How to juggle multiple TV streaming services without missing a show

Streaming is expensive and convoluted, but you can make it a little easier on yourself and your wallet

(Maggie Shannon for The Washington Post)
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We’re in television limbo. The cable model is fading away but streaming has become just as crowded, expensive and frustrating. Hit television shows are scattered across services, and watching even a handful of the best requires more than one subscription.

There’s no quick fix for the streaming blues, but there are some tips on new things you can try. First, let’s dig into what the rules are for sharing and who is cracking down.

Streamers worry the end is coming for lax password-sharing rules

Share accounts, as much as you’re comfortable

Yes, you are able to share logins for your streaming accounts, but the exact rules vary from company to company. Penalties for breaking these rules are typically murky and mild. There’s little evidence any companies have taken legal action for casual sharing, but it’s more serious for people stealing accounts or sharing with many people for profit.

If you’re worried, start by checking the terms of service for each company to see if they specify who you can or cannot share with (we break some down below). Most will use the term “household,” but the companies we spoke to largely declined to say if that definition included close family living elsewhere, or if people had to share the same primary addresses a certain amount of time. Some specifically allow sharing with immediate family regardless of location, such as HBOMax and Apple TV Plus. (Netflix has come out to say “household” means you share the same primary address most of the time, which would rule out college kids, second homes, and possibly anyone who travels full-time for work.)

There’s been an industry-wide lax approach to account-sharing enforcement, and it’s created an odd situation for many TV watchers who mix and match logins with family or friends. The companies are vague about what they enforce and how, and have a history of embracing sharing accounts to build up buzz and user numbers. They could be keeping the door open to cracking down if and when it’s better for business.

We asked the top eight streaming services if and how they enforce account sharing.

  • Netflix: The company is going to start going after sharing with people outside the same home and will use your IP address to track offenders. It’s currently testing enforcement in three countries by pushing people to pay for their own streaming for a lower cost. You can stream on 1 to four screens at a time, depending on your plan.
  • Prime Video: You can share a Prime account with one other adult, but Amazon did not clarify if they need to live at the same address or say if it is enforcing unwanted sharing.
  • Disney Plus: Disney terms do not specify whom you can or can’t share your login with, but a Disney account allows four streams at a time, seven profiles, and downloads on up to 10 devices. The company says it has technology to flag “suspicious” activity but did not say what actions it takes or what qualifies as “suspicious.”
  • HBO Max: The HBO Max terms say you can add up to five user profiles for members of your immediate family or people in your household, meaning it’s okay if you’re sharing with family in a different state.
  • Paramount Plus: You can watch it on three devices at once and make up to 6 profiles. The terms specify you can only share it with members of your household. The company did not specify how or if it enforces other sharing.
  • Hulu: On Hulu, two devices can stream at a time, you can add six profiles and use it on three mobile devices. Its terms say you can only share with “members of your household,” but the company declined to say how it defines household or how it enforces sharing. It’s owned by Disney and uses the same technology for detecting suspicious activity.
  • Discovery Plus: This service doesn’t specify whom you can share your login with in its terms and did not return a request to comment on its enforcement policies. You can stream on up to four devices at once.
  • Apple TV Plus: This is a unique one in the bunch because of Apple’s family sharing options and greater control over its services. You can share your Apple TV account with up to five family members anywhere in the same country using Family Sharing, but it’s also difficult to just lend someone your password and login like you would with other services. (You can sign in to watch Apple TV through a browser.)

Cancel or pause your accounts

You can, in theory, pause or cancel your accounts based on what you’re watching that month. That way you’re not paying for all the subscriptions at the same time.

Not surprisingly, most streaming companies make it difficult or impossible to pause your account. Netflix will only let you cancel your account and has no option for pausing. Apple TV Plus, however, makes it simple to pause payments for the service in your device’s settings.

One hack is to sign up for as many of these services as possible through a third party on Apple’s App Store or Apple TV platform, Google Play or Amazon’s Prime video (not all are available). This gives you a place you can easily toggle them on and off so you only pay for ones you’re using.

Sign up for bundles, use free trials

You can hunt around for bundles that combine your favorites. There’s a Disney Bundle, which includes Hulu and ESPN Plus for $13.99. Many services also offer a free trial but you can only take advantage of these offers once, and you have to remember to cancel before the automatic payments start hitting your bank account (set a calendar reminder).

When you buy a new Apple device, it comes with three months of Apple TV Plus. Verizon offers free access to Hulu, Disney Plus and ESPN Plus to new customers on its most expensive 5G plan, and limited trials of some on its cheaper plans. Check with your cellular or internet provider for any offers, and look for trials when you purchase any new hardware. Check out other memberships you might have, such as Target Circle, which offers free Apple services including Arcade, Fitness Plus and iCloud for four months and longer.

Watch a little free

If you have a television set and no cable, get an HDTV antenna and you can watch PBS, the big networks, and some local channels. NBC’s streaming service Peacock has a free version that requires sitting through some ads. You can also get free streaming options through YouTube, your library card and with smaller streaming companies. Find more free options like free streaming apps Pluto TV, Tubi and Roku’s channel here.

No, going back to cable doesn’t fix it

Unfortunately, going back to that cable life won’t actually make things better. Most of the big-name shows you’re interested in watching are exclusive to their respective streaming services and can’t be found on cable. Cable is also still exactly like you remember it, filled with ads and low-budget TV shows you can’t believe exist and niche channels that you don’t need. Cable is also still far behind streaming options when it comes to design, ease of use and the ability to watch shows on-demand.

That said, if what you’re really craving is an episode of “Law & Order” playing at any hour of the day, cable is still alive and kicking.

Subscriptions? In this economy? Free alternatives for watching, reading and listening.

Other money-saving tips

Sometimes you can get an “add-on” version of a service for less through a provider like Hulu and Prime Video. However, most of the time it costs the same amount as it would directly through the provider. Compare any prices before hitting subscribe.

If there is a service you know you’ll watch every month of the year, see if there’s a cheaper annual price instead of a monthly option. Share your own favorite discounts or tricks in the comments.

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