Niche Streaming Services to Bump Up Your Binge-Watching Game
(Photo by Rooster Teeth; Mammoth Screen and MASTERPIECE; Dana Starbard/AMC)
Updated March 20, 2020
There’s so much great stuff to watch, we know. But as cord-cutting becomes more common and networks like NBC, HBO, and CBS decide to stop playing nice with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu and launch their own streaming/subscription video on demand (SVOD) platforms or other over-the-top services (OTT), the question is becoming less about what to watch and instead about where to find it.
Some choices are obvious, brought to you by established major media brands and are already very much a part of pop culture vernacular:
And there’s more to come. Soon, we’ll all have the answer to what is Quibi, the streaming platform that promises to give us quality (or at least enjoyable) content in 10-minutes-or-less morsels. Programs and channels owned by WarnerMedia — think cable channels like HBO and TNT as well as soon-to-launch shows and classic programming like Friends — will soon be housed under the streaming platform HBOMax. And NBCUniversal will soon launch its over-the-top streaming option, Peacock.
(Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, a division of NBCUniversal that includes film and television on-demand streaming service FandangoNow.)
There are also more all-encompassing options like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and Pluto TV (the latter of which has expertly curated channels, such as Adam Carolla’s one for car buffs called Chassy). And, in perhaps the ultimate example of clearing the clutter, the service VRV will bundle your select streaming video on demand and fandom content. (One of the service’s options is NickSplat, a channel featuring Nickelodeon kids’ content from the 1990s, including CatDog, Rocko’s Modern Life, and The Wild Thornberrys).
“With SVOD, if you look at the failures, these are things that are pitched at mainstream, big-stream audience [like Seeso or Verizon’s go90], and they just couldn’t make that work,” says Todd Spangler, Variety’s New York–based digital editor. “On the nichier side of things … I think those are genuine, niche genre categories that can support a smaller subscription base and be profitable. They’re not going to be Netflix, but —”
What kinds of niche content options are we talking about, exactly? We’ve rounded up some examples of the diverse specialty streaming sites available. Not specific enough? You can always watch that one Roku channel that only airs episodes of the old game show What’s My Line?
For TV Addicts Who Love an Accent: Acorn TV
The Acorn TV subscription-based streaming service is one whose “audience is sophisticated, demanding, and passionate about content,” according to General Manager Matthew Graham when he spoke at the winter 2018 Television Critics Association press tour. Its programming is from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. These include celebrated British murder mysteries like Manhunt (92% Tomatometer), and the soon-to-premiere Deadwater Fell (86% Tomatometer), which stars David Tennant and Cush Jumbo.
For Unabashed Anglophiles: BritBox
This SVOD service, which launched in 2017 as a partnership between BBC and ITV, is a speedy fix to anyone craving classic British programming. “What sets us apart from all the others is our ability to present many of these shows within hours of their U.K. premiere,” BritBox North America president Soumya Sriraman told journalists at the winter 2018 TCA press tour. Highlights include Absolutely Fabulous (96% Tomatometer)and Fawlty Towers (100% Tomatometer), as well as newer titles like the sitcom Mrs. Brown’s Boys.
Launched in 2006, this streaming favorite is synonymous with anime and anime-related products like manga, TV dramas, and music. Still, given the plethora of options available from those markets, Crunchyroll Head of Business Operations Brady McCollum tells Rotten Tomatoes that it becomes a “mix of art and science” to find which programs best fit their TV options. While some titles on the site are expected hits — Dragon Ball Super, Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia — the fans have been known to surprise them (some examples include Darling in the Franxx and Megalobox). McCollum says the team also “see(s) a bright future in creating originals for our passionate community to come together through extraordinary content.” One of Crunchyroll’s first original series will be High Guardian Spice, which is about four girls who learn about friendship and allegiances while studying sorcery and battles.
For Bollywood Lovers: Eros Now
One of many over-the-top platforms to celebrate all things Bollywood films and other regional programming, Eros grew out of film production company Eros International and, according to its homepage, boasts “100 million registered users and 7.9 million paying subscribers.” It also has a lengthy list of television shows and original programs, including sudsy dramas like Kuch Na Kaho, a love story about a couple whose families try to tear them apart.
For Those Who Prefer Their Heroes With Capes: DC Universe
DC Universe launched in 2018 and is home to favorites like the 1978 Superman movie and new programs like the animated, but certainly not rated-G, Harley Quinn. Subscriptions also give you access to over 20,000 comic books and information on special events and contests.
For Gay-Cinema Devotees: Dekkoo
This Philadelphia-based streaming service is geared toward gay and bisexual men. It’s become known for its trove of art house flicks of pretty much any genre that celebrate or highlight characters who happen to be gay. “When we do our original content, we steer toward episodic because it’s more interesting and it keeps customers attached to the site longer,” says Dekkoo COO Brian Sokel, adding that this also came from necessity as not a lot of TV feature diverse gay characters. “What we find from subscribers is they are looking for content that’s for a gay audience … but they want to be able to see content that’s not about a coming out story; it’s just gay characters in larger stories.” Original series include the dating competition series Love Is Blind (which isn’t to be confused with the Netflix series of the same name) and the 20-something comedy I’m Fine.
