Best TV shows: where to watch and download your favourite programmes
13th Nov 2013 | 12:19
It's full stream ahead for Video on Demand, but how do the top online services compare?
Where can I watch my favourite TV shows?
This feature will be continuously updated with new TV shows as soon as they are announced by Netflix and Lovefilm. Head to page two to read about all the new announcements.
Thanks to huge sprawling story arcs, high production values and more water cooler moments than an Evian convention, it's TV and not movies that have become the biggest draw for booming on-demand video services.
Even Hollywood's biggest blockbusters can't beat the allure of a box-set weekend. But thanks to bewildering licensing deals, it's far from obvious just where those shows you want to catch up with actually reside.
The two titans of subscription VOD are Netflix and Amazon-owned Lovefilm Instant. On paper the Lovefilm vs Netflix fight looks near identical. Both offer monthly all you can eyeball £5.99 deals, and there's clear crossover in their respective catalogues too.
Netflix recently announced a complete redesign of its TV functionality, proving that when it comes to TV it's deadly serious bout changing the game.
But these behemoths have growing competition in the form of Sky's rapidly expanding Now TV operation. Launched as a platform for movies and sports, Now TV has added an Entertainment package that pulls TV content from Sky's entertainment bouquet as well as Discovery, MTV, Comedy Central, GOLD, Disney and FOX. Although it doesn't offer the same depth of content as its rivals, and has listings that come across a bit like a starter menu, it's priced at a mere £4.99 a month.
Of course if you don't fancy a no-contract subscription deal, there're some tantalising Pay-As-You-watch offerings to be had. The Tesco-owned Blinkbox, Apple iTunes and Google Play sell a huge range shows and series on a pay as you go basis.
Netflix gets original
It says much about the popularity of the low cost VOD market that Netflix is now aggressively commissioning its own content. The Emmy award-winning House of Cards set the bar high, and Orange is the New Black has outpaced the rebooted Arrested Development and horror outing Hemlock Grove to become a breakout second hit for the service.
Netflix has also secured itself a slice of Marvel mania, negotiating an exclusive deal with Disney that will see it deliver four TV shows from 2015, featuring spandex-clad Marvel stalwarts Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist. The interlocking universe will culminate with a shared Defender miniseries. Our collective hearts are already going pitter-pat.
Amazon is trying to follow suit, but doesn't yet have much to show beyond some rather lackluster pilots. The service's biggest exclusive is period drama Vikings. It was obviously snapped up to pull in Game of Thrones fans, although it's seriously lacking in the dragons department.
HD or SD?
When it comes to online streaming, fixed definitions such as Standard and high definition don't easily apply. Adaptive bitrate technologies mean what you see from your service provider tends to change depending on the speed of your broadband connection. The best audio visual performer currently available is Netflix. Offered a fat pipe, it's a match for the HD transmissions seen on network TV. It also looks likely to be the first content provider to bow a 4K resolution streaming service in 2014.
Ultimately where you want to watch your streaming TV could dictate what service you opt to support. For example, Lovefilm Instant isn't available on iPad or Android, outside of Amazon's own Kindle Fire slates. Netflix, Now TV, Google Play and Blinkbox are more ubiquitous.
So just who has the best TV choice and what's worth watching? Check out our updated guide to Tech Radar's 15 favourite on demand or downloaded shows for the full skinny…
The Walking Dead: Seasons 1 -3
Available on: Now TV, Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox
The first three season's AMC's lauded reworking of the monstrously successful graphic novel are arguably the best reason to take out a monthly pass on Now TV. You can also find season one of this shambling sensation on Lovefilm Instant. Blinkbox is serving up bite-sized episodes too. Tasty, if a little rancid.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
Available on: Blinkbox, Google Play
Still riding a hurricane of goodwill from Marvel's Avengers Assembled, Joss Whedon's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has transpired to be a curiously dated episodic plodder. But Whedon always does this with his shows and then blows the doors off – so we're sticking with it and so should you.
Game of Thrones: Seasons 1- 3
Available on: Blinkbox
This breakout fantasy hit based on George RR Martin's epic books is one of HBO's hottest properties, which probably explains why it's not yet available on Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, Google Play or iTunes. Sky has first dibs, so expect it to (be)head to Now TV before too long. In the meantime, catch up with the first three seasons on Blinkbox.
Breaking Bad: Season 1-5
Available on: Netflix, Blinkbox, Google Play, iTunes
The poster show for streaming VOD, Breaking Bad is arguably the single best reason to buy a chunk of Netflix streamtime. The ability to mainline all five seasons for not much more than a fiver is a sweet deal, whatever way you cook it. Alternatively catch the Breaking Bad saga piece meal. But be warned, it's addictive. The iTunes boxset Deluxe editions come with a good selection of extras, making them a solid choice for BB fans.
