Have you heard the term “cord-cutting”? As cable television has gotten more and more expensive, consumers have chosen to cancel their cable subscriptions and move to online services to get TV channels. They might cancel their Spectrum subscription, for example, and move to YouTube TV. So they’ve cut the “cord” of their cable subscription.
Here’s the problem, though: even if you cancel your cable subscription and move to a cheaper paid service, you’re still paying for a service. And if you’re someone who doesn’t watch a lot of television, you might find that even the cheaper online services are too much.
Here’s a little secret for you. There are lots of places to find free television online. Lots. And it’s not just ancient shows or shows so obscure they don’t even have Wikipedia entries. Hit shows! Lots of ’em! And it won’t cost you one dime to watch. In this column I’ll tell you about a bunch of free TV sites as well as one unexpected option. (Please note I’m restricting this list to those services that don’t require you to use a special app or particular hardware. For all these services you can turn on your computer, fire up your browser, and get to watching.)
With Crackle, you don’t even have to sign in. The front page offers you both movies and television. But hit that television page, and if you’re an old GenX’er like me, you might immediately find yourself body slammed by nostalgia.
Hold your mouse over a show’s image and you’ll get a brief description of the show as well as when it aired. There are also age ratings when available. To watch the program just click on the image and it’ll drop you into the show. In the case of Barney Miller, I got the third episode of the eighth season, with the option to watch more episodes of the eighth season.
As I noted, you don’t have to have a Crackle account to watch TV shows. But if you do create an account (for free, of course), you can save episodes for later. Crackle is on my bookmarked sites list for when I next have a cold and need to veg out.
If you know about IMDb, you might be a little confused. IMDb stands for Internet Movie Database, and as you might expect from the name it provides information about the people who produce movies and television shows, from the actors to the directors to the cinematographers. It’s a very old site, having established a web presence in 1993, but it was purchased by Amazon in 2008. IMDb TV is a new offering from IMDb. It launched in January 2019 as IMDb Freedive but got a different moniker about six months later. You can browse content, but to watch anything you’ll need to sign in.
The setup is kind of like Netflix. Instead of getting a list of shows to browse through, you get “ribbons” of TV shows and movies that you can scroll through under different category names. I found “Criminally Good TV” and “Recently Added TV,” among others. There’s enough good stuff here that you’re not going to feel bad about having to browse. The only thing you’ll have to worry about is getting so caught up in the available movies that you might miss a TV show to try.
Plex initially just offered software to let users set up streaming access to their personal media collections before adding movies and TV shows. With Plex, you can set up your own media server and review all your media in one place. But you don’t have to do that with Plex’s TV and movie offerings. You just need a free account.
Once you’ve set up your account, hit the Movies & TV option on the left menu. You’ll see a setup that looks a lot like Netflix again. There are all kinds of movies and documentaries here, so you’ll have to scroll down a bit to find the TV shows. What grabbed me immediately is how eclectic the selection is. There are four episodes of a Betty White sitcom from 1953, right next to 40 episodes of a series on World War II. Or you can dip into Mr. T’s 2011 series World’s Craziest Fools or the abruptly cancelled Mutant X.
There are many popular favorites and famous standards here, but there are also a lot of documentaries, obscure/old shows, and just general wow. A whole section devoted to classic Superman cartoons? You bet. I’m listing these sites in alphabetical order but you might want to save this one for last — it’s a heck of a timesink.
Pluto TV takes a little getting used to. Instead of taking you to a list of shows, Pluto launches you into its live TV offering, featuring — when I visited the site — commercials, and then a show about rescuing bats in Australia. It looks like Pluto aggregates a lot of different TV offerings into one place, making one giant programming guide.
There are dozens and dozens and dozens of channels here, though in some cases “channel” might be a little generous. Yes, there are channels for movies, and old game shows, and even RiffTrax episodes. But there’s also a channel devoted entirely to Baywatch. There’s classic Dr. Who. There are news channels, sports, documentaries, movies, stuff for kids, music — the list isn’t endless but it certainly feels like it.
