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Streaming With Ads: Netflix vs. Disney Plus vs. Hulu and More

Here's what each streamer offers with its ad-based tier.

Meara Isenberg Associate Writer
Meara covers streaming service news for CNET. She recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where she wrote for her college newspaper, The Daily Texan, as well as for state and local magazines. When she's not writing, she likes to dote over her cat, sip black coffee and try out new horror movies.
Meara Isenberg
8 min read

Streaming services such as Disney Plus and Hulu just keep raising prices, which means you may be looking for ways to save. One way is to subscribe to a cheaper, ad-supported tier. Most of the major streamers, including Netflix, offer such a plan, which means getting a service at its lowest price, but also with drawbacks such as commercials and no downloads.

Plenty of people in the US are going the ad-based route. About 25% of paid subscriptions in the US were for ad-supported plans as of the end of May, according to streaming analytics company Antenna. These plans can be a way to save some cash, but what's offered differs from streamer to streamer.

On Netflix's ad-based tier, some titles aren't available. Meanwhile, Disney Plus gives you the most simultaneous streams at four, but that may not matter as much when it starts cracking down on password sharing. Some, but not all, streamers offer ways to save on their ad tiers through free trials or annual subscriptions. If you're curious about how the ad-based tiers compare to each other, here's a more in-depth look. 

Ad-based comparison (US)

Netflix (Standard with ads)Disney Plus (Disney Plus Basic)Max (Max With Ads)Hulu (Hulu With Ads)Paramount Plus (Paramount Plus Essential)Peacock (Peacock Premium)
Monthly price $7 a month$8 a month$10 a month$8 a month$6 a month$6 a month
Cost of annual plan $100 a year (save $20)$80 a year (save $16)$60 a year (save $12)$60 a year (save $12)
Number of streams 242233
Monthly savings compared to next highest tier $8.50 (less than $15.50 Netflix Standard)$6 (less than $14 Disney Plus Premium)$6 (less than $16 Max Ad-Free)$10 (less than $18 Hulu No Ads)$6 (less than $12 Paramount Plus with Showtime)$6 (less than $12 Peacock Premium Plus)
Unlocks every title? No, some movies and shows are locked due to licensing restrictionsYesYesYesNo Showtime programming or your local live CBS stationNo live local NBC station
Ads on kids profiles? NoNo ads on "junior mode," but it's missing a lot of key titlesNoNoYesDepends on parental control rating. No ads on TVY parental control setting
Top titles Stranger Things, Bridgerton, Squid Game, Glass Onion, SuitsAhsoka, Loki, The Little Mermaid, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3The Last of Us, The White Lotus, The Sex Lives of College Girls, Dune, The BatmanOnly Murders in the Building, The Bear, The Handmaid's Tale, Theater Camp1883, Special Ops: Lioness, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, TMNT: Mutant MayhemThe Office, Poker Face, Twisted Metal, The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Free trial NoNoNo1 month7 daysNo

Breaking down the ad-based tiers

Netflix logo
Sarah Tew/CNET

Compared to its ad-based counterparts, Netflix's tier isn't the cheapest or most expensive. But something about it does stick out: If you have the ad-based plan, some titles are locked due to licensing restrictions. When I used the service, I spotted titles in the Top 10 movies row with a lock icon, meaning I'd have to upgrade to watch them. On one occasion, four out of 10 movies had the icon, and another time, only one did. (It was the Jennifer Lawrence comedy No Hard Feelings.)

In her review of Netflix's ad-based tier, CNET's Kourtnee Jackson noted that "ads aren't beating you over the head in length or repetition." Netflix says subscribers can expect to see an average of about four minutes of ads per hour, but this can vary based on the title you're watching. When I checked out the service recently, roughly three and half hours of content included four minutes and 45 seconds of ads -- less than Netflix's estimation, but it could have had to do with the titles I chose (La La Land, Gilmore Girls). Netflix doesn't include ads on kids' profiles, which play "only TV shows and movies carefully selected for kids."

