Hulu and Spotify, streaming services that have begun offering bundles of their two services, have both revealed how many subscribers they have.
Hulu, the popular video streaming service, announced on Wednesday that they had more than 20 million subscribers, according to CNN Money. These numbers aren’t as high as Netflix’s, as CNN Money notes that Netflix has about 55 million subscribers in the United States. But the numbers still suggest Hulu is a decent competitor when it comes to the video streaming game.
They could also potentially gain more subscribers, as well, as some announced changes certainly seem enticing. Hulu, like Netflix, already has some of their own original programming (like the popular Handmaid’s Tale). Until now, though, Netflix offered something Hulu didn’t: offline watching. Hulu now plans to make content available to download and watch offline, says CNN Money. The content would still play with ads, but an internet connection wouldn’t be necessary.
Spotify announced their own numbers on Thursday. Spotify is a popular music streaming service that offers paid and free accounts. According to TechSpot, Spotify now has 75 million paid subscribers to their service, and the number of people who use the service every month is also huge: 170 million. And as TechSpot also mentions, Spotify’s 75 million paid subscribers is far above Apple Music’s 40 million. This only further cements Spotify as the major competitor in the music streaming arena.
Hulu and Spotify both offer their own separate subscriptions, but over the past months they’ve begun offering bundles, as well. Last year they began offering a student plan that bundled the two services for only $4.99 a month. And just last month, a bundle was announced for everyone else that would offer both services for just $12.99, which is higher than the student price but still a significantly less expensive option.
Netflix is now giving their app users a chance to preview shows before watching.
The Netflix app now has what they’re calling mobile previews, Fortune reports. These mobile previews will seem like a familiar feature if you use an app that has Stories (like Snapchat). The previews appear at the top of the app and can be clicked through one after another. You can even go straight to the content from a preview if you see something you like.
According to Fortune, most of the previews are around 30 seconds long. You also don’t have to turn your screen to watch them because they’re vertical videos instead of horizontal.
If you watch on your gaming console or laptop, you’ve likely already seen their auto-playing trailers. These trailers promote content, sometimes showing previews of shows you may not have seen, other times showing a preview of the content you currently have selected. They have also been quite an annoyance for many people. There have been consistent complaints about how the auto-playing videos can’t be disabled, meaning if you stay on one screen for too long while browsing for what to watch, you have to either click away, open content and pause it, mute your TV, or find some other creative way to stop the videos from playing.
Fortunately, the previews now added to the Netflix app are something quite different. They don’t auto-play, which is surely a relief to Netflix app users who don’t want to have previews blasting through their headphones as soon as the app opens. And they appear to be a genuinely useful way to find out about more content you might actually like, particularly since you can tap a preview that’s playing to skip it and move on to something more relevant.
Mobile previews are already available on iOS devices, says Fortune, and Android users can expect the feature to arrive “soon.”
Podcasts may not be a new discovery or some secret section of the internet. But in past years, podcasts stopped being discussed quite as often as they had been before. This has led some to believe they’ve mostly stopped being made and that there aren’t really any worthwhile podcasts out there.
While the format certainly isn’t new, there are some new (or new-ish) podcasts in existence that are quite different from what you might expect. And there are some podcasts still going strong for a decade or more. When someone mentions podcasts these days, some people think they’re talking about podcasts made up of political discussions and news stories. But there’s much more out there to subscribe to and enjoy.
What’s so great about podcasts?
Podcasts might not be quite as widely discussed or followed as they were not too long ago. But there are a lot of reasons to download or stream some podcasts. Here are a few things that are great about podcasts:
- They can cover a wide variety of topics and be made in a number of different formats
- You can find fun, interesting, or highly knowledgable hosts
- You can listen to new content regularly (sometimes monthly, often weekly)
- You can subscribe using music platforms you probably already use (like iTunes and Spotify)
- There’s a lot to choose from because creators have so many outlets
- You can listen to your podcasts during trips and your work commute
- You can listen on many different devices, including smartphones, computers, and smart speakers
Where can you find podcasts?
There are a number of places to find new podcasts you may want to listen to. Here are just a few suggestions:
- iTunes: Podcasts have been available on iTunes for many years now.
- Spotify: Spotify listeners can stream quite a few podcasts and scroll through the podcasts they’re currently following.
- Listen Notes: This website is a search engine devoted specifically to finding podcasts.