Orange is the New black
Available on: Netflix
From the creator of Weeds, this engaging dramedy tells the story of a middle-age yuppie mom sentenced to 15 months in a brutal women's prison for decade old drugs offence. A Netflix exclusive, it's wowed critics and earned an early second season renewal. It's what you turn to when you finish Breaking Bad.
Battlestar Galactica: Seasons 1-4
Available on: Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox, iTunes, Google Play (S4)
VOD is a frackin' brilliant way to catch up with arguably the best science fiction show of the past decade. You can gorge on a box set of Cylons via both Netflix and Lovefilm Instant, including the Razer two-part special. The ubiquity of the Netflix service makes it much easier to spin up those FTL drives both on mobile devices and connected devices. Curiously, only Lovefilm Instant also offers the underrated prequel series Caprica.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Available on: Netflix, Lovefilm Instant
Admittedly not the X-movie, which units the team from X-Men: First Class with Patrick Stewart's mutants, but a glorious two-part from the fanboy-tastic animated show of the early Nineties (actually season 1, episodes 11 and 12). Slavishly faithful to the Chris Claremont and John Bryne comic book original, this is a solid gold classic. We can only hope Singer's epic is half as much fun.
Dexter: Seasons 1-6
Available on: Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, iTunes
Curiously only the first six seasons of Dexter are available on demand, but iTunes does have the increasingly bonkers seven and eight available. Newcomers to this hapless serial killer can look forward to plenty of memorable chills before the performing sharks appear.
The Killing: Seasons 1- 3
Available on: Netflix
The US reworking of the Danish police drama Forbrydelsen has proved a compelling hit for Netflix. The platform is exclusively delivering third season episodes the day after they screen in the US, and has both previous arcs on tap. Netflix also offers the first two seasons of the original Nordic noir. In a similar vein, only Netflix offers the gritty French police drama Spiral (three seasons).
Arrested Development: Seasons 1- 4
Available on: Netflix, Blinkbox (seasons 1-3)
This cult comedy was brought back from cancellation limbo as a Netflix original production, so don't expect to see it on any other platforms. All three original three tightly written seasons, plus the somewhat baggier new season are available for viewing every which way.
Doctor Who: Seasons 1 -7
Available on: Netflix, LoveFilm Instant, Blinkbox
Fans of the iconic Time Lord are becoming increasingly well served online, and it's about time. The Eccleston reboot onwards is widely available, while Netflix offers a smattering of pepperpot classics: Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Resurrection of the Daleks (1984), Revelation of the Daleks (1985) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988. However Whovians should run and not walk to iTunes which has the richest library of classic Gallifreyan hijinks, including the recently rediscovered The Web of Fear and The Enemy of the World.
Sons of Anarchy: Seasons 1-4
Available on: Netflix, Blinkbox, Lovefilm
The convoluted antics of the outlaw motorcycle gang have revved up a huge following over the years, but there's still to catch up with the clan. Both Netflix and Lovefilm Instant offers the first four season in HD, while pay as you play Blinkbox stretches to five, although only in SD.
Star Trek TOS, Star Trek Voyager: Seasons 1-3, 1-7
Available on: Lovefilm Instant
You might be forgiven for thinking that Paramount's huge Trek canon would translate to gold-pressed latinum in the VOD universe, but most shows appears to be lost in space (no, that's not available either). Only Lovefilm Instant supports the Federation, with the original 4:3 series ready to beam down alongside a compete run of Voyager. So, no Next Gen, DS9 or Enterprise for you dear Trekkers. On the bright side, there's a heck of a lot of Seven Of Nine to go around.
Available on: Now TV
Far more than just a twisted police procedural, this dark exploration of hijinks the world's best known gourmet serial killer is as tense as modern TV gets. Beautifully shot and intelligently scripted, it delivers with gory aplomb. It's a Now TV boxset much-watch.
Heroes: Seasons 1-4
Available on: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, LoveFilm
OK so while you're keeping the faith with S.H.I.E.L.D and loving the return of Arrow, find time to catch Tim Kring's Heroes too. Sure the show wobbled over it's four year run, but the inaugural season is as near perfect superhero pulp as has ever been made, and Heroes never commits the cardinal sin of being dull.
The big TV land grab
Lovefilm Instant and Netflix's big TV land grab
Lovefilm Instant and Netflix are playing a fantastic game of oneupmanship at the moment, which is leading to some of the more obscure shows and labels being snapped up by the services.
Here's a rundown of recently announced shows that you will see on each of the platforms.
- A deal has been signed with NBCUniversal, which sees a number of kids' TV shows come to Lovefilm Instant. Pick of the bunch is Rastamouse, Curious George, Barbie: Princess Charm School and The Land Before Time.
- Lovefilm Instant's Original Series content is set to land in 2014, with five new shows announced as being made into fully fledged series.
