How the services stack up
By far, Hulu Plus offers the widest selection of television shows I have seen from the major services. While CBS shows are absent from the content thus far, most of the other major networks are available, offering shows one day after they air.
This might have been a problem before the era of the DVR, when you would have to plug your ears around the water cooler to avoid spoilers, but now watching day-later episodes is not such a hassle.
There are some things to watch out for with Hulu Plus. When you research the shows you like, make sure they are not "Web Only." Some shows prevent Hulu from offering their content on set-top boxes, which means you will have to use a computer with a browser (and no, tablets and phones don't count). If that's no big deal, fine, but if you really want to watch shows on the big screen, make a note of this before you subscribe.
You should also be aware that Hulu episodes do carry advertising. Not a lot, typically 4 to 5 minutes scattered across the whole show, but it's not commercial free. (And the commercials tend to repeat a lot, which can drive you crazy.)
Finally, be sure you don't just sign up for the free Hulu service. It's okay for very casual TV watching, but for the $7.99/month, Plus is a very good value for the upgrade.
The king of Internet TV streaming, Netflix pretty much catches all of the shows that Hulu Plus doesn't. In conjunction, these two channels cover nearly 90 percent of my family's TV watching.
There is, for TV shows at least, a catch. While there's a huge library of shows to watch, many are only going to be available at the time of DVD release. This sets up a small conundrum: wait and get it for free, or pay extra to watch it now?
For example, I can watch How I Met Your Mother on Netflix but it will only be the seasons up to the season that just aired. If I want the current season now, I have to purchase a season pass on Amazon or iTunes. Or wait, and it will eventually show up on Netflix as part of the subscription cost.
This decision is really up to you, but you will need to factor in the cost of your decision when you put your spreadsheet together.
Price: Per Item; Prime $79 per year
Amazon actually offers two key Internet TV services. Anyone with a normal Amazon account can use the service to rent or buy movies and TV shows in an ala carte fashion.
But, if you opt in for the Amazon Prime service, you will have access to a fairly decent library of television shows and movies to stream free of charge. The television content works with the same kind of timing as Netflix, but if the all the shows you want to watch are on Amazon Prime's service, the $79 annual fee will save you a little money over Netflix ($16.88).
Amazon Prime's free content is still rather limited compared to Netflix, so it may not be worth the savings. If you are a big Amazon buyer, though, Prime gets you all sorts of other benefits, such as the free two-day shipping, so it could still be worth your while.
And I will confess that sometimes I will just outright rent a movie from Amazon's wide rental selection if I want to watch something newer that hasn't rolled to Netflix yet. Not great for the budget, but sometimes you gotta splurge.
Price: Per Item
Thanks to the perseverance and legacy of the iTunes service, there is a lot of TV and movie content on the iTunes platform -- easily on a par with Amazon's digital content (and way more than what's available on Amazon Prime).
But there are two big catches here: all the content is only available on a per-item basis, so if you want it, you're buying or renting it. That can add up in a hurry.
Another big issue is the fact that you can only watch this content on iTunes-capable devices. That means Apple and Windows computers, iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and Apple TV. That's it. If you are a Mac household, or plan to watch the content on the go more than on TV, that may fit nicely within your lifestyle, but it is pretty limiting if you want services like Hulu Plus, which isn't available on Apple TV.