock, Netflix, and HBO Max. The former because I watch it the most, Netflix because of missing content, and HBO Max because I tend to download it a lot to watch on the go.

Ad-supported services are a great way to save money; just know that you will have to compromise.

If in doubt, we recommend just trying the ad-supported option if you’re interested in saving a few bucks a month. It is very easy to switch back to an ad-free plan. In fact, I plan to do this whenever there are major new shows on my favorite platforms and I want to browse them ad-free.

If you could only choose a few options, we recommend Freevee, Tubi, and PlutoTV among all truly free ad-supported services. Remember, you get more than you pay for, and that’s nothing. These services have quirks, but they’re a good way to supplement your paid content. For those looking for the best ad-supported paid service? HBO Max, Hulu, and Disney Plus do the best job here. Everyone else tends to compromise a bit more than I would like.