No money in the budget for a cable subscription? Or even for Hulu, arguably the ? Fear not: As long as you've got internet, you can enjoy a wealth of free TV.
Granted, you may not be able to binge-watch entire seasons, nor will you be able to access every show you want to see. But you might be surprised at how much content is available online, and how many options you have for viewing it.
There are, of course, some limitations. Many networks, for example, won't let you stream unless you're a paid cable or satellite subscriber. And as with broadcast television (remember that?), you'll likely to have sit through some commercials. Let's take a look at some the best free, legal ways to indulge your inner coach-potato. (Prefer movies? Check out these.)
Sony's Crackle is an ad-supported streaming service, one that offers mostly movies, but also some TV shows -- including some original content. It's available on a wide variety of devices and doesn't even require you to set up an account, though doing so enables you to save favorites, get recommendations and resume playback if you switch between devices.
What you can watch: Crackle's commercial-supported selection is pretty extensive, with a smattering of great series like Community, Happy Endings and Rescue Me. Unfortunately, not every series is complete; in some cases you might get only one or two seasons, or even just a partial single season.
Where you can watch: Crackle's list of supported devices is also extensive. The service offers apps for all mobile platforms, game consoles and major streaming devices, and it's even baked into many smart TVs. It does not offer the option to download shows for offline viewing.
Got a library card? Check to see if your library has partnered with Hoopla. This digital-media service allows you to check out all kinds of stuff -- including TV shows. When you "borrow" one, you have 72 hours in which to watch it. Your library determines the total number of titles you can borrow each month.
What you can watch: Hoopla's TV selection is something of a hodge-podge, with a smattering of well-known shows mixed in with a lot of self-help, documentary and family fare. For example, you'll find three seasons of the SyFy original Humans, both seasons of The Jim Gaffigan Show and lots of Ken Burns documentaries. Hoopla also has instructional videos from The Great Courses series, various PBS Kids shows and plenty of Acorn TV content that would otherwise require a subscription.
Where you can watch: Hoopla content can be viewed just about anywhere: mobile devices, streaming devices and on your PC in a browser. Surprisingly, the mobile apps offer not only streaming, but also a download option for offline viewing.
Network apps and sites
Just about every major network lets you stream shows via a web site and/or mobile app, which seems like great news for cord-cutters. So what if you couldn't watch, say, the latest episode of Bob's Burgers? Just fire up the Fox Now app and stream it on-demand. At least, that's the idea.
What you can watch: If there's a show that's currently on the air, chances are good you can watch it online. However, in some cases there's a Catch-22: Many networks require you to have an active service provider like AT&T U-verse, Dish or Xfinity. Unless you can supply valid sign-in credentials, you can't stream. That's true of networks like AMC and Syfy, meaning no episodes of The Walking Dead or Deadly Class for you. But CBS (which owns CNET), TBS, The CW and a few others will let you watch at least some episodes of some shows without a sign-in. So you'll have to poke around a bit.
Where you can watch: This also varies from one network to another, but in most cases you can watch shows in a browser, on a mobile device or via a media-streamer app. But download options are few and far between, so don't expect to be watching shows offline unless you pay for them.
A relative newcomer, Pluto TV is noteworthy for offering not only on-demand movies, but also live TV channels including CBS News and, ahem, CNET. It's ad-supported, of course, but definitely one of the best free-content options currently available.
What you can watch: Pluto offers a pretty impressive selection of live channels, all of them sorted into categories like news, sports, comedy and movies. On-demand TV content consists mostly of crime and reality shows, and it's actually not organized nearly as well as the live channels. One oddity: If you're watching a live stream, there's no way to pause; you can only mute it.
Where you can watch: Pluto TV works in desktop browsers, but also offers a Windows client. It has apps for Android, iOS and various smart TVs and channels for Apple TV ($169 at Walmart), Fire TV and Roku.
The name belies the content: Tubi TV offers considerably more movies than it does TV shows, but that's not to say you shouldn't check out its extensive library. Similar to Crackle, this ad-supported network is available on a wide variety of devices and doesn't require an account, though signing up for one enables you to save favorites and resume playback if you switch between devices.
What you can watch: Tubi TV definitely isn't Hulu; its TV selection consists of a lot of British imports and various shows you've probably never heard of. Indeed, there's not even a dedicated TV section, just a few TV-specific categories (comedies, dramas, etc.) within its much larger content list. I can't say I found much to recommend, save for season 1 of Everybody Hates Chris and lots of episodes of Taxi. Ironically, Tubi TV does better in the movie department.
Where you can watch: Tubi TV's list of supported devices rivals that of Crackle. The service offers apps for Android and iOS, the major game consoles and streaming devices, and some Samsung TVs. It does not offer the option to download content for offline viewing.
Although Yahoo's streaming service has a smattering of movies, the big focus is on TV shows. It has lots of them, thanks to a partnership with Hulu, and you don't even need a Yahoo account to get in. Indeed, this is perhaps the most abundant source of free online TV.
What you can watch: Yahoo View offers many of the same shows Hulu does, but not nearly as many episodes, and still with commercials. For example, View has only the four most recent episodes of Bob's Burgers, while Hulu offers the entire series. Even so, if you're looking for a place to watch a wealth of both current and classic TV (Happy Days, anyone?), Yahoo View is an excellent source.
Where you can watch: Unfortunately, Yahoo View's TV selection remains stubbornly web-only. No mobile apps, no support for streaming devices.
Originally published on Feb. 28, 2017.
Update, March 11, 2019: Added new information.
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