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Beyond Netflix and Amazon: One of these 5 cheaper streaming services might be all you need

If you know what you like, why pay for what you're not watching?

Jenna Coleman stars as a young mother who finds herself at the center of a media firestorm after her child disappears in "The Cry," a series streaming on Sundance Now.
Jenna Coleman stars as a young mother who finds herself at the center of a media firestorm after her child disappears in "The Cry," a series streaming on Sundance Now.Read moreCourtesy of Sundance Now / Sundance

Sometimes I wonder if I really need Netflix and Amazon Prime Video and Hulu.

And then I remember that I watch television for a living.

But if TV doesn’t happen to be part of your job, then streaming television -- which, like mobile phones and Instant Pots, we somehow got by without for centuries -- is probably in competition with cable TV, not to mention your actual life, for your time and money.

And depending on how much you have of each, there may be better choices than a service like Netflix, which is more than ever behaving like a broadcast network in trying to offer something for everyone. That can be great. But if you find yourself gravitating toward the same kinds of shows every time you click on your TV or computer, leaning in to your interests could save you money and help you find new favorites.

There are, frankly, a ridiculous number of niche services from which to choose, covering interests ranging from sports to horror., a website for cord-cutters, recently listed more than a hundred streamers, and that list didn’t include, for instance, BroadwayHD, which focuses on recordings of stage shows and musicals. Some Turner Classic Movies fans may be in mourning for the channel’s streaming sibling FilmStruck, whose lineup included Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain, but which ended its two-year run on Nov. 29.

So how to choose?

Most streamers offer at least a seven-day free trial (and if you already have Amazon Prime Video, the ease of adding, or dropping, one of its growing number of niche “channels” makes trying new services particularly easy).

Based on the television shows I hear about most from readers, here are some to consider:

Acorn or BritBox. It’s not as if Netflix and Amazon haven’t noticed that some of their subscribers are addicted to to British detective dramas, but if those accented mysteries are the main thing you’re clicking on -- and especially if you also have a taste for Britcoms -- either of these two streamers could be for you. What they cost: Acorn, which also features series and other content from beyond Britain, including Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Portugal, is $4.99 a month or $49.99 a year. BritBox, a joint project of Britain’s BBC Studios and the commercial network ITV that’s even more U.K.-centric (and where you can see classic Doctor Who episodes, starting with the show’s 1963 season starring William Harnell has the first Doctor), is $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year. What to watch first: Acorn has Loch Ness, a scenic mystery about a monster much scarier than Nessie, starring Siobhan Finneran (Downton Abbey, Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (Better Call Saul). And if you watched the first three seasons of the dark and equally scenic Shetland on Netflix, you probably won’t want to miss the fourth and final one on BritBox.

Hallmark Movies Now. If you, or someone on your holiday gift list, can’t get enough of the Hallmark Channel’s “Countdown to Christmas,” the romance with movies that lead up to first kisses doesn’t have to end on Dec. 25. Hallmark, which already pretty much owns cable for the last two months of the year, launched its streaming service last year, and boasts on-demand access to “to nearly 1,000 hours of commercial-free Hallmark-branded original content, including fan favorites from the vast Hallmark Hall of Fame library.” What it costs: $5.99 a month, or $59.99 a year. What to watch first: Cedar Cove, the three-season series starring Andie MacDowell as a small-town judge. Set in the scenic Pacific Northwest, it was developed by Philly playwright Bruce Graham (Rizzo) from novels by Debbie Macomber.

Sundance Now. Like its bigger rivals, this AMC Networks-owned service offers a mix of films, documentaries, and series (many of them British), but if curation matters to you -- there’s not A Christmas Prince in sight -- and you like the idea of attending a film festival with no lines, then this could hit your sweet spot. Not everything’s ultra-high-brow (I loved the soapy fun of The Split, a show about an all-female family firm of divorce lawyers), but if you or someone you’re buying for is a drama junkie, this is worth a look. What it costs: $6.99 a month, or $59.99 a year. What to watch first: If you love Jenna Coleman in Masterpiece’s Victoria (or in Doctor Who), catch her in the psychological thriller The Cry as an overwhelmed young mother whose baby disappears.

Passport. What’s better than another tote bag? How about access to all six seasons of the Masterpiece hit Downton Abbey and more than a thousand episodes of such PBS staples as Nova, American Experience, Antiques Roadshow and more? What it costs: PBS’s Passport streaming service is offered as a perk for donors to its local stations, including Philadelphia’s WHYY, in return for contributions, in most cases, of at least $60 a year, or $5 a month. You won’t find everything the network’s ever aired, and the offerings may come and go in accordance with licensing agreements. But if you’re already a public-TV fan, you’ll probably find plenty to keep you pressing “play.” What to watch first: Wolf Hall, the six-episode adaptation of two of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels about Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), who rose from humble beginnings to a precarious power in the court of Henry VIII (Damian Lewis).

And if these niche-y alternatives aren’t enough:

Fight FOMO (maybe even for free). Fear of missing out on the shows your friend are talking about should actually be less of a problem now that so many of us are watching different things, on different schedules. Last year’s buzz-worthy show could still be your next binge-watch. Like what you’ve heard about Netflix’s The Crown or Hulu’s A Handmaid’s Tale? They’re both available on DVD (the second season of A Handmaid’s Tale goes on sale on Tuesday, Dec. 4), and, if you’re patient enough to wait your turn, they can also be checked out from local libraries. The same goes for CBS All Access’s The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery. (Note that Amazon so far doesn’t seem to be doing this with its originals, though some shows, including the first season of Bosch, can be purchased for streaming by non-Amazon Prime members.) What it costs: Varies by the cost of DVDs, but it’s hard to beat free.