For Korean TV Junkies: KOCOWA
Launching as a partnership between South Korea’s three major networks, the Los Angeles–based KOCOWA offers a way for those outside of that country to catch its most popular programming just a few hours after they first air. KunHee Park, the CEO of parent company Korea Content Platform has said that the majority of its users are young, female, and not Asian (In fact, the channel launched in Brazil last year, meaning it now also has Portuguese subtitle options). Popular programming include variety shows like Running Man and dramas like Wok of Love. KOCOWA also has licensing deals with similar services, like the Asian TV powerhouse Viki.
Comedian Kevin Hart and studio Lionsgate launched this OTT streaming service in 2017 as a way to showcase content that the comedian endorses and curates. (This is kind of Hart’s thing; he also is known for Comedy Central’s Kevin Hart Presents: The Next Level, which spotlights up-and-coming talent.) Among the programs on LOL are Cold as Balls, where Hart himself takes ice baths next to the hottest names in sports. There are also comedy specials from D.L. Hughley, Iliza Shlesinger, and more.
For Your Baby-Daddy’s Online Catfisher/Stripper-Girlfriend: Nosey
(Photo by Nosey)
Nosey may not be the place to find the most high-brow and intellectually stimulating programming, but have we got a service for those who like to watch hour after hour of men sweating it out over paternity tests. This free app, which is available on the likes of Roku and Google Play, is a carefully curated list of programming like Maury Povich, Jerry Springer — so pretty much every program that would make your family seem like one in Andy Griffith.
For Players Who Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to Fold ’Em: PokerGo
An OTT service that’s willing to bet big on the niche factor? Sam Simmons, VP of content for Poker Central, which oversees PokerGo, says the goal of his service is to “combine the existing television success of longstanding programs like the World Series of Poker with world-exclusive original programming, in order to create a year-round entertainment destination for the game that excites both the most passionate fans and casual enthusiasts.” This means they offer over 100 days of live poker coverage as well as original series like Hand Histories, a new series that looks at real-life gamblers and their stories.
For Drama (and Comedy!) Queens: Revry
Alia J. Daniels and Chris Rodriguez, two of Revry’s founders, tell Rotten Tomatoes that the goal of their LGBTQ-themed streaming service is to be as inclusive as possible. This isn’t just in regards to gender and sexuality; Revry also strives to highlight racial and ethnic diversity. “I think a driving force behind our programming is reflecting the community as we are as opposed to what’s trendy or what big-wig execs think is marketable,” Rodriguez says, adding that this means they have to have original series because they learned “early on” that options from mainstream outlets were limiting. And while they do have name-recognizable content like the original Queer as Folk and Gay of Thrones, the popular Funny or Die webseries from Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, Rodriguez and Daniels point to other titles in their catalogue like the drag-themed docu-series, Queens of Kings, and Before I Got Famous. That web series stars Xingcheng You, a Chinese immigrant who is both looking for love and his big break in Hollywood, and focuses on stereotypes that still exist in the gay dating culture.
Rooster Teeth was launched in 2003 by some friends who wanted to be the next Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith, but couldn’t get into festivals. Co-founder Bernie Burns told journalists at the summer 2018 Television Critics Association press tour that their service took off when “we discovered and pioneered a method of animation where we could use the 3D gaming engines in popular video games to make animation.” This led to what he touts as the longest-running digital series ever, the military-themed sci-fi comedy Red vs. Blue. They also have reality series, live-action shorts, and more.
For Cult Classic Connoisseurs: Shout! Factory
Who needs reboots when you can have the classics? The TV vertical of this digitized tribute to old-school charm has everything from cult classics like Mystery Science Theater 3000 (85% Tomatometer) to relics from the years of rabbit ears like Father Knows Best and Car 54, Where Are You?. There’s also original programming like Why We Love It, a web series that strives to justify users’ love for programming of acquired taste like Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean and the Nicolas Cage–Jennifer Beals campfest Vampire’s Kiss (61% TM). Gene Pao, Shout! Factory’s Senior Vice President of Digital Media, says that, “over the years … we’ve found that viewers are particularly interested in ‘modernized nostalgia’ — cult and classic TV and film that shape today’s pop culture.” Shout! plays into this with marathon viewings like MST3K Turkey Day on Thanksgiving, during which Pao says “viewers can interact with each other via chat.”
For Horror Buffs: Shudder
This AMC-owned streaming service celebrates the worlds of gore and supernatural. And while it doesn’t have its parent company’s juggernaut, The Walking Dead, its TV section does live up to its promise of offering “a constant stream of killer content.” Titles include AMC’s adaptation of author Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 (70% Tomatometer), and the documentary series Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics as well as original programming like its anthology, Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories, and a partnering TWD’s Greg Nicotero on a revamp of the classic Creepshow. Shudder general manager Craig Engler says “we can do shows that other people can’t” because they aren’t as beholden to ratings.
