Why pay for cable TV anymore? Hundreds of thousands of movies and millions of hours of television—not to mention the daily news, live sports, comedy stand-up specials—all this content and much more is available via the Internet. Throw in indie projects, home movies, and other bizarre videos, and there’s just no question that the online alternatives to cable and just more exciting than cable ever has been.
So, where can you find all this great stuff to watch?
Note: All the sites and services mentioned in this article appear in a complete list on the final page of this article, alongside some additional resources. You’re welcome!
Specific Networks and Television Shows (Free)
When there’s a current television show that you want to watch as close to the release date as possible and for free, the best place to start is the show’s or host network’s website.
For example, each night’s episode of The Daily Show is posted on TheDailyShow.com the next day. Modern Family appears on ABC.Go shortly after airing. PBS.org can quench your Downton Abbey craving, or you can let your kids get their fill of Bert and Ernie from a selection of rotating videos on SesameStreet.org. Likewise NBC, CBS, and Fox all have limited content to view for free right on their sites.
New episodes usually don’t have a long shelf-life, though. Networks often take them down within a few days, and not every show is available online for free. So this method of watching specific shows on their sites or their network’s site only works for series that you follow actively and plan to watch within a few days of a new episode airing.
There are other ways to get hot episodes and recently released movies, though, but it’ll cost you.
Specific Shows and Movies (Paid)
When you’ve exhausted your free options and can’t find the specific television show you want to watch (in a legal way), you can turn to either à la carte services or subscriptions. Here are some of the best.
iTunes (the software is free; prices for content vary) is one of the most best sources for single episodes as well as season packs of thousands of television shows for a few dollars. You’ll often see an option to rent content to save a little bit of money. When you buy television episodes or movies through iTunes, you can download them and watch them offline, which is good to know if you want to save a video to an iOS device and watch it while on a flight without having to pay for Wi-Fi. You can watch iTunes content on any device that can connect to your Apple account.
Amazon Instant Video (free for service; prices for content vary) is the other giant in this space, and it offers a similar service. You can buy single episodes and movies for just a little money. And note that you don’t need an Amazon Prime account ($80 per year) to buy and watch a single episode, season pack, or movie. With a Prime account, you can get some content for no extra cost, but not all. Some shows that Amazon carries appear in the Instant store within 24 hours of their airtime, while others lag by a season or two. It all depends on the show.
Since we’re on the topic of Amazon Prime, let me add that you can indeed sign up for that service to get access to Amazon’s full catalog of content to stream (that is, watch while connected via the Internet). Both Amazon Prime and content purchased with Amazon Instant Video are supported on most TV streaming boxes and services, which means you can watch those shows and movies on a regular television set if connected to the Internet.
Google Play is Google’s answer to the one-stop shop for entertainment. It’s popular among Android users in particular, but anyone with a Google ID can use it online. Similar to the iTunes Store, Google Play’s store has sections for books, music, apps, and more, in addition to an area for movies and TV. And just like in iTunes or on Amazon (see previous paragraph), you can buy or rent single movies or television show episodes, or entire seasons of television content.
The other big players in the streaming business are of course Netflix ($7.99 per month) and Hulu Plus (also $7.99 per month). You can watch anything in their catalogs for that monthly subscription price.
Netflix and Hulu do not offer ways to download content to watch offline, so you have to be connected to watch. Netflix releases full seasons of television episodes at a time, whereas Amazon and iTunes will sometimes release a single episode the moment it becomes available, even if the full season isn’t finished airing yet. Hulu Plus, on the other hand, will release currently on-air shows one episode at a time as they become available, usually shortly after a new episode airs. And while Netflix is ad-free, Hulu isn’t.