Two of these are adult comedies. The first is Alpha House, A political comedy John Goodman with Bill Murray cameoing. The second – and following on the Greek alphabet trend – is Betas, a show being dubbed as 'Cheers' for the Silicon Valley.
Three children's shows have been commissioned as well: Annebots, Creative Galaxy and Tumbleaf.
- Another deal signed, sealed and delivered was with BBC Worldwide. Again, the content added to Lovefilm Instant is for kids with the following added: The Story of Tracy Beaker, Teletubbies, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Balamory.
- As part of the BBC Worldwide deal, Lovefilm Instant also landed streaming rights to a number of UK shows. These included: Luther, The Office, Extras, Primeval, Jonathan Creek, Top Gear, Ashes to Ashes, Spooks and Planet Earth.
- And as if there wasn't enough children's shows on Lovefilm Extra, a deal made back in 2012 with DHX Media meant that Mona the Vampire, Paddington Bear, Sonic the Hedgehog, Inspector Gadget and Dennis The Menace can all be enjoyed on Lovefilm Instant.
- The same Twentieth Century Fox deal that saw one of our top 10s come to Lovefilm Instant (Sons of Anarchy) also brought a number of shows to the service, including: all seasons of 24, Prison Break, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel.
- Lovefilm Instant also has a deal in place with Disney UK which means ABC TV on-demand content comes to Lovefilm Instant. Shows include: Desperate Housewives, Happy Endings, Grey's Anatomy, Ghost Whisperer, and every episode of Brothers & Sisters.
- If you like your cartoons with a superhero flavour, then you are in luck as Lovefilm has acquired the rights to Warner's fantastic Batman: The Animated Series - all 15 years' worth of it. As well as this you can get both the '80s series of Thundercats and the more Manga-esque recent series.
- For those who like a bit more reality, then Lovefilm's latest deal with Viacom means that you can get entire series of The Hills, Teen Mom and Jersey Shore, as well the British smash-hit spin-off Geordie Shore. Oh, and you also get access to SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora The Explorer.
- Lovefilm has revealed that in the US at least its first original shows Alpha House and Betas will arrive 15 November. A UK premiere date is still to be announced.
- Crossing Lines, a US show that follows the International Criminal Court investigating serialised cross-border crime is available exclusively on Lovefilm in the UK. A second season is currently in the works.
- US show Copper also made its UK debut in the UK on Lovefilm. The show has unfortunately since been cancelled in the US.
- Not content with nabbing the UK rights of Breaking Bad, Netflix has also been busy snapping up television programmes. It has also added a new profile option so what you watch now doesn't have to clash with your better half.
- Netflix has also announced that it is to appear on Virgin Media's TiVo service, marking the first time that the service has gone on to a Pay TV platform. And who said streaming wasn't the future?
- When it comes to original content, Netflix has tried its hand at a Nordic-flavoured Sopranos, Lillyhammer, gone to jail with Orange is the New Black (which has been renewed for a second season) and added some scare factor with Hemlock Grove. Its most-successful homegrown show, however, was the Kevin Spacey vehicle House Of Cards.
- Given that Netflix has its own dedicated kids' portal, there is a lot of unique content just a stream away.
- Recent additions include a host of Scholastic Media shows. This means The Magic School Bus (seasons 1-4; all 52 episodes) and Goosebumps (seasons 1-4; all 74 episodes) are exclusively available on the service.
- Although Lovefilm Instant has Ricky Gervais' Office and Extras, Netflix will be airing the critically lauded Derek as of 12 September.
- Netflix, in 2014, will also be airing new shows from Kung Fu Panda studio DreamWorks Animation. So far not much is known, other than: "The new shows will be inspired by characters from DreamWorks Animation's hit franchises and upcoming feature films."
- When it comes to US comedy, although Parks and Recreation is infuriatingly missing from both Netflix and Lovefilm Instant you can settle down to all seven seasons of the frankly brilliant It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
- But you can now watch Park and Rec's Aziz Ansari in Buried Alive on Netflix, a stand-up show that is exclusive to the streaming service.
- Netflix has been on something of a comedy bender of late and is also producing Notorious, a 70-minute stand-up special that is set to air 14 October 2013, and comedy documentary series Russell Peters vs The World.
- Marvel has joined forces with Netflix to produce what is an epic task: to bring multiple original series of live-action adventures of four of Marvel's most popular characters beginning in 2015. According to Netflix, this "pioneering agreement calls for Marvel to develop four serialised programmes leading to a miniseries programming event".
- Netflix announced in November that it has redesigned its TV service to be more visually enticing to those who use it.
- A new untitled drama series from the creator of Damages will also come exclusively to Netflix in the UK, with production to start in 2014.
- Not resting on its TV laurels, Netflix also announced the acquisition of Square, a documentary that already has Oscar buzz surrounding it. This marks Netflix's first foray into movies... and we are guessing it won't be its last.