- Stitcher: This site hosts many different podcasts (some of which you’ll see below).
Before you listen to these podcasts…
Keep in mind that the podcasts listed in this article may include some mature content. We can’t guarantee that they’ll be safe for work or that the content will always be clean or inoffensive. Always make sure to visit a podcast’s page and read its description before subscribing!
10 interesting podcasts
The following podcasts are all fairly different from one another. Take a look at each one to learn a little more about it, then click the podcast’s link to find out more!
Answer Me This
Answer Me This is a comedy podcast devoted to answering odd or interesting questions. Each episode description features a long list of topics discussed in the podcast (like “goldfish as gifts” and “Dothraki grammar”). Episode descriptions also feature a suggestion of how mature that specific episode’s content is (though the tone here is humorous just like everything else on the podcast). Episodes are bi-weekly.
This podcast taps into peoples’ interest in true stories about shocking and compelling crimes. It attempts to actually look deeper into an understanding of the crimes instead of simply describing what happened. It’s been going for several years and puts out two episodes each month. Episodes feature a variety of different types of crimes. Some recent episode titles include “Willie Bosket,” “Secrets and Séances,” “A Bump in the Night,” and “Vanish.”
Hello from the Magic Tavern
Hello from the Magic Tavern is a comedy podcast that features the fictional Arnie, a man from our world who accidentally fell into another world (through a portal behind a Burger King) and ended up in a place called Foon. Arnie hosts each podcast in the Vermillion Minotaur, his new land’s local tavern, and he includes co-hosts (a wizard and a talking badger). He typically brings people of interest from the land of Foon onto the show and interviews them. This podcast has been running for several years and will appeal to both comedy and fantasy fans.
How Did This Get Made?
This podcast features funny conversations about bad films. The hosts (including Paul Scheer), based on recommendations, watch bad movies with their guests and then discuss them. Some past guests have included Patton Oswalt, James Franco, Seth Rogen, John Mulaney, Anna Faris, Kevin Smith, and many more. New episodes come out every other week.
Important If True
Important If True is a somewhat new podcast (which started last year). The hosts discuss various interesting topics and do it with a sense of humor. They often talk about future technology, science, and life in general. They often go off on tangents describing funny imagined scenarios, and it’s never a boring or dry discussion. Some episode titles include “Alexa, Destroy Me,” “The Terrible Power of Knowledge,” and “Untethered From Reality.” It’s posted weekly (though at the time of writing this article, episodes may be released less frequently).
Stuff You Missed in History Class
This podcast is from How Stuff Works. It features interesting historical topics that you probably didn’t learn about and that will catch your interest. Some recent podcasts are titled “Ignaz Semmelweis and the War on Handwashing” and “Hawaii’s Legend of the Menehune.” Podcasts can be sorted and looked through by topic or by the century the information is set in.
Stuff You Should Know
This is another podcast brought to you by How Stuff Works. The concept of this podcast is that there are a lot of things you might not know about, including some basic information. Each podcast covers a different subject you could benefit from knowing more about. There are podcasts focused on topics like landmines, the evolution of language, trickle down economics, hoarding, crime scene cleanup, and much more. You can sort and look through podcasts by topic.
They Walk Among Us
This podcast is not for the faint of heart. True crime shows are highly popular entertainment these days, and this podcast fits the bill. They Walk Among Us is a true crime podcast that features real events set in the UK. They have episodes on subjects like “Wearside Jack,” Alan Turing, missing persons, and more.
Thrilling Adventure Hour
This now-ended podcast is set like an old radio program. It features fictional stories read by the cast in front of an actual audience. There’s music, humor, and some interesting tales. It ended a couple of years ago, but the good news is you can still listen to the old recordings, and they’re worth going back to listen to even knowing there’s not more to come. Since they were created to have an old-timey feel anyway, it doesn’t matter that the episodes are a few years old.
You Must Remember This
This podcast is a work of creative nonfiction that features the host (Karina Longworth) telling true stories set in Hollywood during the classic era. Each episode is carefully researched, put together, and hosted by Longworth. There have been stories about Bela Lugosi, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Manson’s connections to Hollywood, and much more. It’s currently on break, and the new season is scheduled to begin this July. In the meantime, you can listen to previous episodes in the show’s archive.
With Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu releasing so much original content, it might be a little hard to keep up. New shows and new seasons are coming out on a regular basis, ready to stream. Here’s a look at the original shows coming in the next couple months to Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu!
3/7: Hulu Hard Sun—Set in a pre-apocalyptic world, a pair of detectives must work together despite not seeing eye to eye. Jim Sturgess and Agyness Deyn star in this Hulu Original. Watch the trailer on YouTube.
3/8: Netflix Marvel’s Jessica Jones (new season)—Jessica Jones, private investigator and former superhero, is back for season 2 in the Netflix Original set in the Marvel universe. Watch the trailers on Netflix.
3/9: Amazon Sneaky Pete (new season)—Sneaky Pete’s first season starred Giovanni Ribisi as a con man and Bryan Cranston as the gangster he’s on the run from. Season two sees Ribisi’s character dealing with new problems. Watch the trailer on Amazon.
3/23: Netflix Alexa & Katie—Alexa & Katie follows Alexa as she deals with cancer and starts high school with her best friend. (A trailer isn’t yet available.)
3/30: Netflix A Series of Unfortunate Events (new season)—This Netflix Original based on the Lemony Snicket books and starring Neil Patrick Harris is back for a second season. Watch the teaser on YouTube.
With so many streaming and subscription services out there, it’s no secret that we can access our entertainment online. We can pay to download movies, watch live TV online, stream playlists, and check out e-books. This is nothing new.
But what many people don’t realize is that there is a whole world of free entertainment waiting to be streamed or downloaded. You just have to know where to look!
Before we get started…
During a search for free movies, TV shows, and other media, you can actually find a lot of different sites. But be careful—many of them are sketchy, offering access to content that’s being distributed illegally. Downloading content illegally is, of course, highly discouraged.
Always make sure you’re on a safe and secure site by looking it up first. All the sites below legally offer free entertainment, so there’s no worry about accidentally downloading content illegally!
Though options are a little bit limited, there are a fair few websites available that let you stream TV for free! You can find quite a few different kinds of shows on these sites.
It’s also important to note that if you’re just wanting to catch up on recent episodes of a show, you may be able to watch for free on network sites. For instance, if you’ve missed the last two episodes of The Flash, you can head over to The CW’s website and choose from the five most recently aired episodes for free. This is true for many different networks. Some even offer more than just the 5 most recent episodes.
If you can’t find what you want through the network’s site, or if you just want to stick with one site, check out some of your options below.
Crackle—This website lets you stream a few different shows for free. They may not have all the newest shows (it’s not like Hulu), but there are some familiar, popular shows. For instance, right now you can watch shows like Heroes and The Shield. Their selection of shows is small, but if you happen to be looking for one of the shows on the list, it’s a great way to watch.
Pluto TV—Pluto TV is different from most of the sites offering free TV. With Pluto TV, you do have some shows available on demand, but that’s not the primary service they offer. Instead you can watch channels for free. They have over a hundred channels available, and you can watch some content live. It’s also different from other streaming sites because you don’t watch through your browser—you watch through an app you download. You can also use it with your Roku or smartphone, as well as some other devices.
Tubi TV—This site offers quite a bit of free streaming content. Once you register, you can watch TV on demand. You can browse by category, similar to Netflix, or you can search for shows. There are many shows that are well-known, so it’s not just lesser-known titles. For instance, you can find Duck Dynasty and Merlin, along with many other shows. You can also use Tubi TV with devices like Roku, Apple TV, and XBOX.
Yahoo View—This free TV site from Yahoo works kinda like Hulu, which makes sense considering Hulu is a partner. Hulu doesn’t offer free shows anymore, but Yahoo View has picked up where Hulu left off. You can find recently aired episodes of shows on Yahoo View, including popular shows, like This Is Us, The Orville, and Shark Tank. If you enjoyed the free version of Hulu back in the day, you’ll likely enjoy Yahoo View.
There are actually a lot of options for listening to free music. Most of it is streaming, of course, and you typically encounter ads. But there are some free downloads out there, as well. Here are just some of your options for free music.
Amazon—On Amazon, you can find more than just some deals on music. Often you can find songs completely free to download. You can sort your results by categories like release date, title, customer review, and more. This makes it a little easier to sift through all the choices. You can even sort by genre, which is especially helpful.
