Your Guide to Watching Free and Legal TV Online
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:
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.
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.