In the coming months, Apple, Warner, Comcast, and Disney will each roll out new subscription streaming services, crowding a marketplace that already includes heavyweights like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, not to mention all those middleweights like CBS All Access and DC Universe.
Viewers have reacted to news of these upcoming launches with curiosity and concern. What shows will they carry? What will each service cost? And how much high-quality TV programming can viewers handle, anyway?
For now, the collective industry response has been, "Relax, we're dedicated to bringing you the highest-quality experience, with all the best new and classic shows. You won’t have to have to worry about missing anything or paying too much if you subscribe."
Of course, if every service is making this argument, pretty soon our streaming costs will be worse than the cable bills that fueled the cordcutting trend in the first place. With that in mind, it's worth remembering that the people running these companies are veterans of the cable TV business. They know exactly how much wallet pain consumers can tolerate.
So what’s a thrifty viewer to do? If you're willing to do without big budget original programming, there are actually quite a few under-the-radar streaming services that can improve your video diet dramatically for little or no money — and that’s not a special one-time introductory price.
Perhaps best known as the original home of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which jumped to Netflix in 2018), Crackle has gone through a number of changes since 2004, when it was initially known as Grouper. The service was recently sold to Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, which plans to change the name to Crackle Plus, while continuing to offer mostly licensed entertainment. How that will affect its current offerings remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Crackle features more than 100 new and classic TV series, and close to 400 movies -- all free (with commercial breaks). The mix is eclectic to say the least, running the gamut from obscure fare (remember Patrick Swayze in The Beast or Margot Robbie in Pan Am?) to classic shows like Bewitched and Charlie's Angels. As for movies, it's a similar mix, including Steven Spielberg's 1941, Looper, and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies.
To watch FilmRise, you'll need to install an app (or you can visit the FilmRise YouTube page for a smaller selection), but truth be told there isn't much here that you can't find elsewhere. Movie highlights on a recent visit included Memento and Leaving Las Vegas, while uncensored epsiodes of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Showtime's The Years of Living Dangerously and the original Robert Culp Unsolved Mysteries were among the TV titles available. FilmRise's biggest strength is the ease with which viewers can browse its limited but well-organized library.
Hoopla is the first of two free streaming services on this list that come with a small catch: you have to have a library card, and your library has to offer these services to its patrons (which many do).
With an a budget that's funded by paid library subscriptions, Hoopla has acquired loads of digital media, including audiobooks, ebooks, music, games, comic books, and yes, movies and TV. You download and view them through the Hoopla DRM-controlled app. Libraries decide how many downloads each patron gets per month, and the sevice is ad-free. When the loan expires after 72 hours to 21 days, the content magically disappears from the app.
Most of this is legacy content, but one person's longtime favorite is another person’s fresh discovery. While vacationing abroad, my Airbnb host in Scotland told me about his addiction to the Brit detective series Line of Duty. When I got home, I was able to find it for free on Hoopla.
One of the newest and most promising of the free streamers is Amazon's IMDb TV. Available on the IMDb website and on Amazon Fire TV devices, the service features newer titles like La La Land and A Monster Calls alongside catalogue classics like Short Circuit and The NeverEnding Story.
As for TV offerings, look for an eclectic mix of mostly older titles, including The Incredible Hulk, Dallas, a selection of Columbo episodes, and all five seasons of The A Team. Given Amazon's deep pockets and established footing, it will be interesting to see what they do with the service moving forward.
Kanopy operates on the same ad-free library model as Hoopla, but the fare is artier, with a lot more foreign content. While few TV shows pop up on Kanopy, they do have a lot of films to choose from, including the critically acclaimed indie The Florida Project. Watching Kanopy is like attending a film festival without leaving your couch.
Also, if you’ve stopped trusting those “Recommended” selections many services highlight (Recommended by what? An algorithm?), you’ll be pleased to learn Kanopy offers 500 or so “Staff Picks,” curated by actual humans who love indie film.
Including PBS Passport in this list is a little bit of a cheat, as unlike the others, it's not free. Originally established as a kind of electronic tote bag for viewers who support public television, PBS Passport is now a loaded streaming service available to anyone who pledges $5 a month or more to their local PBS station. It’s a legitimate challenger to Hulu with its deep library of public media content (including programs from the BBC).
Most of it is licensed well into the 2020s, so there's none of that “here’s what’s going away this month” nonsense. And sometimes they follow Netflix's release strategy: during the second season of Masterpiece’s “Victoria,” PBS dropped all the episodes on Passport, ready to binge before they had even aired.
Fan favorites include The Great British Baking Show, Victoria and all six seasons of Downton Abbey, while the documentary options are virtually endless, with everything from Ken Burns classics to eye-opening backgrounders like 1913: Seeds of Conflict. (If you ever wondered how the Holy Land became such a convoluted mess, 1913 is worth 52 minutes of your time.)