To start watching a channel, just click on the channel’s name in the program guide. With the live TV setup, you have to watch according to the channel’s schedule, but Pluto does have an on-demand section that gives you access to a number of TV shows and movies. You know how sometimes you don’t want to necessarily watch TV, but you want to flip through channels and just generally see what’s going on? Pluto TV is good for that.
Have you ever used Redbox? Their movie and video game rental kiosks used to be ubiquitous in grocery stores and gas stations. You might not notice them as much now that everybody’s streaming, but the company decided to get on board and now offers a selection of movies and TV shows to watch online for free.
Redbox doesn’t have the substantial offerings that Pluto TV does, but you’re not required to log in, either. When I visited the site, if offered me shows of cute puppies playing together along with a few channels for other TV shows and movies. It looks like everything is played on a schedule; I couldn’t find any shows on demand. If I needed to park my bucket somewhere and watch TV for ten minutes while I waited for my clothes to get out of the dryer, I would start here. There’s little enough that you can find something to watch and get a few minutes in before your jeans are dry.
Tubi TV offers free movies and TV shows on demand, with a format that won’t bring any new surprises if you’ve explored IMDb’s offerings or have a Netflix account. But you don’t have to register or have an account to watch, and the video does not autoplay.
You can explore the different kinds of content through the Netflix-like “ribbon” interface, or you can use the “hamburger” menu button on the left to immediately pull up Tubi’s content categories. I saw categories here I didn’t see so much on other offerings, like westerns, LGBTQ, and content in Spanish for children and parents. There are also collections as well, featuring at this writing Black Cinema, Nostalgia TV, and the snarkily named Not On Netflix. Don’t miss the related content offerings when you’re watching TV shows — I got pointers to several movies and a couple of TV shows that way when I was exploring.
Vudu offers digital content for sale and to rent in addition to free movies and TV shows, but you can skip straight to the free stuff.
I think I like this setup best; the top set of content takes you directly to whatever you’re interested in, including free movies, TV, and newly available free content. But if you’d rather browse by topic, keep moving down to other lists of shows. Current topic lists include “Only on Vudu,” “LGBTQ Indies,” “Black History Month: Comedians,” “He’s a Joker,” and “Our Furry Friends.”
I’m pretty sure that if you just use the sites I’ve shown you, you’ll have enough television show content to last you for the rest of your life. But it might not contain your favorite shows. You might be missing out on nostalgia. There’s one more site that can help you find what you’re looking for: YouTube.
I can’t seem to do a column without mentioning it somewhere. But it can help you find TV shows or at least clips. Here are a couple of search strategies.
Finding Whole TV Shows on YouTube
To find entire TV shows, just search for the name of the show with the additional words full episodes. Maybe you want to watch old episodes of Press Your Luck (“Big Bucks! No Whammies!”) Searching YouTube for Press Your Luck full episodes finds this:
Not only individual episodes, but full playlists of enough Press Your Luck to have you watching for days. Note that this search trick won’t work for all television shows because it’s not, strictly speaking, legal. I would guess that most people who post TV show episodes do not have permission to do so. Some production companies don’t seem to care, while others make sure that full episodes and in some cases, even show clips do not stay on YouTube long.
Finding Official Show Channels on YouTube
Some shows have tried to offer a happy medium by offering “official” channels on YouTube. Mostly these offer show clips, though I have seen full episodes here and there. Just add official to your show name search. Official Carol Burnett Show finds you the show’s official channel with over 100 clips. Official Monty Python? Same thing, only more videos. Official Sea Hunt? Well… you won’t find a channel, but you will find a playlist with all the series episodes. Often you’ll find useful content by using the official search trick, even if you don’t find an official channel.
When VCRs came along we were amazed that we could record our TV shows. Then DVD collections came along so we could watch whatever we wanted. Then streaming services made shows not only available but immediately available. And now, with the wealth of free services for TV shows, you have endless opportunities for entertainment. And you don’t even have to break out your credit card.
Featured image: Screenshot from Crackle
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The sub title states specifically “and it’s legal “.
The YouTube section has the disclaimer “because it’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”
This mixed message confuses the whole issue. Can you either clarify and confirm what is actually legal or better yet remove the [rather obvious] YouTube section?
Thanks for this list. I would love your take on the paid options like AT&T Watch, Britbox, Locast, Airing and the like.