Google Play Music—With Google Play Music, you can listen to their radio for free online, including with Android and iOS devices. You can also find podcasts. You can’t find music on demand unless you pay to subscribe, but you can find plenty of music to listen to with their stations based on genre, artist, and more. This is a good option for free streaming of internet radio.
NoiseTrade—This site offers up a lot of free music for download. You can discover artists you haven’t heard of yet, plus you can find artists you’re already familiar with. These artists put their music up for free on the site. They give you a chance to donate if you want to, but it’s not required. You can search for artists, or you can browse the genres. You can also look through what’s currently popular. This is a great way to find up-and-coming artists while also stumbling across some familiar names.
Pandora—Pandora is, of course, one of the most popular and well-known music sites out there. With Pandora, you can stream music stations for free. You create stations based on genre, artist, and more. You can then come back to these stations later and continue to personalize them. With the free version of the site, you do have to listen to ads, and you can only skip a limited number of songs. However, it’s worth it to listen to Pandora’s personalized stations for free.
Slacker Radio—Slacker is another internet radio site that can build stations for you to stream. You can choose from their stations based on genre and then begin to personalize them, or you can start your own stations by searching for artists or genres. You do encounter ads in the free version, but that’s typical from free music streaming services.
Spotify—Like Pandora, Spotify is one of the most recognizable names on this list. With a free Spotify account, you can make playlists, listen to music on your devices, and use their Radio feature, plus much more. As long as you don’t mind ads, you can find plenty of music to stream. Of course, it’s important to note you can only shuffle music on mobile devices with a free account—if you want to listen to songs on demand, you have to do that from a computer or tablet. But there’s still plenty to listen to with a free account!
There are plenty of choices out there for legally watching free movies. Here are just some of your options!
Crackle—You may recognize Crackle from earlier in the article. Crackle doesn’t just offer free TV. It also has a nice collection of free movies to stream. Crackle’s movie selection is much larger than what they offer for TV. You can find some movies you haven’t seen yet, but you can also watch movies you know, like Blade Runner or Safety Not Guaranteed.
Internet Archive’s Movies—You can find some cool classic movies through the Internet Archive if you don’t mind sorting through a slightly confusing mix of videos. You can find old films like Night of the Living Dead (as in, the 60s classic) and many other cool older films.
PopcornFlix—This free movie site is offered by Screen Media Ventures, and it has a good collection of films for free streaming. You can find movies by different categories, like Popular Movies, various genres, and right now, even a Valentine’s Day section. There are plenty of recognizable titles, too, like Shutter Island and The Soloist.
Tubi TV—Like Crackle, Tubi TV offers movies in addition to television. There are a lot of movies to choose from, and you can browse different categories (similar to Netflix) or search for what you want. There’s a cool section called “Not on Netflix” that does what you would expect: it shows content you can’t find on Netflix. (Right now this section includes The Machinist and The Kite Runner.) You’ll find quite a few films you already know on this site, instead of just a bunch of movies you’ve never heard of.
Vudu—This free movie option adds different free movies each month. You can find movies through Vudu’s “Collections,” through a search, or through browsing their most popular titles. You do have to watch ads with the movies, which might be too jolting for some. However, if you don’t mind some ads, you can find more movies for free with this site. Some popular movies on the site are Beowulf and School of Rock. Vudu is offered on the web and through the App Store, Google Play, and Microsoft.
What about books?
If you’re looking for free books, no worries! I recently wrote a whole article on where to find e-books. Check out the section titled “What’s available for free?” for plenty of tips on finding free reading material!
If you have an Echo, Echo Dot, Kindle, Echo Show, or any other Alexa-capable device, you probably already know that there are a lot of different ways you can take advantage of Alexa’s capabilities. With products like the Echo Dot making Alexa more and more easily available, and with the recent rumors about the upcoming Fire TV devices, it’s a good time to look into some of the fun, interesting, and downright useful skills that can be enabled on your Alexa devices. Alexa can answer some basic questions and say (or sing) a lot of funny things, but these skills will make you even more happy to have Alexa as your friend.
