By now, the fact that anyone can watch TV online without paying a dime to a cable company is practically common knowledge. But lucky for most cable companies, time-sensitive television programming such as news, sports, and popular shows the first night they air are still somewhat off-limits unless you know where to look. Here are some quick and dirty ways to get TV programming with just an Internet connection and a computer or a mobile phone--no gazing into neighbors’ living rooms required.
If you’re a news junkie, you probably already have places you visit for free news updates--you’ve bookmarked all the good websites, for instance, and maybe you listen to the radio on your way home from work. But what about watching TV news for free? Of course, basic cable can bring you all the local news you need, but sometimes you want a national perspective.
For starters, big events such as presidential debates or State of the Union addresses are usually available live on CNN.com or MSNBC.com for free. And all major news outlets offer clips of their previously run programming for free, often in linked clips; when one clip ends, the next begins, in a decent approximation of a live news TV broadcast. Some local stations will even let you watch live news broadcasts in their entirety through their website.
If watching clips doesn’t bother you and you’re not tied to a specific news station, give the free app Newsy a try. Newsy produces its own high-quality video blogs using media from major news and sports cable channels. Sure, the result isn't Pulitzer-winning stuff, but it is a fast way for you to gauge what’s going on in TV from your phone or tablet.
If you already subscribe to cable, and you just want to watch CNN or BBC America from a cable-free place, those two news networks will allow you to access their live programming over the Web through a sign-in code that you can obtain from your cable provider. MSNBC streams programming clips every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., although it isn't truly live because the spots air on MSNBC first. Similarly, Fox News Live streams online--along with a chat room beneath the video player for viewers to share their thoughts--but although the broadcast is supposed to air between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. EST, in my trials I usually wasn’t able to access the live stream until 10 a.m. EST.
A lot of what applies to news also goes for sports, but you should keep some caveats in mind. Networks that cover sporting events usually clamp down more on live streaming sports broadcasts than they do on news, and you won't find as many options available. While news broadcasters have dozens of competitors that offer the same information, coverage of big games often belongs exclusively to a single network.
Still, you have a few ways to get down-to-the-second coverage of important games without streaming the broadcast illegally. You can always listen to games on AM radio; or, if your event is halfway across the country, you might be able to find a local radio station that streams its broadcast online. The latter isn't always the case, though, since some professional sports leagues require listeners to use a paid service to access nonlocal audio broadcasts. For example, if you want to listen to an out-of-town Major League Baseball game, typically you'll have to use MLB's mobile app or sign up for its paid Gameday Audio service.
In addition, most major pro sports leagues offer some sort of paid online streaming service in which you can watch most (or all) of that league's games on your computer. The NBA, NHL, and NFL, along with MLB, all have online streaming services, though in some cases they block you from watching locally televised games.
ESPN frequently offers its programming after airing, and at WatchESPN you can see replays of recent games (for instance, I watched a Gonzaga vs. BYU basketball game the morning after the teams played).
ESPN usually posts its SportsCenter content online as short clips, but if you watch the clips on autoplay you’ll get frequent--and annoying--replays of the same commercials over and over. ESPN also has a mobile app that lets you stream live programs to your mobile device; to access the cordless cable service, however, you have to subscribe to Brighthouse Networks, Time Warner Cable, or Verizon FiOS.
Another option for smaller-name sporting events is to check out Ustream. Although Ustream offers all kinds of programming, from Campaign 2012 coverage to spirituality shows, a lot of the nonsports programming consists of independently run video streams--usually radio hosts who don’t mind having a webcam on them while they work, and made-for-Internet video shows that don’t always have access to interesting primary-source video. But Ustream does offer live coverage of smaller events at pay-per-view prices, such as the World Series of Boxing ($25) and the Alpine Skiing World Cup ($6). If you don’t want cable but you have a few must-see sports entertainment events, this service will fill in some of the gaps, depending on what your interests are.
Netflix rules the roost when it comes to streaming TV shows, without commercials, for a low monthly subscription. But it's an ideal choice only if you’re willing to wait a bit after a show comes out to see it.
