Updated on December 10, 2021
As I’ve written before, my usual advice for paying for streaming services is to pay for no more than three or four at the most. That’s regardless of the current “gold rush” of streaming services (Disney+, HBO Max, Comcast/NBCUniversal’s announced “Peacock,” etc.). Again, if one needs to pay for more than several services, I suggest either: rent the DVD/digital video; keep cable, if considering cord-cutting; or rethink how much TV you’re watching.
That said, there is one other alternative to paying for every streaming service under the sun. Some free streaming video services exist, with most of them supported by ads running during programming. Such services tend to feature older or less mainstream material, or offer educational fare. Overall, you get what you pay for. Still, such services can be an affordable way to add more programming options along with your paid streaming services.
Here’s some of the better free streaming video services I’ve found. Note none of these require a cable TV subscription (“TV Everywhere” type services). Other than the Roku Channel, all of the services below are available on every major streaming platform and through a web browser. And as usual, piracy isn’t an option.
Pluto TV was founded in 2013, but was bought earlier this year by Viacom.
The service is set up to act like a set of traditional cable TV channels. There’s several dozen different live streaming “channels,” each dedicated to a specific topic (dramas, sci-fi, cartoons, etc.).
Some of the channels are also based on Viacom properties. One example is “Nick on Pluto TV,” which streams various classic 90s and early 00s Nickelodeon shows (“Rocko’s Modern Life,” “Doug,” early “SpongeBob,” etc.). Similar channels include “BET on Pluto TV” (African-American programming) and “Logo on Pluto TV” (LGBTQ programming such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race”).
There’s also several channels that only stream one particular show, such as “Dora the Explorer” or the classic “Doctor Who.”
The service airs everything at set schedules, much like an actual cable TV networks. Thus, expect “Rocko” reruns on weeknights at 7 PM (Pacific Time).
The only customizing offered by Pluto TV is to create an account, which will let you store “favorite” channels. Pluto TV also offers a few on-demand movies (such as the older James Bond films). However, Pluto’s main appeal is to watch programming “live.”
Pluto TV has been fairly successful so far, so it should stick around amidst whatever changes come from CBS and Viacom’s recent merger. If you’re going to try a free streaming service, Pluto TV is worth giving a go.
Tubi offers thousands of TV shows and movies on an on-demand basis, much like Netflix. As per the norm for these services, the programming is largely either older material, niche, or direct-to-video fare. That said, Tubi’s signed deals with several major programming distributors, including Shout Factory, DHX, and Nelvana.
For example, several of Tubi’s cartoons include the 90s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” animated spin-off, plus the 2000s Nelvana series “6Teen.” There’s also a sizable number of LGBTQ movies, plus a few Tyler Perry films.
Commercials are automatically added at intervals to programming. There’s also an option to create an account to create a list of favorite TV shows and movies.
PBS / PBS Kids
PBS and PBS Kids both offer on-demand streaming versions. On the PBS side, its app offers recent episodes of most of the major PBS shows, from “Antiques Roadshow” to “Frontline” to “PBS NewsHour.” There’s also some digital-only material, plus shows from your local PBS affiliate.
PBS Kids’ app offers some episodes of all of its children’s programming, from “Sesame Street” to “Molly of Denali.”
Both services are free and noncommercial, like their broadcast TV counterparts. However, PBS offers an optional “Passport” service. For a $5/month ongoing donation (or a $60 annual donation), Passport unlocks full seasons of PBS’ non-children’s programming. (PBS Kids’ back catalog is mostly locked up through an existing deal with Amazon Prime Video.) Since it’s still considered a PBS donation, the funds also go toward your local PBS affiliate.
Crackle is Sony’s ad-supported streaming video service, and one of the longest-lived ones to date. Like the others on this list, it carries a variety of older material. As it’s owned by Sony, it has the advantage of carrying some of Sony/Columbia’s older catalog.
CW Seed is a free streaming spin-off of the CW television network. The streaming service carries a handful of older shows from the network’s co-owners, CBS and Warner Bros. There’s also some shows from other sources. Shows include “Girlfriends,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” and short-lived shows such as “Birds of Prey.” Don’t expect the current CW superhero shows or “Riverdale” here, though.
CBSN (CBS News)
CBS offers a 24 hour, ad-supported streaming CBS News service, branded as “CBSN.” It offers the same quality of news coverage as CBS itself, including breaking news, coverage of special events (political speeches, etc.), and so forth.
One can also watch the other CBS News shows on demand, including “CBS Sunday Morning,” “60 Minutes,” and “48 Hours.”
CBSN is also carried as a channel on Pluto TV.
Overall, CBSN is a decent news option for cord cutters looking for a free CNN replacement.
Kanopy is a free streaming service available through public libraries. As such, if your library participates, all you need is your library card. (Which you do have, don’t you?) Users get access to a variety of documentaries, movies (mostly independent ones), and some PBS programming. A few recent movies, such as “Moonlight,” are also available.
That said, one downside of Kanopy is that there’s usually a very low limit on the number of films/TV shows one can watch each month, which depends on your library. (My library’s limit is five per month.) That’s because of Kanopy’s other downside: while it’s free for end users, it’s very expensive for libraries. As such, a few cities’ libraries have dropped Kanopy, most prominently New York‘s public library system.
The Roku Channel
Popular streaming device maker Roku now offers its own channel. The Roku Channel offers various TV shows and movies. Despite its name, it’s possible to watch the Roku Channel without owning an actual Roku, as a web version is also available.
If you don’t mind commercials, adding the above free streaming video services won’t cost you anything. You’ll gain extra programming options without paying anything.
Do you use any of the above services, or have a favorite one I missed?