Bird Song lets you ask to hear certain birds, ask for a random bird, and ask to play a game to identify bird songs. Bird Song currently has 4.7 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Curiosity offers interesting pieces of information on many different subjects. Asking Alexa to “open Curiosity” prompts the skill to offer two random categories you can choose from. After you answer, Curiosity will tell you something interesting about that subject. Curiosity currently has 4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Ingredient Sub helps people in the kitchen by providing helpful tips for ingredient replacements. If you get halfway through a recipe and suddenly realize you’re out of eggs, you can ask Ingredient Sub, “What can I substitute for eggs?” Ingredient Sub will list options you can choose from. Ingredient Sub currently has 3.7 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Jeopardy! is just what one might expect, and it’s a lot of fun. Every weekday, the Jeopardy! skill provides an extra clue from each of the day’s different categories. The skill is complete with the sounds you know from watching the show. The skill lets you know how you did that day, and it also tells you how you’ve fared over the week. Jeopardy! currently has 3.4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Meditation Timer offers three different soothing sounds that are helpful for meditation. After you open the skill, you can tell Meditation Timer how long you would like to meditate. A gong will sound, and one of the three sounds will begin to play. If you want to switch to a different sound, you can say, “Play next.” The three available sounds are forest, rain, and surf. Meditation Timer currently has 4.1 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
NASA Mars gives you a chance to find out what’s going on with Mars and listen to rover updates. You can ask general questions about Mars, and you can ask what the rover is currently up to. NASA Mars currently has 4.4 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Radio Mystery Theater
Radio Mystery Theater is one of many skills created by Appbly.com. This particular skill lets you listen to CBS Radio Mystery Theater dramas from back in the day. There are many episodes to choose from, so you’ll have plenty of entertainment. (You might also check out other similar skills like Radio Dimension X and Radio Suspense.) Radio Mystery Theater currently has 4.2 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Weather Sky is a great way to get more out of your weather reports. Weather Sky can give you a very detailed report for your current location or any other location in the US. You can also ask for past and future weather information, and a fun little addition is the ability to “change the weather” by asking for weather like rain or wind (unfortunately, it does not yet have the capability to actually change the weather, just play some sounds, but I can only assume the technology will get there someday). Weather Sky currently has 3.8 out of 5 stars in the Alexa app.
Yes Sire is an intriguing and fun adventure game you can play just by enabling the skill. You play as a medieval lord who is given a series of questions that determine your success throughout the game. You have to think carefully about your choices when presented with different scenarios. If you are careful in your strategy, you will do well, but if you aren’t paying close enough attention, you won’t last long in the game. Yes Sire currently has 4.9 out of 5 stars in the Alexa App.
…and much more
There are also plenty of specific skills run by different companies that let you do things like check your credit card balance (skills like Amex and Capital One, among others), call a ride (Lyft and Uber), and order food (like Domino’s or Starbucks Reorder). You can also often find your own local news station available to add to your news briefing. Whatever your interests, there’s a growing number of skills available.
(Image source: http://all-free-download.com)
I don’t know about you, but now that Game of Thrones’ seventh season has ended, I feel lost. ‘Thrones’ gave me something to get excited for every Sunday, and now, some reports are suggesting that it may not return until sometime in 2019. If that’s the case, that’s at least 16 months without a ‘Thrones’ fix. The good news is that there are some other killer shows we can all binge—yes, there are other amazing shows—and it’s likely all these offerings will have new seasons to watch each week while we wait. Below are some of our best options to keep us happy during the break.
Where to watch: History Channel, Amazon Prime
What it’s about: This show tells the stories of some of the most celebrated Vikings in history. Season one primarily features Ragnar Lothbrok, a farmer who is skilled in battle and who wishes to travel west despite the fears that there is no west to find. Vikings is not, however, a one-man show. The story of Vikings is filled with intriguing characters, like Ragnar’s equally skilled wife, Lagertha, and Ragnar’s brother, Rollo. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the stellar battle scenes, intense power struggles, and beautiful cinematography.
Find out more: history.com
House of Cards
Where to watch: Netflix
What it’s about: House of Cards centers on Frank and Claire Underwood, two power-hungry individuals who have devoted their lives to rising in the political ranks. Season one focuses on Frank’s attempts to move up from his position as the House Majority Whip. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the show’s political intrigue, flawed characters, and shocking (and dark) twists.
Find out more: netflix.com
Where to watch: USA, Amazon Prime
What it’s about: Elliot, a drug addicted genius, is pulled into a hacktivist group called ‘fsociety’ after meeting a man referred to as Mr. Robot. Fsociety hopes to destroy the status quo and take down corporate bankers through an elaborate hacking scheme. Viewers follow along with Elliot’s internal monologue and eventually find themselves wondering, like Elliot, who they can trust. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the suspenseful plot, strong character development, and clever dialogue.