If waiting a couple months doesn’t appeal to you, get a Hulu Plus subscription for $8 per month. One big gripe that people have with Hulu Plus is that on top of your subscription fee you have to sit through commercials, but often this is the only way to legally watch very popular, recently aired shows online. Hulu Plus usually keeps up to four or five of the most recent episodes of popular TV shows from networks such as ABC, MTV, and Fox, and sometimes you can find whole seasons of series like The Office or Grey’s Anatomy. Naturally, you should browse through Hulu Plus’s offerings before you pay for a subscription, to make sure the service has the show you want to watch.
Also, don’t forget that set-top boxes such as those from Roku and Boxee can port streamed content from apps to your television, so you aren't stuck watching shows on a cramped mobile device screen. Roku not only streams Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime Instant to your TV, but it also lets you watch NBC News, as well as feature-length movies on apps like Crackle. Boxee has Netflix, Major League Baseball, and Vudu movies covered, among other offerings. And if you have a Microsoft Xbox 360, a Nintendo Wii, or a Sony PlayStation3, you can access programming on the Internet and stream Netflix through a native app on your game console.
Another good option is to go to a particular channel’s website to find episodes of your favorite shows. Often you’ll be able to access recently aired episodes, and sometimes even complete seasons. For example, I’m usually busy on Sunday nights, but I’ve been able to catch Downton Abbey a day later on PBS.org for the past month. Although the stream's video quality is noticeably poorer than that of the TV broadcast, PBS gives me the option to buy and download each episode of its programming from iTunes in high definition. ABC and Fox offer similar options for many TV shows.
Still, finding what you’re looking for among the mass of websites can be hard. That’s where Clicker.com comes in: This website aggregates links to the legal video you want to see online, and then directs you to the provider’s site, Hulu, Netflix, or iTunes. Not all of those options are free, but Clicker can save you time in trying to discover what shows are available. Even though going this route can sometimes leave you out of luck (no episodes of the first season of Modern Family are legally shown online, for example, so searching for those episodes returns nothing), you can use it to speed up your searches and rest assured that you’re not violating any copyright law.
BBC iPlayer and iTV are two places to get British television online for free, but you have to be based in the United Kingdom to access them. One way to get around that requirement is to stream from a VPN using a server in the UK. (Several VPN providers can hook you up to a UK server; for general advice, check out our guide to using a VPN.)
Several sites promise to show you streams of live television or hard-to-find programming. Of course, they involve some caveats: Some of the content on these sites may not be legal, and watching or downloading the content could land you in trouble. Some of the sites also include lots of dead links, and you may end up paying for an experience that’s not worth the price.
Tvduck.com finds all kinds of copies of specific shows online. Some of them are available for streaming only behind paywalls, some of them link to legal video on the producer’s website, and some of them are illegally ripped copies of shows posted online.
Satellite Direct is another service that you’ve doubtless seen advertised on some of the less-reputable TV-streaming websites out there. For a one-time $50 fee, you download a media player onto your computer, and can use that to access “over 3500” channels from around the world (or so the company claims). The download was easy enough for me, but after I selected the United States as my country and started flipping through the channels, I quickly found that many of them were duds. Satellite Direct aggregates all streaming television channels--legal or illegal--into its program. But if the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency were to discover and shut down the illegal ESPN stream, for instance, that would leave you with a dead stream.
In my tests, I was able to watch MTV, VH1, MSNBC, and a Florida affiliate of NBC that was airing 30 Rock. But the quality of the video was usually poor, and for every channel showing 30 Rock there was an independent channel showing only ripped clips of Family Guy in Auto-Tuned Spanish on repeat. If you’re not tied to any one type of programming, but you just need some background noise while you’re working on a project, maybe Satellite Direct is for you. Otherwise, it isn't worth your $50.
Finally, lots of cord-cutters who want great programming at no cost download video through BitTorrent, a protocol for file transfer that is not in itself illegal, but allows peer-to-peer file sharing that may occasionally wander into copyright-infringement territory. BitTorrent clients such as Vuze or µTorrent allow you to build RSS feeds for specific shows.
With this list, you should be able to get started on breaking free of your cable company. If you’re willing to watch shows a day later, or in poor resolution, you shouldn’t have any problem leaving those hefty cable bills behind.