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Media Streamers

The best free TV-streaming services that don't require you to sign in

Many networks require you to have a cable or satellite account if you want to watch online. These awesome ones don't.

Fox

It's only natural for a potential cord-cutter to think, "Why do I need cable when I can just stream everything online?" Indeed, most of the major networks -- from ABC to TNT -- have web portals and mobile apps, all of them capable of streaming their current shows.

Just one problem: Once you ditch cable or satellite or whatever "traditional" (read: paid) service that pipes TV into your home, you may lose access to some of those networks. That's because many of them won't let you stream their content unless you have an active TV-provider subscription.

I'm looking at you, AMC. You, too, SyFy. Oh, and don't try to slink away, TBS. Give us your shows! We'll gladly (well, "gladly") sit through your commercials.

Fortunately, some networks are more generous, allowing pretty much anyone with an internet connection and PC or mobile device to watch all -- or at least some -- of their programming. Here's the scoop on what you can watch for free. (Note: Show availability may vary between desktop browsers and mobile apps.)

ABC

Home to popular shows such as "American Crime," "Black-ish" and "Modern Family," ABC offers only some shows for free; others do require a sign-in. For example, at this writing, you can watch three of the four most recent episodes of "Black-ish." The most recent, however, meaning the one that just aired, requires a sign-in. And if you want earlier episodes or previous seasons, you're out of luck.

Some shows have different restrictions. For example, the entire first season of "Designated Survivor" is available for streaming, but only the pilot and episodes 7-11 are freely available; the others require a sign-in. However, dig deeper and you'll find an almost Hulu-level selection of "throwback" series you can stream, including "Brothers and Sisters," "Felicity" and "Sports Night."

CBS will give you some episodes for free, and lots more with an All Access subscription.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

CBS

CBS, which owns CNET, has the best online streaming network in history! Ahem. Actually, the network offers a considerable library of TV, everything from current series like "2 Broke Girls" to soaps like "The Young and the Restless." In between: classics like "Taxi" and "Star Trek" (every series to date, including the upcoming "Discovery") and every single episode of "Frasier." You'll find a total of around 100 shows, new and old alike.

However, while you can watch a smattering of episodes for free (the number varies from show to show), it's not a sign-in you'll need to access the larger library -- it's a subscription to CBS All Access. The service costs $5.99 per month, or $9.99 if you want to watch commercial-free.

fox-bobs-burgers-sign-in.jpg

Fox makes full current seasons available, but you'll need a sign-in for all but the most recent episodes.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Fox

If giving up cable means giving up "Bob's Burgers," forget it! Fortunately, Fox employs a model similar to that of ABC, though with a little extra confusion thrown in for good measure.

Without a sign-in, you can watch the latest five episodes of current shows, and new episodes of returning shows unlock eight days after airing on TV. However, the Fox site imposes a "Preview Pass" that limits you to one hour of free viewing (though not commercial-free). After that, it appears that you'll need a sign-in if you want to continue watching in your browser. The mobile apps don't seem to have that limitation.

NBC

NBC's model is also similar to that of ABC, with a mixture of free and sign-in-required offerings -- but a lot more of the former, thankfully. You can watch the latest five episodes of "This is Us," including the most recently aired, along with a couple weeks' worth of "The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon."

Even better, you can watch the entire first season of "The Good Place," and NBC also has classic shows like the original "Battlestar Galactica" and more recent fare, including the pretty-good-while-it-lasted "The Event."

All The CW's shows are available for streaming without a sign-in, though not all episodes. Be sure to check out CW Seed as well.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

The CW

The CW's deal is simple: You can watch the five most recent episodes of just about every show that's currently on the air, from "Arrow" to "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" to "Vampire Diaries." But there's also a spin-off service, CW Seed, that offers free access to an eclectic wealth of extra content, including "Constantine," "Everybody Hates Chris," "Pushing Daisies" and over 200 episodes of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" This is an especially good source of animated DC shows such as "Vixen" and five iterations of "Justice League."

Other networks

As noted previously, networks like AMC, Science Channel, SyFy, TBS and TNT won't stream anything unless you sign in with valid TV-provider credentials. That's definitely a bummer if you're interested in staying current on shows like "The Walking Dead" (AMC), "The Expanse" (SyFy) and "The Detour" (TBS). But Food Network, HGTV, History Channel and others will let you stream at least some of their content -- usually a smattering of recent episodes of any given series.

As you're browsing shows, look for a little "key" icon -- that's usually the indicator that a sign-in is required. Without it: no streaming for you.

So here's my question: Given the hassles of hopping between sites and/or apps, the fairly major limitations on what you're able to stream for free and the lack of any kind of offline-viewing options, does it really make sense to cut the cord? I'm all for saving money, but with a basic-cable subscription and DVR, you might find yourself a much happier TV viewer. And isn't happy the whole point of television?

While you're mulling that over, check out CNET's directory of streaming TV services.