Find out more: usanetwork.com
Where to watch: HBO, Amazon (available for purchase)
What it’s about: This show, based on Michael Crichton’s film of the same name, tells the sci-fi story of a robot-run amusement park in a place called Westworld. In Westworld, visitors can do as they please. However, when things start to go wrong, it looks like some guests may have a better time than others. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the well-crafted plot, gorgeous visuals, and well-cast characters.
Find out more: hbo.com
Where to watch: Starz, Amazon (available for purchase)
What it’s about: American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman’s book, follows Shadow Moon as he is released from prison and meets the strange Mr. Wednesday. From this point on, Shadow is brought into a battle he could never have imagined, finding himself in the middle of a fight between the Old Gods and the New. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the dark visuals, growing conflict, and intriguing group of characters.
Find out more: starz.com
Where to watch: SyFy, Netflix
What it’s about: The Magicians, based on the novel by Lev Grossman, follows Quentin Coldwater as he discovers a world of magic and gets a chance to go to Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy. Though Quentin is accepted to the university, his friend Julia is not, setting both Quentin and Julia on dangerous paths as they learn more about the magical world. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the striking special effects, exciting sense of danger, and intriguing storylines.
Find out more: syfy.com
The Man in the High Castle
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
What it’s about: This show is set in an alternative history where World War II ended very differently from what we know. The United States has now become the separate areas of the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States. However, propaganda materials are discovered that suggest there was another timeline where the War did not end with the Allied Forces being defeated. The story’s main character, Juliana, quickly finds herself working to protect this information while still trying to keep out of serious danger. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the dark visuals, flawed and fleshed-out characters, and heart-racing suspense.
Find out more: amazon.com
Where to watch: Starz, Amazon (available for purchase)
What it’s about: Outlander centers on Claire Randall, who, in 1945, is somehow sent back in time to 18th century Scotland. She meets Jamie Fraser, a Highland warrior, and becomes involved with the people of the time and the war they’re fighting. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the intriguing storylines, eye-catching visuals, and fantasy romance.
Find out more: starz.com
Where to watch: BBC America, Amazon Prime
What it’s about: This show centers on Sarah Manning, a woman who discovers she is one of many clones. She adopts the role of one of her clones after witnessing her death. The discovery of her fellow clones puts Sarah in danger, though, as information about where they came from begins to come to light. ‘Thrones’ fans will enjoy the twisting plot, dark subject matter, and engaging characters.
Find out more: bbcamerica.com
For a long while, subscription streaming was simple. You might have heard someone talking about Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime—and you still will, since these three services are still at the top of their game. Now, though, there are far more offerings to think about adding to your list of subscriptions. Recently, Disney announced they would be removing their content from Netflix and creating their own streaming service in 2019. And YouTube is entering the arena with their own service. With so many services to keep track of, it can be difficult to decide which one (or ones) will be best for you. Here’s a list of just some of your subscription streaming options. (Since we all know and love Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, I’ll skip them for this list.)
What it offers: Live TV packages with channels like ESPN, AMC, and History. Subscribers can choose from monthly packages with 25+ channels, 40 channels, or all channels. Sling also offers add-ons, like sports or news packages.
What it costs: $20-$40 for basic packages; prices vary for add-ons
Where to go: http://www.sling.com
What it offers: Monthly packages with live streaming and on demand content from over 60 channels, like Disney, CNN, and TNT. DirecTV Now also gives subscribers the option to add premium channels HBO, Cinemax, and Starz on top of their subscription package.
What it costs: $35-$70 for basic packages; $5-$8 each for premium add-ons
Where to go: https://www.directvnow.com/
What it offers: Access to HBO content without a cable TV subscription. Subscribers can use their monthly subscription to watch commercial-free content like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and a selection of movies.
What it costs: $14.99
Where to go: https://order.hbonow.com/
CBS All Access
What it offers: Monthly or yearly subscriptions with live streaming and access to content on demand; CBS All Access offers plans with limited or no commercials. Subscribers can watch shows from CBS, and they can also watch programs exclusive to CBS All Access, like the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery.
What it costs: $5.99-$9.99 monthly; $59.99-$99.99 yearly
Where to go: http://www.cbs.com/all-access
What it offers: A monthly subscription with commercial-free streaming of shows “from Britain and beyond,” their website states. Their offerings include programs viewers may already know and love, as well as shows exclusive to Acorn TV.