A SVOD companion to SundanceTV, General Manager Jan Diedrichsen told journalists at the winter 2018 TCA press tour that the goal of both is to find a way to “best serve fans of premium indie content in a deeper way.” This service is the home for original programming like This Close (100% Tomatometer), a rom-com of sorts about two best friends and their relationship woes that’s based on series of shorts from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. There are also series that originated on its linear channel counterpart, like the Joanne Froggatt–Ioan Gruffudd thriller Liar (62% Tomatometer) and other fine options.
For Francophiles: TV5monde (and others)
(Photo by TV5monde US)
Grab the macarons and red wine! This Paris-based network offers a way to watch popular French series with the aid of subtitles (and without the need of a passport). Streaming is available through Sling, and programs include the 2019 rom-com hit Un si grand soleil, which centers on family and friends in Marseille, and the police detective drama Caïn.
Despite its title, UMC actually has a rather robust TV section as well. These include episodes of WE tv’s long-running reality series, Growing Up Hip Hop. Original series include the drama 5th Ward, which is based on director Greg Carter’s similarly named movie. “We pay very close attention to viewership trends and feedback from our subscribers to understand what’s working and what’s not and use that as a guide for greenlight decisions on any new or classic series,” UMC General Manager Sylvia George says, adding that their primary target audience is black women. “At a high level, the type of programming that resonates with UMC viewers ranges from romantic dramas and comedies to female-driven stories to series that push the envelope in a compelling and relatable way.”
After the November 2018 death of FilmStruck, several other streaming options clamored to become the rightful heir to the cinephile throne, and the Criterion Collection’s streaming component is quickly rising up that rank. In addition to celebrating classic and cult cinema from around the world, the channel also has special features like behind-the-scenes footage and a guest programmer series.
If Criterion isn’t to your liking, other streamers that concentrate on classic and/or under-the-radar cinema include SnagFilms and MUBI. Services like Kanopy and Hoopla have similar offerings and work in conjunction with local libraries.
For Those Who Love The Great White Way: BroadwayHD
Lots of theater fans would like to give regular regards to Broadway, but not all of them can take regular pilgrimages to New York City (or afford the ticket prices once they’re there). In those instances, there’s BroadwayHD. The service, which Tony Award-winning producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley founded in 2015, offers full-length stage plays and musicals at legal and considerably much better quality than those grainy videos you can find on YouTube. Productions have included musicals like 42nd Street, Falsettos, She Loves Me, and Cats, as well as renditions of Shakespeare.
For When You Want Some Badass Cinema: Brown Sugar
Sometimes you need to see some foxy ladies in tight pants kicking perps to the curb. And, for that, Brown Sugar offers Blaxploitation classics like Coffy (plus, send-ups of the horror genre like Blackenstein). But there are also more recent and — dare we say — more wholesome offerings too, like the Al Green concert Everything’s Gonna Be All Right and the family-friendly A Baby for Christmas.
For Those Who Want Just The Facts: Docsville
There’s more to documentaries than Netflix’s latest true-crime obsession or brilliantly shot nature footage narrated by David Attenborough. This SVOD option is a warehouse of some thought-provoking visual storytelling from around the world that covers everything from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a look at the legacy of the controversial yet influential comedian, to a nearly three-minute short on the privilege of having a toilet.
For similar options, perhaps with more of a science bent, there’s CuriosityStream.
Sometimes you may want a cup of hot chocolate and the chance to see perfectly lit people in winter wonderlands — even if it’s July. The Hallmark Movies Now option has an assortment of its holiday-themed classics as well as movies about weddings, beach-side flings, and other scenarios that result in emotionally charged embraces. There are television series and specials that include adaptation of biblical stories and classic novels.
If HMN options feel too mainstream, there are also OTTs that specialize in Christian-themed programming like Pure Flix and Dove Channel (that would be a reference to the bird, not to shampoo and body wash).
For Mainlining Martial Arts: Hi-Yah
Described as “the sound of mayhem, of flying fists and roundhouse kicks” on its website, this service — which is available for a fee as an add-on to Amazon and though Roku and other devices — is a warehouse of martial arts favorites. And that definition is a loose one. The service also has horror films, thrillers, period pieces, and more that also happen to showcase people who can destroy you while barely breaking a sweat.
For Supporters of Public Broadcasting: PBS Video App
From Poldark and PBS NewsHour to Ken Burns documentaries and Call the Midwife, there’s probably something educational and/or entertaining to find on PBS’ video app. Or just turn it on for some background music; there are also recordings of Great Performances and Austin City Limits shows.
For Live Music Without Dealing with LiveNation: Qello
Concerts are great ways to celebrate your favorite artists with peers who appreciate them as much as you do. They’re also loud, expensive and usually hassles to get to. For those who can’t (or won’t) handle all that grunt work, there’s Qello. This service lets you watch concerts and documentary footage on demand, be it Paul McCartney or Beyoncé. But its greatest asset might be that it helps cure a nostalgic hunger for artists whom we are no longer able to watch perform, such as Tom Petty or David Bowie.