Adam Birney / Android Authority
The streaming market has been on a wild ride for the past few years. In the early days of the lockdown, Netflix and other streaming services enjoyed huge subscriber gains as most of us stayed at home. However, all good things must come to an end, and 2022 was going to be a tough year for streaming services due to falling inflation. It didn’t help that many of us started to go back to our daily lives. As subscriber growth slows, most of us have adjusted how many streaming services we subscribe to. To cope with this shift in the market, many streaming services are now pushing ad-supported tiers. We’re seeing established paid services like Amazon’s Freevee roll out their own instant (free ad-supported streaming) options.
Personally, I don’t mind ads. Sure, I’d rather do without them, but I’ll admit it’s an easy way to save some money. Unfortunately, the current state of advertising is not without a few ups and downs or sacrifices.
Are ad-supported streaming services worth the savings?
Most streaming services don’t know how to serve ads properly, to say the least
Traditional broadcast TV will have a wide range of advertising for all types of interests. Extensive market research has been done on who watches at what time of day, how much they earn, and so on. This allows for relatively decent targeted ads.
Streaming services tend to be a bit arbitrary. Some, like Netflix’s advertising scheme, try to learn a little about you before serving you ads. Others, like Hulu, seem to vary depending on who’s watching, indicating that they’re doing at least some level of audience research. However, I can’t help but feel that most of the ads are irrelevant to me.
For example, I picked up a few different shows on Hulu. Some were old gems like 30 Rock; Others were new, like Abbott Elementary. To get a better feel for the ad range, I chose some things outside of my normal viewing patterns.
Ad-supported streaming tends to contain the same ads over and over again. And they don’t seem to be targeting my exact preferences.
Regardless of what I looked at, most of the ads were trying to sell me drugs I didn’t have, or getting me to sign up for a dating app. Progressive Insurance was also prominently featured, with most shows featuring the “Don’t go back to your parents” ad at least twice. I’m married, and have Progressive as my insurer, so targeting at the individual level is obviously not at work here.
The same story was found everywhere I looked, although I have to say that Peacock was looking for the most interesting ads for me. Probably because it was mostly their own content lights and occasionally some tolerable ads about cars from Honda. The drug commercials were there too, so I guess my TV was trying to tell me I was old. As if my body hadn’t told me the same thing!
No one seems to get all that well-targeted advertising. The solution? I’d love to see personalized ad systems, a simple system that allows you to take that survey and other basic information when you first sign up, or respond to your ad by saying it’s relevant to you or not.
Ads should not be annoying, and I want to be more consistent when and where you see them
Of course, ads are not only served, but also never. Nothing disrupts your viewing experience more than a poorly placed ad. Perhaps the pause occurs unnaturally when someone in the show or movie is currently talking. On the return of the show, it may repeat parts of what you have already seen. This mostly happens with really free options, but some shows on Peacock also have poorly scheduled breaks. Even HBO Max puts them at pretty illogical times sometimes.
Broadcast and cable TV are definitely better here, but the good news is that this situation is improving. I remember having this problem with Hulu and others a few years ago. Now it’s mostly free options or the occasional poorly placed ad.
Even the number of ads can be all over the place. As an example, let’s look at HBO Max. Much of HBO’s premium content (think Game of Thrones or Silicon Valley) has had completely ad-free experiences. Other shows and movies will have a few minutes of commercials at the very beginning and maybe a break or two in the middle.
Ad length and placement can vary significantly from show to show and movie to movie – even within the same service.
No matter what streaming service I use, ads tend to be random in placement and runtime. I get the logic here. By making ads predictable, people are less likely to view them. It’s easier to plan a bathroom break or run to the kitchen for a snack when you know an announcement is coming on. That’s clearly the opposite of what advertisers want. However, it would be nice if we could have some clarity on when I get ads and when I don’t.
The video quality may not be as good as premium standards.
Well, this really only applies to some 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, it will stick to 720p.
Most completely free services are limited to 720p, or even lower in some cases. For example, Pluto TV is supposed to be 720p but often looks blurry and pixelated. Some options like Freevee can get you up to 1080p, but again, the compression can sometimes look a bit harsh and blurrier than expected.
The good side is that every other major ad-supported paid service has 1080p on the table. Some had 4K options, though typically limited to a few select titles. 1080p is fine for someone with less than a great internet service. However, 720p feels a bit of a step back.
You can’t download shows and movies to watch later
Every free or ad-supported service requires being online to view. This is reasonable; Otherwise, you will see 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. One of the things that made me sign up for the more expensive HBO Max plan was the lack of offline downloads.
Read the fine print: You may not have access to everything.
Most ad-supported streaming tiers have a full library of content, but due to licensing restrictions, you may occasionally get something that isn’t available in the ad-supported plan you get if you pay for a premium subscription.
This situation usually applies to Peacock’s free plan (which is more of a sample than a functional service) or Netflix Basic with ads. As far as I know, Disney Plus, Paramount Plus and HBO Max have access to their entire catalogs to all subscribers.
Of these paid options, Netflix is the only one that lacks some of its typical content. The company says 5-10% of its movies and shows won’t play on the new service, though a comprehensive 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 missing entirely. Other missing programs include Breaking Bad, Good Girls, The Good Place, The Bad Guys and Skyfall. That’s far from a complete list, but anything that isn’t playing will show a lock icon in the library.
Are ad-supported streaming services really worth it?
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 whether any of the above points are deal breakers for you.
There really is no one-size-fits-all approach. In my case, I’m paying for a few ad-free subscriptions like Peacock, Netflix, and HBO Max. The first is because I watch it a lot, because of Netflix’s lost content, and because I tend to download a lot of HBO Max to watch on the go.
Ad-supported services are a great way to save money; Be aware that there are some adjustments you will need to make.
When in doubt, if the idea of saving a few dollars a month appeals to you, we recommend giving the ad-supported option a try. Upgrading to an ad-free plan is very easy. In fact, I plan to do this whenever there are major new shows hitting my favorite platforms and I want to binge on them ad-free.
If you can only choose a few options, we recommend leaving out Freevi, Tubi and Pluto TV as all truly free ad-supported services. Remember that you get more than you pay for, and that’s okay. These services have their quirks, but are a great way to supplement your paid content. For those looking for the best ad-supported paid service? HBO Max, Hulu, and Disney Plus do a great job here. All the others tend to compromise a bit more than I like.