What it costs: $4.99
Where to go: https://signup.acorn.tv/
What it offers: Access to TV channels with a monthly subscription. YouTube TV allows subscribers to have 6 accounts per household, letting families or roommates share. It also has DVR that uploads your recordings to the cloud and offers unlimited storage space. Right now, YouTube TV is only available in some specific markets, but it will be rolling out to everyone soon.
What it costs: $35 for a basic subscription; $11-$15 each for add-ons
Where to go: https://tv.youtube.com/
Seeking to make stories that surround us.
Marvel’s new blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” carries audiences through a narrative carefully curated by the film’s creators. That’s also what Telltale’s Guardians-themed game did when it was released in April. Early reviews suggest the game is just another form of guided progress through a predetermined story, not a player-driven experience in the world of the movie and its characters. Some game critics lament this, and suggest game designers let traditional media tell the linear stories.
What is out there for the player who wants to explore on his or her own in rich universes like the ones created by Marvel? Not much. Not yet. But the future of media is coming.
As longtime experimenters and scholars in interactive narrative who are now building a new academic discipline we call “computational media,” we are working to create new forms of interactive storytelling, strongly shaped by the choices of the audience. People want to explore, through play, themes like those in Marvel’s stories, about creating family, valuing diversity and living responsibly.
These experiences will need compelling computer-generated characters, not the husks that now speak to us from smartphones and home assistants. And they’ll need virtual environments that are more than just simulated space – environments that feel alive, responsive and emotionally meaningful.
This next generation of media – which will be a foundation for art, learning, self-expression and even health maintenance – requires a deeply interdisciplinary approach. Instead of engineer-built tools wielded by artists, we must merge art and science, storytelling and software, to create groundbreaking, technology-enabled experiences deeply connected to human culture.
In search of interactivity
One of the first interactive character experiences involved “Eliza,” a language and software system developed in the 1960s. It seemed like a very complex entity that could engage compellingly with a user. But the more people interacted with it, the more they noticed formulaic responses that signaled it was a relatively simple computer program.
In contrast, programs like “Tale-Spin” have elaborate technical processes behind the scenes that audiences never see. The audience sees only the effects, like selfish characters telling lies. The result is the opposite of the “Eliza” effect: Rather than simple processes that the audience initially assumes are complex, we get complex processes that the audience experiences as simple.
An exemplary alternative to both types of hidden processes is “SimCity,” the seminal game by Will Wright. It contains a complex but ultimately transparent model of how cities work, including housing locations influencing transportation needs and industrial activity creating pollution that bothers nearby residents. It is designed to lead users, through play, to an understanding of this underlying model as they build their own cities and watch how they grow. This type of exploration and response is the best way to support long-term player engagement.
Connecting technology with meaning
No one discipline has all the answers for building meaningfully interactive experiences about topics more subtle than city planning – such as what we believe, whom we love and how we live in the world. Engineering can’t teach us how to come up with a meaningful story, nor understand if it connects with audiences. But the arts don’t have methods for developing the new technologies needed to create a rich experience.
Today’s most prominent examples of interactive storytelling tend to lean toward one approach or the other. Despite being visually compelling, with powerful soundtracks, neither indie titles like “Firewatch” nor blockbusters such as “Mass Effect: Andromeda” have many significant ways for a player to actually influence their worlds.
Both independently and together, we’ve been developing deeper interactive storytelling experiences for nearly two decades. “Terminal Time,” an interactive documentary generator first shown in 1999, asks the audience several questions about their views of historical issues. Based on the responses (measured as the volume of clapping for each choice), it custom-creates a story of the last millennium that matches, and increasingly exaggerates, those particular ideas.
For example, to an audience who supported anti-religious rationalism, it might begin presenting distant events that match their biases – such as the Catholic Church’s 17th-century execution of philosopher Giordano Bruno. But later it might show more recent, less comfortable events – like the Chinese communist (rationalist) invasion and occupation of (religious) Tibet in the 1950s.
The results are thought-provoking, because the team creating it – including one of us (Michael), documentarian Steffi Domike and media artist Paul Vanouse – combined deep technical knowledge with clear artistic goals and an understanding of the ways events are selected, connected and portrayed in ideologically biased documentaries.
