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Free Streaming Apps Have Gotten Shockingly Good

But the plethora of options doesn't have to lead to more "choice paralysis."
  • (Logo images: Sling, Tubi, Pluto TV, and Freevee)
    (Logo images: Sling, Tubi, Pluto TV, and Freevee)

    The hunt for value can be exhausting but also weirdly inspiring, a reminder of the greatness that's often buried under the flood of shiny new things. Unlike happy hour cocktails or clearance finds, however, TV savings can be counted in minutes. How many did I actually spend watching The Boys or Fallout — both prestige shows, and both now available on Amazon's free, ad-supported streamer Freevee — versus sitting through commercials?

    Time is the real cost, but it's not a ruthless calculus (this stuff is supposed to be, you know, fun). It's an equation I've been working out during a bout of painful belt-tightening this year. The current wave of tiered price increases for streaming subscriptions, ranging anywhere from $1 to $4 per month, per service, was a breaking point for me. But it's safe to say the ad-supported alternatives, which I previously ignored, have shocked me in their depth and quality.

    To be sure, the current wave of price increases is neither new (they happen about every two years) nor inherently wallet-busting. Whether it's Hulu or Disney+ or Prime Video, you now have to pay an extra $3 per month above base price for no ads. Not so terrible, right? But their creeping expense, and the fact that several are arriving on each others' heels, has influenced my overall thinking. The bump across all my services — Disney+, Max, Peacock, Prime Video, Paramount+ With Showtime, Netflix, and Hulu — may only amount to an extra $25 per month, but that's on top of the nearly $100 I pay for what I first understood to be ad-free programming. Do I really need all of it?

    That question sent my family on a quest through the wilderness of free, ad-supported streaming services (or FAST channels), starting with the biggies, since they offer the most variety and scale: Tubi (Fox Corp.), Pluto TV (Paramount Global), Crackle (Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment), Freevee (Amazon), and Sling Freestream (Dish Network). These apps can be downloaded to almost any smart TV, gaming console, tablet, or smartphone. Tubi and a few others require zero sign-up. But if you can stomach a new password, you get perks that are standard on otherwise paid apps, such as a personal queue, parental controls, and a full buffet of kids' content, the last of which is crucial in my house.

    We found merits in others, like Plex and Roku, which offer more flexibility in organizing your digital subscriptions at large, or Crunchyroll (Sony), with its deep selection of anime. If I were single and living the life of the mind I'd be constantly watching Kanopy, with its arty, independent titles and academic austerity. But in an age-diverse household of four, including two kids, we found that Pluto TV, Tubi, and Freevee quickly rose to the top.

    Best overall replacement for paid subscriptions

    Pluto TV has the best titles and cleanest interface, even if it too can get bogged down in competing windows. Most streaming services we sampled have the usual pile of licensed shows — in Pluto’s case, a whopping 100,000 or so, plus 250-plus live and on-demand channels. But on Pluto you can feel their heft while navigating channels dedicated entirely to CSI: Miami or The Jeffersons. They’re considered live, but they feature on-demand playing that unfolds in episode order. Game shows such as Supermarket Sweep also get their own channels, with nearly zero ads. The curation feels tight, and mercifully lean on low-budget shows that clog services such as Crackle (sorry, Starhunter: Redux).

    But it's not just the caliber and variety of titles that distinguishes an ad-supported streamer. It's the way the shows are organized, the balance of linear and on-demand, and the rate of refreshment for new content that makes all the difference. I'm not using these services to purchase movies for a digital collection; if that were the case, I'd stick with Prime Video, which already does that for me. Rather I'm using them as quasi-destination viewing, and places for discovery that don't rely on algorithms. Pluto excels here.

    Each month they switch out lots of big movie titles while retaining the bread-and-butter licensed shows, whether animated or R-rated. Tubi’s Tenet and Aquaman aren’t brand new, but they have the whiff of prestige. Pluto goes much deeper with channels offering Punch Drunk Love, Bad Boys 2, War of the Worlds, and Purple Rain, among many others. You really only need to check once a month, though.

    Best family-friendly shows and movies

    As a parent I’ve learned to instantly clock kids’ offerings on streamers and channels like YouTube Kids, since the shows and movies can easily veer into stuff I’d rather they not watch. Even on Prime Video or Netflix, you’re only a click or two away from a dreadfully animated, appallingly half-assed (and maybe even sneakily Christian) animated feature. Despite a years-long renaissance in children’s programming, these lesser shows proliferate because they offer cheap stuffing for a requisite category.

