The rise of streaming exclusives leaves less room to buy hit shows without a subscription.


Jared Newman / IDG

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Back when the best shows were still on cable, a la carte purchases provided an alternative to signing up for a big TV bundle.

Instead of having to pay for cable, you could just buy individual seasons of the shows you cared about through services like iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, or Google Play. I fondly recall doing this with Breaking Bad after watching the first four seasons on Netflix, letting me watch the series’ conclusion alongside the cable haves of the world.

But as more hit TV shows and movies become exclusive to streaming services, they’re becoming unavailable to purchase on their own. The only way to watch them is to sign up for yet another subscription—even if it’s only temporary.

This shift isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as you might end spend less on subscriptions if you’re careful about pruning them. But it also means you can’t easily keep as many favorite shows on your own terms without ongoing fees.

Searching for a la carte options

To get a sense of how many new shows are available to watch a la carte, I turned to Reelgood, a free service that tells you where to watch pretty much any movie or show. Here’s what I found for the top 20 trending shows as of July 28, 2021:

tvshowsalacarte Jared Newman / IDG

In total, half the shows on this list are available to buy, while the rest are exclusive to streaming services like Apple TV+, HBO Max, Netflix, and Disney+. (Given that Apple was once a big proponent of pay-per-view video, I find it mildly ironic that Ted Lasso now requires a subscription.)

According to Reelgood, the situation improves as you move further down the list of trending shows. The company tells me that 69 percent of the top 200 shows are available to rent or buy, which makes sense when you think about it: The buzziest shows are launching as exclusives on streaming services, while network and cable TV are getting the leftovers.

I was also curious what the results would look like with just new TV shows instead of trending ones, as that would leave out perennial hits like The Office and Seinfeld:

tvshowsalacarte2 Jared Newman / IDG

Here, just seven out of 20 new shows are available on an a la carte basis, and most of those are reality shows on channels like History and A&E, rather than scripted originals.

Even movies are starting to go the subscription-only route, as services like Netflix and Amazon Prime circumvent theaters with their own original films. Here’s a look at Reelgood’s list of the 20 most popular movies, as of July 28:

moviesalacarte Jared Newman / IDG

Again, we’re left with just seven movies to buy or rent, with the rest being exclusive to subscription-based services. Further analysis by Reelgood found that 73 percent of the top 200 trending movies are can be purchased or rented without a subscription.

Some of the push into streaming-exclusive films is pandemic related: With theaters closed or sparsely attended, some studios have opted to juice their streaming services with new movies. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that idea sticks around as services like Paramount+ and HBO Max try to grow their subscriber bases.

Where a la carte still works

Given that most TV shows cost $3 per episode ($2 in standard definition) on an a la carte basis, buying a la carte wouldn’t necessarily be more economical anyway. I’d much rather pay $5 to binge-watch Season 2 of Ted Lasso on Apple TV+ for a month than spend a hypothetical $30 or so to buy it outright; plus, I’d get a whole lot of other shows to watch at the same time.

Still, there are some scenarios in which the a la carte route makes sense.

You might, for instance, have just a single cable channel—or worse yet, a small handful of cable shows—that are holding you back from dropping an expensive pay TV package. If those shows aren’t also available on streaming services, you might be able to buy them a la carte instead of keeping your pricey bundle.

Buying movies or shows also means being able to keep them indefinitely, so you can revisit them at no extra cost regardless of which subscription service owns the streaming rights. While you might balk at spending $100 on every episode of The Office, maybe that beats being tethered to Peacock Premium at $5 per month ($10 per month without ads).

Unfortunately, this scenario will become less feasible as more shows launch exclusively on streaming services. The original series that stream on Netflix and Amazon might never become available for purchase, so the only way to hang onto them without a subscription is through workarounds like PlayOn.

As a result, you’ll need to be a lot more judicious about dropping streaming services after you’ve satisfied a particular TV craving, even if the companies offering all these exclusive shows want you to stick around forever.

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Jared Newman covers personal technology from his remote Cincinnati outpost. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for help with ditching cable or satellite TV.