New subscribers can't access Netflix's cheapest ad-free plan anymore, leaving Netflix Standard, which costs $15.50 per month, as the most affordable ad-less option. The other available plan is Netflix Premium, which just got a price hike and costs $23 a month. Both are quite a bit higher than the streaming giant's $7-a-month ad-supported plan, Standard with ads, and might push you toward choosing the tier. 

Unlike some other streamers, Netflix doesn't allow you to try ad-based for free, and you can't save by paying annually. Something to keep in mind is that Netflix allows Standard and Premium customers to pay an additional $8 a month for an extra member who doesn't live in the same house. (Premium subscribers can pay for up to two slots at $8 each, while Standard is limited to one.) Extra members can watch Netflix on their own account with limits, like only having one simultaneous stream. If you are able to piggyback, that might make the most sense.

Max movies and TV streaming on a phone
James Martin/CNET


Max replaced HBO Max as the home of The Last of Us, Hacks and The White Lotus, and it has the most expensive ad-based tier out of all the major streaming services. Max With Ads is $10 a month, but if you plan on sticking with it for a year, you can pay annually, which saves $20 overall. 

The entry-level plan lets you watch content on two screens at a time and grants full access to the Max library. Like Netflix, Max says its ad-based subscription shows about four minutes of ads per hour. We tested the ad-supported tier in our review of the service, and it didn't exceed that. Recently, I streamed for about four hours and 20 minutes, catching the shows Telemarketers and Starstruck and the movie Horrible Bosses, and saw seven minutes of ads. 

Max is among the services that avoid showing ads on kids' profiles. I checked out all five of the ratings groups you can choose for the profile, from Little Kids (TV-Y) to Teens (TV-14 and PG-13) and saw no advertisements. The next-highest tier, Max Ad-Free, is $16 a month, so you're saving $6 (or $72 a year) if you go with the ad-supported offering. 

Disney Plus logo on an ipad
Sarah Tew/CNET

In October, Disney hiked the monthly and annual prices of ad-free Disney Plus Premium to $14 and $140, respectively. Meanwhile, ad-supported Disney Plus Basic remains $8 a month.

The ad-supported tier includes four simultaneous streams -- more than other ad tiers on this roundup. However, Disney, which counts Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus in its streaming service collection, is planning to crack down on password sharing à la Netflix, which may make watching on four screens at a time seem like less of a perk to you. You can't pay for ad-based Disney Plus annually or get a free trial.

While Disney Plus doesn't show ads in Junior Mode, which is limited to content that's "appropriate for all ages," this profile setting is missing popular options like Moana, Encanto and Finding Nemo. In her review of the tier, CNET's Kourtnee Jackson noted "you will probably want to adjust the parental controls so your kids can watch more." When I binged outside of Junior Mode, I saw roughly six minutes of ads on two half-hour episodes of the show She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and the two-hour movie Free Guy.

Hulu logo on a mobile device
James Martin/CNET

Disney's October price hikes brought the cost of ad-free Hulu from $15 a month to $18, but the price of ad-supported Hulu stayed at $8. So now, you'd be paying $10 more a month to (mostly) get rid of ads. (Hulu notes that the ad-free plan does show ads on select shows due to streaming rights, but no more than a few shows are affected.)

While some streamers don't currently offer ways to save on their ad-based offering, Hulu does. Ad-supported Hulu is available for $80 a year -- a savings of $16 compared with paying for the same plan monthly. And it's $136 less than if you pay monthly for its ad-free subscription. There's also Hulu's student discount and a Spotify and Hulu bundle for students. Even if you're not in school, you may be eligible for a one-month free trial. Disney has bundles that combine subscriptions to Hulu and other streaming services, which can also lead to some savings. 

With Hulu's ad-based plan, you can watch on up to two screens at once. As far as the ad load goes, CNET found during testing that "the frequency of ads varied quite a bit." An episode of Saturday Night Live contained nine ad breaks adding up to 11 total minutes -- "similar to watching the show on regular live TV."

