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5 ways to watch TV online for free

Can you cut the cable cord and still watch your favorite shows? Maybe not all of them, but you can still watch a lot. Here's how.

No money in the budget for a cable subscription? Or even for Hulu? 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 five ways to watch movies online for free.)

Crackle

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.

Crackle offers some solid TV viewing options, all free of charge.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: Crackle's selection includes not only originals like Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" (a must-watch if you're a Jerry fan), but also great series like "Firefly," "Happy Endings" and "The Shield" (but only season 3 of "Cars"and seasons 1-2 of the latter two shows, alas). Just plan on sitting through the occasional commercial interruption.

Where you can watch: Crackle's list of supported devices is 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 movies for offline viewing.

Hoopla Digital

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 lesser-known self-help, documentary and family fare. For example, you'll find season one of both "The Librarians" and the British version of "Shameless," various instructional videos from The Great Courses series and a number of PBS Kids shows. Many Ken Burns documentaries are available as well.

Where you can watch: Hoopla content can be viewed on your PC in a browser, or on Android or iOS devices. Surprisingly, Hoopla's 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.

Many networks won't let you stream shows unless you have a valid account with a cable or satellite provider.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

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, Syfy and TBS, meaning no episodes of "The Walking Dead, "The Expanse" or "The Detour" for you. But The CW doesn't have any sign-in requirements (so enjoy yourself some episodes of "The Flash"), and Fox requires sign-in only for some shows and episodes.

So, yes, the availability of free TV varies dramatically from one network to another and even one show to another. For example, I wanted to see the fourth season (or "series," to borrow from British parlance) of "Sherlock," but my local PBS station won't let me stream it unless I become a paid supporter. And the BBC America site has only seasons 1 and 2. Elementary, indeed: If I want season 4, I'll have to pay for it.

Where you can watch: This also varies dramatically. Although your web browser and mobile devices should be able to "tune in" nearly all this stuff, things get mixed when you move to the TV. Most streaming boxes and sticks afford access to most networks, but it can be hit-and-miss. The CW, for example, has channels available for Fire TV and Roku; TBS does not. What's more, download options are few and far between, so don't expect to be watching shows offline unless you pay for them.

Tubi TV

The name belies Tubi TV's content: The service 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 doing so enables you to save favorites and resume playback if you switch between devices.

Tubi TV offers plenty to watch, but maybe not so much you actually want to watch.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: Tubi TV definitely isn't Hulu; its TV selection consists primarily of British imports and shows you've probably never heard of. Within its comedy, crime, drama and reality-TV categories, you'll find the likes of "Burning Love" (a hilarious parody of "The Bachelor"), the canceled-after-one-season Starz series "Camelot" and the original Australian version of man-dressed-as-dog comedy "Wilfred." Tubi TV definitely does a little 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.

Yahoo View

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 recent partnership with Hulu, and you don't need a Yahoo account to get in. Indeed, this is perhaps the most abundant source of free online TV.

Yahoo View offers a lot of free TV (powered by Hulu -- and commercials), but no good way to watch it on the big screen or your mobile device.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

What you can watch: Once upon a time, Hulu proper offered a free ad-supported service. That's no longer the case, but Yahoo View has picked up the mantle, offering nearly every show in Hulu's library -- though not always as many episodes, and still with commercials. For example, View has only the five most recent episodes of "Bob's Burgers," while Hulu offers the entire current season. 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: For the moment, Yahoo's TV selection appear to be web-only. Although there are mobile Yahoo View apps, they sling only clips -- no movies or TV shows. I was unable to find a list of supported devices or platforms.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 28, 2017 and has since been updated to include updated information.