Digging into narrative
“Façade,” released in 2005 by Michael and fellow artist-technologist Andrew Stern, represented a further extension: the first fully realized interactive drama. A person playing the experience visits the apartment of a couple whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. A player can say whatever she wants to the characters, move around the apartment freely, and even hug and kiss either or both of the hosts. It provides an opportunity to improvise along with the characters, and take the conversation in many possible directions, ranging from angry breakups to attempts at resolution.
“Façade” also lets players interact creatively with the experience as a whole, choosing, for example, to play by asking questions a therapist might use – or by saying only lines Darth Vader says in the “Star Wars” movies. Many people have played as different characters and shared videos of the results of their collaboration with the interactive experience. Some of these videos have been viewed millions of times.
As with “Terminal Time,” “Façade” had to combine technical research – about topics like coordinating between virtual characters and understanding natural language used by the player – with a specific artistic vision and knowledge about narrative. In order to allow for a wide range of audience influence, while still retaining a meaningful story shape, the software is built to work in terms of concepts from theater and screenwriting, such as dramatic “beats” and tension rising toward a climax. This allows the drama to progress even as different players learn different information, drive the conversation in different directions and draw closer to one or the other member of the couple.
Bringing art and engineering together
A decade ago, our work uniting storytelling, artificial intelligence, game design, human-computer interaction, media studies and many other arts, humanities and sciences gave rise to the Expressive Intelligence Studio, a technical and cultural research lab at the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, where we both work. In 2014 we created the country’s first academic department of computational media.
Today, we work with colleagues across campus to offer undergrad degrees in games and playable media with arts and engineering emphases, as well as graduate education for developing games and interactive experiences.
With four of our graduate students (Josh McCoy, Mike Treanor, Ben Samuel and Aaron A. Reed), we recently took inspiration from sociology and theater to devise a system that simulates relationships and social interactions. The first result was the game “Prom Week,” in which the audience is able to shape the social interactions of a group of teenagers in the week leading up to a high school prom.
We found that its players feel much more responsibility for what happens than in pre-scripted games. It can be disquieting. As game reviewer Craig Pearson put it – after destroying the romantic relationship of his perceived rival, then attempting to peel away his remaining friendships, only to realize this wasn’t necessary – “Next time I’ll be looking at more upbeat solutions, because the alternative, frankly, is hating myself.”
That social interaction system is also a base for other experiences. Some address serious topics like cross-cultural bullying or teaching conflict deescalation to soldiers. Others are more entertaining, like a murder mystery game – and a still-secret collaboration with Microsoft Studios. We’re now getting ready for an open-source release of the underlying technology, which we’re calling the Ensemble Engine.
Pushing the boundaries
Our students are also expanding the types of experiences interactive narratives can offer. Two of them, Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe, created “The Ice-Bound Concordance,” which lets players explore a vast number of possible combinations of events and themes to complete a mysterious novel.
Three other students, James Ryan, Ben Samuel and Adam Summerville, created “Bad News,” which generates a new small midwestern town for each player – including developing the town, the businesses, the families in residence, their interactions and even the inherited physical traits of townspeople – and then kills one character. The player must notify the dead character’s next of kin. In this experience, the player communicates with a human actor trained in improvisation, exploring possibilities beyond the capabilities of today’s software dialogue systems.
Kate Compton, another student, created “Tracery,” a system that makes storytelling frameworks easy to create. Authors can fill in blanks in structure, detail, plot development and character traits. Professionals have used the system: Award-winning developer Dietrich Squinkifer made the uncomfortable one-button conversation game “Interruption Junction.” “Tracery” has let newcomers get involved, too, as with the “Cheap Bots Done Quick!” platform. It is the system behind around 4,000 bots active on Twitter, including ones relating the adventures of a lost self-driving Tesla, parodying the headlines of “Boomersplaining thinkpieces,” offering self-care reminders and generating pastel landscapes.
Many more projects are just beginning. For instance, we’re starting to develop an artificial intelligence system that can understand things usually only humans can – like the meanings underlying a game’s rules and what a game feels like when played. This will allow us to more easily explore what the audience will think and feel in new interactive experiences.
There’s much more to do, as we and others work to invent the next generation of computational media. But as in a Marvel movie, we’d bet on those who are facing the challenges, rather than the skeptics who assume the challenges can’t be overcome.