Passport unlocks over 1,000 programs on PBS.org and the PBS app for your phone, tablet, and TV through countless streaming devices. And unlike all the commercial streaming services, when you pledge $60 a year to get PBS Passport you’re keeping people employed in your community doing educational outreach, town halls, and other things that public media stations do. Bonus: when I needed help setting up my account, I called my local station and actually spoke to a human being who solved my problem. What will they think of next?
Pluto TV has the most streamlined interface of the free streamers we sampled. This one very closely resembles paid services like SlingTV, offering a live "broadcast" style stream, along with a sizeable library of on-demand titles. Since PlutoTV is owned by Viacom, the platform's library reflects the scope and quality of that media bohemoth's holdings. On the TV side, viewers interested in reality programming will find a ton of options, with lots of titles from Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, BBC, and Investigation Discovery.
On the movie side, the selection is impressive. Broken down by genre, subject matter, and in some cases, decade (long live the 80s!), the quality titles are many and numerous. From concert films, to documentaries, to traditional narrative films, standout titles include Best Picture winner Spotlight, foodie favorite Chef, among others.
Like Crackle above, Popcorn Flix is also owned by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, which eventually plans to merge the two services under the Crackle brand. While Popcorn Flix is well-organized, the quality of its offering is much lower than most of the other services on this list.
In terms of movies, many of the titles available wouldn't look out of place in a bin of public domain home video releases. Which is to say, they are either very old, very obscure, or both. There are some notable exceptions, including Chinatown, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and What's Eating Gilbert. Other titles are at best cult hits, and on average of questionable value.
On the television side, if you're looking for a nostalgia fix, you'll find a selection of 80s TV titles (think 21 Jump Street) and some vintage Saturday morning cartoons, but other than that, there is little here in the way of compelling offerings.
Netflix has been credited with boosting the Canadian series Schitt's Creek (which airs in the US on cable channel PopTV), but you don't need Netflix or a cable subscription to watch it. The show's first four seasons are available for free on The Roku Channel.
Other free TV and movie titles on The Roku Channel include international fare like the UK's Peep Show and Dectectorists (our Aaron Barnhart is a fan), Mrs Doubtfire, Die Hard 2, and more 80s sitcoms like Facts of Life and Who's the Boss.
There are few things more satisfying than binge-watching your way through an entire season of a good reality TV series. With Tubi you can view multiple seasons of shows across the reality spectrum, from The Bachelor to Duck Dynasty to The Simple Life to, yes, The Apprentice.
That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to TV shows and movies available on the advertising-supported streamer. The service claims to have more than 12,000 titles, although like many on this list, the vast majority are older catalogue titles.
This Walmart-owned streaming service has a hybrid model, where more contemporary movie and TV titles (including all eight seasons of Game of Thrones) are available for purchase, while older catalogue titles stream free, albeit with ads.
Vudu's free TV level includes shows like TNT's Leverage and Marvel's Spectacular Spider-Man, along with a slew of throwbacks from the 80s and 90s (Roseanne, ALF, Wiseguy and 3rd Rock from the Sun, for example.) Movie titles change regularly, but the current list includes Jerry Maguire, Super Size Me and Election.
YouTube is so ubiquitious that we tend not to think of it as a streaming service, but of course it is... and the very deepest one, at that. Between shows and movies that have been posted by their creators to the many user-uploaded videos, you're likely to find at the very least a clip from any movie or TV show that you can think of (and in many cases, complete works).
But with literally millions of hours content, YouTube's core free service is the real star here, with everything from full classic episodes of I Love Lucy to last night's installment of your favorite late night talk show on offer.
What did we miss? If there other free streaming services out there that you think should be included in this list, please drop us a line!
TOPICS: IPTV, Amazon, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, PBS Passport, The Roku Channel, Sony Crackle, Tubi, YouTube, 21 Jump Street, 3rd Rock from the Sun, ALF, The Apprentice, The A-Team (1983), The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, The Beast, Bewitched (1964 series), Charlie's Angels, Columbo, Dallas (1978 series), Detectorists, Downton Abbey, Duck Dynasty, The Facts of Life, The Great British Baking Show, I Love Lucy, The Incredible Hulk, Kitchen Nightmares, Leverage, Line of Duty (UK), Peep Show (UK), Roseanne, Schitt's Creek, The Simple Life, Spectacular Spider-Man, Unsolved Mysteries, Victoria, Who's the Boss?, Wiseguy, Margot Robbie, Documentaries, FilmRise, Hoopla, IMDb TV, Kanopy, La La Land, Pluto TV, Popcorn Flix, Vudu