    Pluto licenses brand-name shows from Nick Jr. (Dora the Explorer, Avatar: The Last Airbender) and, like Tubi, has channels dedicated to Transformers, Lego: Ninjago, Garfield & Friends, and many others. That helps lessen the feeling that kids are compromising when watching ad-supported shows, since it collects some of the same, top-tier names that would appear on any fully-paid streamer. Bonus points for the bilingual offerings, which are overdue as staples of kids categories, but also smart in their bid for new, more diverse audiences.

    Like a lot of families, though, our viewing habits are cobbled together from paid streaming, YouTube, rabbit-ears broadcast (hello, America's Test Kitchen and PBS Kids), TikTok videos, and the occasional DVD or Blu-ray — for when movie-night favorites Labyrinth or The 'Burbs take their circular turns behind whatever paywall. Similarly, we’ve found ourselves using a combination of Pluto and Tubi for recent viewing. There’s some overlap, and Tubi has hardly anything for kids on its live channels. But Tubi’s kids movies make up for it with a long list of instantly recognizable properties, including Sesame Street, Scooby Doo, and others. Less-picky preschoolers and toddlers won’t mind if you put on some Barney, and elementary school kids might enjoy the recent remakes of Annie and The Karate Kid.

    It’s taken a bit of adjustment for my kids, since they’ve grown up watching TV sans-ads, which is a luxury that would have blown my little Gen X mind. They instead know ads as bothersome pop-ups in YouTube clips and mobile games. During a family movie-night viewing of the French animated film Leap on Tubi, my kids took several more bathroom breaks than during a non-ad-supported movie. I watched the story lose emotional momentum with them in a way that might not have happened otherwise, given all the opportunities they had to step away. It's easy enough to hit pause, but the five ad breaks in Leap, which lasted an average of two minutes each and arrived about every 20 minutes, blurred their interest.

    It didn't take long for them to start rolling with the prescription-drug/SUV/diaper-ad pitches, however. Watching ad-ridden shows has tweaked their sense of narrative pacing around the commercial breaks (those "blackout moments" in The Simpsons finally started to make sense to them, at least) but also essentially introduced them to the same format as paid cable TV. I increasingly don’t see a difference between that and free, ad-supported streaming apps — other than not paying $100 or so per month.

    Best selection of new and classic TV shows

    There are hardly any streaming services without classic, licensed TV and movies, but some have more than others. Here we vacillated between Pluto and Tubi, because both are surprisingly great resources for (often) hard-to-find titles that have lapsed from Nick at Night or the like. You won’t get every season of The Dick Cavett Show, but you will get best-of collections with episodes themed around sports stars or Black pop culture icons. A motivated fan is not going to have a hard time finding vintage Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes online, especially with a Peacock subscription. But finding a live channel of them? And right next to their creators' own RiffTrax channel? To me, that's worth the commercials on Pluto.

    Again, there’s overlap. The 1950s Western The Rifleman — which is, seriously, prominent on nearly every free streaming service — is fortunately joined by some of comedy faves, such as Broad City and Portlandia. Sci-fi and horror freaks are particularly well served on Pluto (and most free streaming services), as are TV shows and movies from Black creators (see The Black Collective category). Fast-multiplying Spanish-language options, like Pluto's huge list of En Español live channels, seem primed to introduce bilingual audiences to shows they may not have tracked down on Spanish-only apps, as well as dubs of AMC’s The Walking Dead or MTV's Daria.

    Since Freevee is an arm of Prime Video, it's got a few Amazon Originals, including the aforementioned The Boys, but also Reacher and The Summer I Turned Pretty. That’s nowhere near all of them, but even on the ad-free service, titles will come and go as they please (i.e. the licensing expires or is renewed). Either way, there's no need to live by that unpredictable schedule. However, you likely won’t see something like the upcoming Season 2 of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on here any time soon, given its status as a subscription driver for Prime Video.

    I was a cord cutter, and I still don't want to reconnect. But I also used to think of streamers as on-demand libraries, not live services, and I've lately been heartened by these moves back in that direction. Not that my kids, 7 and 11, care to watch Dynasty or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, each of which have their own channels on Pluto, and each of which I would happily buy on physical media. (I love the original Outer Limits, but my kids' conception of black-and-white programming is akin to cave paintings. Their loss.)

    The longer we were willing to wait for the pros and cons of free, ad-supported streaming services to emerge, the more we saw. And as noted, we were truly surprised to find they offer nearly the same amount and quality of content as paid cable packages (certainly, they’ve got the same amount of ads), minus fees.

    Watching ads is annoying, but so is paying for something and still not getting what you want.

    John Wenzel is an arts reporter and critic for The Denver Post who has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic and Vulture. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, worshipping Guided by Voices and The Breeders, and has a hobbit garden in his front yard.

    TOPICS: Tubi, Amazon Freevee, Sling Freestream, Sony Crackle, Pluto TV, Roku