Well, that was a September to remember. I’ve been reviewing fall TV premiere weeks since 1996, and this was the first year I didn't so much as look at a prime-time drama or sitcom. Three of my reviews were of Netflix programs, five were cable shows, one was a daytime talker, and two streamed on Peacock (which we’ll get to in a moment).
In fairness, the networks are running a little behind schedule thanks to you-know-what. And yet, even when they do get around to launching their series later this fall, they’ll have to fight to be part of the cultural conversation. There is just too much high-quality product out there. Streamers are unapologetically going after the five-star reviews and Emmy slots. While that’s resulted in a number of ponderous and expensive misses (I liked Away and Fargo Season 4, many did not), there are just too many hits for any sane person to keep up with.
What the networks have always had going for them is price point. Ad-supported broadcast television is free, and for generations that was one hell of a value proposition. The West Wing is just the latest network show to get a big-budget revival on streaming because millions watched and fondly remember it.
But now even that advantage is fading as streamers lean into that most attractive of subscription offers: zero dollars a month... forever. Sony was the first to make it big in this space with its free streamer Crackle, thanks to excellent placement on Roku boxes and a sleeper hit featuring a caffeinated Jerry Seinfeld. Since then most of the big kahunas have taken stakes in free streamers. CBS bought PlutoTV, Fox bought Tubi, and NBC launched Peacock earlier this year.
For the most part, free streamers consist of warmed-up hits and film inventory from large libraries, plus some originals. (I’m excluding two worthy free streamers, Hoopla and Kanopy, because they’re all-legacy and they limit how much you can watch in a month.) Not all of it is exclusive: Sky News, Fail Army, and Bob Ross videos seem to be everywhere.
Free streaming has been around for over a decade, though — why is it only now catching on? For one thing, much of this “on demand” content was crap no one was demanding. Take IMDB TV (please!). Amazon would probably like it to be a poor man’s Prime Video, but there is so much flotsam on IMDB TV and the navigation is so kludgy it’s hardly worth the trouble. Many free streamers are poorly curated and the offerings seem random. Even in lockdown, people value their time, and “free” doesn’t feel like free if it takes half an hour of clicking to find something worthwhile to watch.
That’s why PlutoTV stood out when ViacomCBS relaunched it about a year ago. It’s easy to navigate and decently curated. PlutoTV combines hundreds of live TV channels, so if you don’t feel like browsing for just the right title, you can just surf by category. There’s are blocks of movie channels, sports channels, life/style channels, kids channels, and so on. First launched in 2013, PlutoTV was bought in 2019 by ViacomCBS, which has since added branded channels with content from CBS and Viacom. Right now, for instance, there are five channels dedicated to Comedy Central series and specials, and the On Demand section is going all-in on James Bond movies, which is all the Bond we’re getting for a while.
Now if you take the ease of use of PlutoTV, and add some fresh new content (including actual live original TV), you get Peacock. It’s taken a few months for me to see the genius in NBCUniversal’s model, but if you want to pay literally nothing for TV other than the cost of an antenna, a Roku, and maybe a low-cost DVR option, then Peacock should be the first streamer you add.
For zero dollars a month you get the same easy-to-navigate interface as PlutoTV, and the ability to switch over to on-demand. You also get originals, like the Amber Ruffin Show that I praised recently, or The Sit-In, ditto, or, if this is your cup of tea, a remake of Saved by the Bell:
When I’m using Peacock’s iPad app, I’m impressed by how much new content pops up, and how with just a touch or two, it starts playing. Sports chat, including Pro Football Talk and Brother from Another. Originals like A.P. Bio and Hitmen. Current NBCUniversal shows (it’s the only way I would’ve bothered to check out the Jane Lynch revival of The Weakest Link). Of course, this means NBCU has decided not to monetize these shows by sticking them behind a paywall like Hulu or CBS All Access. But when it originally aired, it was free TV, so why paywall it? I like Peacock’s thinking here.
The movie library on Peacock also seems better curated and fresher than the libraries on PlutoTV or Tubi. Whether you can put up with the ads is your call. We watched Lost in Translation and the breaks were front-loaded, with only one break in the last hour.
For $4.99 a month, you get Peacock Premium, a significant upgrade, with content not available on the free tier, including live TV. (As I write this, I’m waiting for the Newcastle-Manchester United Premier League match to begin.) And you get a less ad-heavy experience, though I wouldn’t call it “ad-free.” There are still short breaks for promos of Peacock programs other than the one you’re currently trying to watch.
If you’re a Comcast cable customer, you probably know that this tier is free with your subscription. So don’t confuse it with free Peacock, because it’s “Peacock Premium,” for free. Yeah, that’s the thing. Peacock’s pricing tiers are unique to Peacock, which means that they confused the hell out of most consumers, who have enough to sort out these days. I’m starting to see movie descriptions include the phrase, “This movie is available free with ads to all Peacock users,” in case it wasn’t clear.
Peacock is not perfect, and your tastes may go less to shows and movies from the NBCUniversal library (which includes USA and other cable channels) than the ViacomCBS branded content, in which case PlutoTV might be a better choice. But Peacock has two things going for it that PlutoTV really doesn’t — live TV and quality originals. To me, Peacock feels like the future of free TV.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.