It’s been years since I quit cable TV and switched to ad-free streamers like Netflix. But now with creeping prices and subscription fatigue set up, I pruned my power supply continuously. To keep costs down, I tried free, mostly ad-based services to hold me back until the next binge-worthy show forced me to re-subscribe.
There are a surprising number of solid, 100% legal digital freebies on apps dedicated to streaming without a subscription. You won’t find features available in paid services, such as 4K video resolution, downloads for offline viewing, or content libraries full of the latest newsworthy shows.
There are even free live TV options, though none of these replace full-fledged TV packages, with news, sports and more, that allow people to pay upwards of $50 per month. But if you’re a casual viewer who enjoys a good rerun or movie classic, you’ll find plenty. Many services are owned by major studios. And some also offer original shows.
The problem? Intermittent commercial breaks, just like old-time television. (As you’ll read below, some ad-free options exist for people with active library cards.)
About 18% of US households has been using a free, ad-based TV service since last winter, more than doubling from a year earlier, according to Kantar, an analytics firm. Subscribers to paid services without ads are down, while free and paid services with ads are up, the firm said. Last month, Netflix released its first quarterly loss of subscribers in over a decade.
Ads are tolerable, as long as you don’t have to watch too many of them. Respondents to a survey by consulting firm Deloitte said nine minutes of announcements per hour was just right, but more than 16 minutes was too much.
How many ads would it take to get me started on a $15 per month premium HBO Max subscription? I streamed hours of movies and TV – and commercials – and rated the quality of the libraries, as well as the content-to-ad ratio. In general, you will see fewer ads on these streamers compared to traditional network TV.
Here are some free streaming services to try, starting with the least boring.
Look at : “Parasite”, “Childhood”, “Lady Bird”
Service requires membership to participating local libraries. Students at partner universities can also access Kanopy. Users are assigned a certain number of credits each month (my local library in San Francisco has 15), and each movie or TV episode requires a credit. There’s a section just for Oscar winners and nominees, and a substantial selection of PBS shows, including the Masterpiece series.
Look at : “Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway”, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, “13 Going on 30”
Houpla, which also offers e-books and audiobooks, is similar to Kanopy. Content is free as long as you have a library card. You can “borrow” titles for three days, and some can be downloaded offline via the Hoopla mobile app. There’s a kids mode that activates a filter for age-appropriate content like “The Iron Giant” and “Lego Atlantis.”
Look at : “At Knives Out”, “Emma”, “Logan”
Ads: During a movie, there were two commercials per hour, each lasting up to 75 seconds
Freevee, formerly known as IMDB TV, is hosted on Amazon’s site, alongside its paid Prime Video content. You can stream content on the web or through media players and streaming consoles. There are a few original series, as well as TV shows and movies. If you have an Amazon Prime subscription, click on the “Free to Me” tab, which combines Prime Video and Freevee offers. If you’re not a Prime subscriber, you’ll only see Freevee’s library.
Look at : “Green Lantern”, “Pearl Harbor”, “The Holidays”
Ads: The films had three commercial breaks per hour, ranging from 25 seconds to two minutes
tube, owned by Fox Corp., offers a strong selection of recognizable titles and can be accessed on a variety of devices, from the web to Apple TV and game consoles. The kids section includes “Stuart Little”, “Surf’s Up” and more. For adults, there are plenty of nostalgic ’90s and early ’00s options. (Fox and The Wall Street Journal’s parent company, News Corp, share common ownership.)
The Roku Channel
Look at : “Downton Abbey”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
Ads: An hour-long program had eight commercial breaks, each of about 30 seconds to a minute
Roku, the maker of popular streaming devices, has its own free content hub, available through a web browser, mobile app, Roku device, or compatible smart TV. It includes a mix of live TV from news channels, such as NBC News and ABC News, as well as on-demand movies and shows. You can also subscribe to premium paid channels through the service, such as Showtime and Starz.
Look at : “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”, “Animator”, “Star Trek”
Ads: A movie on demand had five commercials per hour, each two minutes long
The service— owned by Paramount Global, formerly known as ViacomCBS — includes content from the parent company’s networks, including shows like “Survivor” and movies like “Star Trek.” My gripe with Pluto TV is that it doesn’t show you when the ads are coming on – they appear intermittently throughout a movie. There are also live TV channels with programming covering sports reruns, entertainment and news, but the channels are separate from the versions available on the broadcast networks. CNN on Pluto TV, for example, shows the latest headlines but does not offer the same programming as cable.
Look at : “Mary Queen of Scots”, “The Office”, “Parks and Recreation”
Ads: A 22-minute episode had three commercial breaks of approximately one minute each
NBC Peacock offers channels, as well as on-demand content, on its web browser platform and mobile apps. Besides free content, you will see titles marked with a purple feather. These require a paid subscription to Peacock’s $5 per month premium plan. For popular shows, you’ll get one season free, but then you’ll have to pay to watch the rest.
Many mobile phone providers include streaming services in their plans. Check yours to see if you’re already paying for a subscription.
Some AT&T unlimited data customers can access HBO Max. Operator Cricket Wireless, owned by AT&T, includes a ad-supported subscription to HBO Max with its $60 per month plan. T-Mobile Magenta and Magenta Max customers with two or more lines get Netflix included. Subscribers also get one year of Apple TV+ and Paramount+. Metro by T-Mobile unlimited plan coverage Amazon Premier membership, including Prime Video. Sprint Unlimited Plus plans come with the ad-supported version of Hulu. Verizon Unlimited customers on the service’s $45 per month and $55 per month plans get the Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ Bundle.
If you want to further cut costs, without missing the Show of the Moment, become a stinger: Sign up and binge when the new season arrives. Just don’t forget to cancel before leaving the ship.
This story was published from a news agency feed with no text edits