On the heels of HBO’s decision to offer its streaming service HBO Go as a standalone subscription service next year, Hank Stuever’s weekly “What to Watch” TV chat got right to the important question — which is better, HBO or Showtime? In excerpts from that chat, here’s how to pick a side — and whether John Oliver should be a deciding factor.


HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (AP Photo/HBO, Eric Liebowitz)

Q: Hank, I’m getting ready to switch cable providers. Company “V” is offering a special – get either free HBO or Showtime. Based on what series are playing now (or might be returning/coming up in the next six months), which channel would you take?

Hank Stuever: This is a tough one. You want an answer only in terms of series, between now and April? With HBO you’ll get “The Comeback” comeback and the very good “Getting On,” the six-episode wrap-up of “The Newsroom,” plus the “Olive Kitteridge” miniseries with Frances McDormand; in January you’d have “Girls”; I don’t have a firm date yet for “True Detective,” but it’s on the way; and before your freebie subscription expires you might get in the very beginning of “Game of Thrones,” “Veep” and “Silicon Valley.”

With Showtime, between now and April you’d get “Shameless” and “Episodes” in January, and you could start in now on “The Affair” and the current season of “Homeland.”


Alex Lanipekun as Hank Wonham and Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland. (Joe Alblas/Showtime)

It’s a toss-up, unless we factor in a few other things. Do you like documentaries? HBO has the superior documentary department, thanks to decades of fine work in that field by Sheila Nevins and her crew. But Showtime has come a long way with its documentaries in recent years and isn’t afraid to sweep up some surprising docs that were otherwise not going to make it to air — especially in the rockumentary category.

HBO has “Real Time With Bill Maher,” “Last Week With John Oliver” and the “Vice” series — depending on your politics and media tastes, these might be of added value.

You might also consider sports programming — the news shows, the in-depth reporting, the boxing matches. Compare HBO to Showtime, both of which offer a lot of that, if any of it matters one whit to you. I don’t think I’ve ever watched more than a minute of all those boxing matches.

And don’t forget the thing we almost never talk about when it comes to premium networks: the movies. Before you make your choice, flip through the guide on your screen and just randomly compare what the HBO and Showtime stations are offering at that particular moment in terms of movies. Try this at several different times of day. Because of licensing agreements, they don’t show all the same movies. See which one more frequently is offering a movie you might like to watch.

Also (and this is a lot of advice, I know), consider what you’ll have access to with On Demand. (Ask the provider.) If either HBO or Showtime had a recent series that you were interested in but didn’t get to see (“Boardwalk Empire?” “Masters of Sex?”), now would be a good time to binge for free, if it’s in the archive and you have access to it.

Six months will go by pretty fast.

Chatters — especially those of you with HBO and Showtime — what do you recommend?

Q: HBO. Because they get better movies. Which I realize is not the point, but they still get better movies.

Stuever: I think the movie choice is very much a good point to keep in mind, which is why I recommended scanning the grids of the schedules and see how often you’d rather watch HBO’s movies than Showtime’s. Movies take up the bulk of their programming grids.

Q: I think Starz has the best movies out of all the movie channels.

Stuever: Often, I agree. Also Cinemax.

And with Starz, you get all those Encore movie channels, too. I was home sick the other day and watched “Valley Girl” (the 1983 movie) from start to finish on one of the Encore channels. A pleasant surprise.

Q: Yes, HBO gets way better movies than Showtime. It also seems like they end up getting all of Cinemax’s big movies eventually, so you don’t have to purchase Cinemax.

Stuever: More often it’s the reverse, I’ve noticed — HBO movies drift over to Cinemax.

Unmentioned so far is that both Starz and Cinemax are upping their games in terms of original series: “The Knick,” for example (Cinemax), and I really liked Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse,” which is on now.

Q: And with Starz you get Outlander. And Sam Heughan. 

Stuever: Of course! I can’t believe I forgot to mention “Outlander.”


Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, right, Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, center, and Grant O’Rourke as Rupert MacKenzie, in a scene from “Outlander” on Starz. (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Television, Ed Miller)

Also, while out sick this week, I confess that I watched a few more episodes of “The Chair,” Starz’s attempt at a “Project Greenlight”-style docuseries. I got hooked.

Q: John Oliver is another solid nod in favor of HBO over Showtime. His show is good and getting better. The exposé on Miss America from a couple weeks ago was excellent.

Stuever: Agreed, but can I just take this opportunity to point out something? People have been giving the very same complaints and asking the very same questions about the Miss America pageant for decades. Decades. And then I noticed John Oliver fans have given him credit for blowing the lid off police seizures of cash from detained motorists (aka “civil forfeiture”), which has been deeply reported by news outlets, including The Washington Post.

Between the “Why is This Still a Thing?” reports on Miss America report and Ayn Rand, it’s as if John Oliver and company are going through old issues of Spy magazine to find their material.

It drives me a little bonkers because viewers then turn around and credit John Oliver with reporting the stories that “no one else” reports. When even John Oliver would probably tell you that what he and his writers are doing is reading newspapers and online news sites and watching investigative news broadcasts to put a show together. Same with Jon Stewart, Colbert, etc.

End of rant.

The next What to Watch chat takes place Oct. 23 at noon ET. You can submit your TV questions, comments and gripes at this link.