Remember when TV was free?
Although it still costs nothing to watch network shows, roughly 90 million households pay cable providers or streaming services. But even those who prefer streaming can do it for free, thanks to a growing number of no-cost services. When stitched together, they make for a feasible alternative to Netflix, Disney Plus and other services that charge a fee.
The Roku Channel, Amazon’s IMDb TV, Viacom’s Pluto, Crackle, a nonprofit called Locast and a San Francisco startup named Tubi collectively offer enough films and shows, both new and old, that might inspire you to drop your cable and Netflix accounts altogether. They even have something for sports fans.
Known for its hardware, Roku has a more lucrative business with its streaming service. The Roku Channel, often prominently placed on the device’s home screen, offers series such as the Emmy-nominated “Schitt’s Creek” and cult stalwarts like “The Outer Limits.” The film selection is dominated by popcorn fare like “The Terminator,” “An American Werewolf in London” and “Outbreak.” You don’t need a Roku device, either. There is a free app and a website.
Pluto TV features live digital channels organized by genre. There’s also on-demand content, with most of the TV fare filled out by rerun reality like “Duck Dynasty” and “Kitchen Nightmares.” It also has the occasional BBC drama like “Little Dorrit,” with a pre-“The Crown” Claire Foy.
In addition to its better-known Amazon Prime Video, Amazon owns the website IMDb, which has a free streaming service. Its lineup includes decades-old series like “Columbo” and “Charlie’s Angels,” along with some BBC regulars like “Midsomer Murders.” Films run the gamut. “La La Land” and “March of the Penguins” appear alongside “Groundhog Day” and “Muppets From Space.”
Tubi and Crackle mimic much of what’s above. Look for “Barney Miller” on Crackle and “Fist of Fury” on Tubi.
The free alternatives all come with commercials. And the films and shows come and go as their rights become available or expire.
Locast is the most unusual player among the freebie streaming services. Started in 2018 by a lawyer who sought to test the current copyright law, the service pipes over-the-air broadcast signals through a free app. You can watch the current season of network shows and live broadcasts of National Football League and Major League Baseball games.
For the moment, Locast is available in 15 cities. As it expands, the service is under legal threat. The big four networks have sued the nonprofit, arguing that it steals their content. Locast argues that, as a nonprofit, it is operating within the bounds of copyright law; it has filed a countersuit against the networks.