I recently viewed some titles, and two less than hourlong episodes of The Great contained a pretty lengthy 11 minutes and 45 seconds of ads. Combining that with two other titles I watched -- Theater Camp and Abbott Elementary -- the content runtime spanned about three hours and 45 minutes, and ads lasted about 20 minutes and 30 seconds. It's a small sample, but that goes beyond the four-minute-per-hour estimation from Max and Netflix. No ads appeared on a kids profile (I toggled a switch to show only kid-friendly programming) except for one 10-second McDonald's pre-roll on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Compared to its rivals, Hulu's ad load is one of the heaviest.  

Paramount Plus streaming TV and movies
James Martin/CNET

After adjusting its plans over the summer, Paramount Plus now presents new subscribers with two options: ad-based Paramount Plus Essential, and Paramount Plus with Showtime, which only displays ads on "live TV and a few shows." The streamer migrated existing ad-free Premium subscribers to the Paramount Plus with Showtime plan.

The ad plan is $6 a month and gives you three simultaneous streams. A weeklong free trial is available, and students may be eligible to get a discount. Paramount Plus also lets you pay for the plan annually for $60, a savings of $12. Paramount Plus with Showtime, in comparison, is $12 a month or $120 a year. 

If you go for ad-supported Paramount Plus, you're missing the addition of Showtime programming, such as Yellowjackets and the upcoming Emma Stone-starring series The Curse

When I took a look at a few titles on Paramount Plus Essential, I saw a range of advertising scenarios. The movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem only included one 15-second ad before the film started. I watched an episode of Special Ops: Lioness with a similar, 30-second pre-roll followed by no other ads. The next day, I watched more episodes of Lioness, and the ads were more plentiful -- I saw roughly 10 minutes and 45 seconds of them during two, less than 45-minute episodes.  

I also watched an episode of Reno 911. The 22-minute episode included a pretty rough five minutes and 45 seconds of ads. I saw ads while using a profile with Kids mode turned on, despite the rating category I chose (Younger Kids or Older Kids).

Peacock streaming movies and TV logo
James Martin/CNET

Unlike Disney Plus and Hulu, Peacock didn't sidestep the ad-based tier during its recent price increases. As of July, ad-based Peacock Premium now costs $6 a month, $1 more than before. A yearly Peacock Premium plan costs $60, up from $50. The next tier up, Premium Plus, also got a monthly and annual price bump. 

Premium Peacock comes with three simultaneous streams. Peacock notes that upgrading to Premium Plus doesn't fully remove ads from the equation: "Due to streaming rights, a small amount of programming, Peacock channels, live events, and a few TV shows and movies, will still contain ads." But if you want your live, local NBC channel, you'll need Premium Plus.

Peacock shows less than five minutes of ads per hour of content, according to NBCUniversal. I watched the movie Strays, an episode of the Peacock series Based On a True Story and two episodes of Parks and Recreation. The runtime without ads totaled about three hours, and I spent 12 and a half to 13 minutes watching commercials. I checked out the Kids profile and three parental control ratings adults can pick from: Little Kids, Older Kids and Family. In testing, Little Kids (TV-Y content) didn't have ads, but Older Kids and Family, which includes PG content like Trolls World Tour and The Super Mario Bros. Movie, did.

Peacock is among the streamers that offer ways to save on its ad-based service. In addition to the annual plan, which saves $12 compared to a year of paying monthly, people with Xfinity Internet or Spectrum may qualify for free Premium, and there's a student discount.

Should you go ad-based?

Sure, spending less money is always ideal, but you should take a deeper look at an ad-supported service before diving in. Consider how much you want to spend, how many screens you prefer and if you want your kids to see ads on their shows and movies. You may also want to weigh whether the ad-based tier unlocks the whole library, or if you'd be saving enough money over subscribing to an ad-free plan. Netflix and Max get extra points for not showing ads on kids' profiles, while Hulu's ad load is extremely high. All those things can help you decide if an ad-supported option is a hard no, tolerable or even a good fit.