Your Guide to Watching Free and Legal TV Online

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
April 22, 2014

This week the live TV streaming service Aereo goes on trial at the Supreme Court, which will decide if it’s a legal business by summer’s end. It’s a big moment for television, considering the $8-a-month subscription provides something that everyone wants but no other company has so far managed to provide: the ability to stream basic cable television to any device as it airs. Though not always reliable, Aereo is what many of us hope the future of TV will look like.

Aereo may very well be squashed in court, which is why we must evaluate our alternatives. As my colleague Dan Tynan has noted, there’s lots of hardware dedicated to sidestepping a cable subscription. But if you just want to stream shows on your computer or tablet, without all the cords, you probably want to know what free, legal content an Internet connection can get you.

To answer this question, I’ve performed a rigorous study of how to watch free TV online in the United States. Some of these sites make you sit through ads; others will give you a taste of their programs before you’re forced to enter your provider’s credentials to prove you pay for cable.

Either way, organized from most accessible to least accessible, I present to you a list of sites where you can watch free TV:

1. Hulu 

Hulu’s service is the perfect place to watch free television soon after the shows air. Programs like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live — pretty much anything on the late-night circuit and a good variety of cartoons all live here. Full episodes reliably appear the morning after each show airs, and all you have to do is endure a few mind-numbing ads to watch them. I’m gladly willing to make that compromise if it means I can snuggle up to Saturday Night Live on my laptop the following Sunday morning.

When it comes to popular programming, Hulu is not always reliable for freebies. For instance, the access it allows for Scandal episodes changed midseason this year. Whereas I was once able to watch episodes of the current season the day after they aired on Thursdays, they are now available to view on a basic Hulu account only eight days after they run. If you’re not familiar, it’s practically impossible to go eight days without Olivia Pope spoilers on Twitter.

It was a cruel move indeed, but not enough to get me to sign up for an $8 a month Hulu+ account, even if that does mean access on any Android or iOS device as well. 

2. NBC

NBC is very good about rewarding a show’s loyal fans. It posts the latest four episodes of almost every series online, the newest of which is up the morning after its air date. Every time the most recent episode of, say, Parks and Recreation is added, the oldest one is knocked back into the archives. Either that or you’re given a month until after its air date to watch it. I think that’s an entirely fair way to go about airing programming online. Yes, you’ll have to sit through some annoying commercials, but no need to prove you have a cable subscription.

NBC also very brilliantly has put some of its older programming on the web for all to see. This collection includes Miami Vice, Knight Rider, and a season and a half of the classic Battlestar Galactica.

All these are also available in its free app, which is available on Android and iOS.

3. PBS

Though the Public Broadcasting Service can sometimes feel a little dusty, what with its period dramas and shows about refurbishing old homes, some of its programming is positively awesome. If you don’t believe me, just watch ONE episode of Antiques Roadshow where a guy buys something at a garage sale that’s worth thousands of dollars. You’ll change your mind.

Speaking of Antiques Roadshow, you can watch 147 full episodes of it on the PBS site. Sadly, the network is not as generous when it comes to hits like Downton Abbey, but there are a few other gems tucked in there like NOVA, or its Indie series, which offers mini-documentaries on characters like the former world champion of women’s professional wrestling.

Even better, it’s all available on the station’s iOS app as well.

4. ABC 

Just like Hulu, ABC knows to save the good stuff for subscribers only. But that doesn’t mean everything on its site/iOS/Android app is completely off limits. When it comes to Modern Family, Nashville, and Grey’s Anatomy, you can usually watch the most recent five episodes of a season. But to watch the very latest episode of uber-popular shows like Scandal, you’ll be required to verify that you are indeed an ABC subscriber, with a cable bill. That means you either have to pay for cable, or know someone who pays for cable (read: your parents) who will give you the login information. All that and you still have to watch commercials, too.

5. Bravo

Though Bravo is incredibly loose with its standards of what constitutes a TV show, it is surprisingly strict about how much of its network you can actually watch online for free. If you’re hoping to view a variant of Real Housewives or one of the network’s other fascinating anthropological studies, you’re usually stopped after two free but commercial-laden episodes and asked to sign in with your cable provider. In other words, Bravo wants to reel you in and then starve you out, which is not unlike a piece of advice that the Millionaire Matchmaker might give!

If you want to continue watching a show’s most recent episode(s) for free, you’ll have to try the same login trick you did with ABC. Lucky for you, once you’ve managed to wrangle a person’s basic cable login information, it’ll work for a wide array of channels. And let’s be real: You’d probably leave out the fact that you’re planning to use a person’s information to veg out to six straight hours of The Real Housewives.

6. FOX

Free access to a show’s latest episode on FOX’s website and/or its FOX NOW app for iOS and Android is dictated by a set of rules. The latest episode of any show is only accessible to subscribers one day after its air date. Eight days later, it is “unlocked” for the general public to view. After that, you have about two months before the episode disappears from the site altogether.

FOX very courteously displays a clear countdown of the number of days that an episode is available on its site, and usually the last four episodes of a show are available. Some more popular titles include New Girl, Glee, The Mindy Project, and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

7. CBS

Though CBS has most certainly bulked up its programming with shows like The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, the network has allowed its digital presence to languish. Its official position is that “some shows” are available 24 hours after first airing and others are available eight days after their initial broadcast. In practice, there’s little rhyme or reason to what’s offered online and when (especially judging from the Android and iOS apps’ very poor reviews). And when it comes to archives, CBS usually offers a random collection of four to five full episodes of a series’s latest season (but what respectable person is just going to jump from episode 2 to episode 10?). This kind of lackadaisical attitude toward episode availability should not be allowed to fly in 2014. 

8. Sprint TV & Movies

Sprint subscribers with capable iOS and Android phones can download the Sprint TV app, which offers you instant access to channels like Bravo, USA, NBC News, and Syfy. If you have a compatible data plan, you’ll be able to watch live broadcasts and full-length episodes straight from your phone. Though the channels you’re provided might be limited, it’s still a nice perk! 

And the rest of them …

As soon as you start talking about streaming from Showtime, AMC, and HBO GO, you enter the high-priced productions. These are the networks that are willing to spend lots of money for glitzy set and aren’t afraid to make you help pay for it. Unless the station is running a brief promotion, most will require you to log in with your cable credentials in order to watch a show’s latest episodes. So even though AMC’s latest installment of Mad Men was loaded onto its site promptly after the episode aired Sunday night, you’re not going to be able to watch it without a login. The same goes for HBO and Showtime, with the rare exception of a few freebie series pilots here and there. 

The good news is that if you’re fortunate enough to have a login, you’ll have a treasure trove of old movies at your fingertips, too. Use to see exactly which ones.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.