If you’re more of a dabbler, though, check out Internet TV (free), which has a long list of live shows running the length of the homepage’s left side. What really makes Internet TV even more valuable is that it has content in dozens of languages—too many to list here. This site has oodles of pre-recorded programs, too, from a long list of content providers such as National Geographic, Animal Planet, GameSpot, and NASA. I recommend using Internet TV for live news primarily, and sometimes to explore the pre-recorded TV roulette-style, but it’s not the place to go if you have something specific in mind that you want to watch.
Aereo (freemium) is somewhat of a newcomer to the live-TV-via-Internet craze, and who knows how long it will survive due to a glut of lawsuits the company is facing from traditional network television providers. Aereo lets you watch live TV that’s airing at the moment in your region through its website, and record it to watch later, too. If Ricki Lake is on at 3:30 p.m. where you live, Aereo will have it available to stream at that time or to record and watch later if you’re busy. You do have to sign up for an account, and a free account only gets you one hour of TV per day, but you can pay for more. A dollar buys you a one-day pass and three hours of DVR storage space. A monthly subscription goes for $8 with 20 hours of recording time, or $12 with 40 hours’ worth of storage.
Live sports are another story. For some sports, you can pay for subscriptions through a provider and watch via an app or website, but even then you’ll often hit obstacles and won’t be able to see every match you want. For example, with MLB.TV for professional baseball you’ll likely find that some games are blacked out due to licensing restrictions. There are many great options for watching specific sports, leagues, championships, and so forth, but which one you choose depends on which sport you watch, which team or league you follow, etc. The closest thing I’ve seen to a comprehensive site showing a range of sports coverage is ESPN.Go. Check it out, but don’t say I didn’t warn you that it’s not necessarily going to have what you want.
Everyone knows about YouTube, but those inexperienced in the art of finding great TV and movies online might not realize that YouTube contains plenty of professionally produced content. Finding it is the hard part. One neat feature of Google’s video service is that you can create playlists and save videos to watch later. You can also connect with content providers and follow their activity to know when they post something new. But with millions of hours of video content, it’s still difficult to find content that’s of interest. (Another service mentioned in the next section helps you curate from YouTube.)
Vimeo (free to use; some content costs extra), usually seen a second-string to YouTube, works similarly but attracts different kinds of professional content, typically works from independent filmmakers and artists. Vimeo has sections for movies, staff picks, channels, and more, which helps you navigate the huge catalog a bit. It also has featured movies that you can pay to view.
Another online service, called Crackle (owned by Sony Entertainment Pictures) offers an odd but free mix of syndicated TV shows and (mostly older) movies. If you’re up for pecking around and don’t mind commercials, Crackle can deliver up a movie lickety-split.
Ustream (free) is another site that’s ripe for exploration, and probably not suited to people who just want to watch the shows they know and like. It’s an odd compilation of live news and other TV events, mixed in with users broadcasting their own content in real time. A lot of Ustream’s content is like a live version of YouTube, although with some oversight on who broadcasts what.
A similar hodgepodge site called YouNow (free) has more user-generated-in-real-time video, and watchers can vote to give a user more time to continue broadcasting. YouNow also cultivates original live programming, like cooking shows and music performance contests, so long as you know when to tune in.
If you fancy yourself a curator, or want someone else to do a little curation for you, Frequency (free) is the site to bookmark. Sign up for a free account, and Frequency lets you watch videos from selected content providers, including The New York Times and Popsugar, as well as videos shared with you via Facebook and Twitter. Frequency pulls all those videos from whichever sources you choose into a specially curated channel, making it easy to watch online content from trusted media outlets and friends.
Sites and Services for Watching TV and Movies
ABC.Go Aereo Amazon Instant Video CBS CNN CSPAN Crackle ESPN.Go Fox Frequency Google Play Hulu Plus Internet TV NBC Netflix PBS.org Ustream Vimeo YouNow YouTube
Best Media Players Compared Netflix Instant vs. Amazon Prime The Best Ways to Stream Your Media 25 Ways to Watch TV and Movies Online Without Cable 10 Ways to Watch TV and Movies on Your Apple iPad
By Jill Duffy, PCMag