I’m old enough to remember when the only TV you could watch was free. Once you bought your set and antenna, the only cost was the electricity to power your set. When cable first became available, there was a running joke that no-one would pay for TV or water. Both are now multibillion-dollar industries.
When it comes to paying for TV, you can easily spend $100 a month or more on cable and streaming services. For some it can be a lot more, even if you are a so-called “cord cutter” who consumes all your content via streaming rather than cable or satellite TV.
Regardless of whether you’re getting your content via cable, satellite or a streaming service, you’re paying mostly for the content. Cable packages start at about $60 a month but go up quickly if you add in premium channels. My Comcast bill, which includes gigabit-speed internet, is nearly $200. That package comes with HBO Max and Showtime but — my combined cost of Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Apple+, Amazon Prime Video and, as of this week, CNN+ comes to about $60 more per month. I’d be paying an additional $15 a month for HBO Max if it weren’t bundled in both my Comcast cable plan and AT&T cellular plan. And I’m not counting the money I pay to stream PBS, which is included in my monthly donation to my PBS station.
The two reasons why I’ve stayed with Comcast rather than “cut the cord,” is because the bulk of my bill is for high-speed internet and, in addition to being a news junkie, I have a professional need to access cable news and like that I can do it from any TV in my house as well as my computer, phone and mobile devices — even when I’m traveling.
Of course, not everyone subscribes to all these services but some people have even more. There is almost no end to the number of streaming services vying for your money, including foreign language services, at least three British TV and movie channels services and so many more.
Some “cord-cut cutters” avoid cable bills by only subscribing to streaming services, but if they want to watch cable news channels or live sports, they probably are subscribing to streaming cable alternatives like Sling, Hulu Live TV or YouTube TV, which don ‘t necessarily save them money, considering that these services typically cost about $65 a month.
There are some free streaming services, including some that provide access to older TV shows and movies. If your library supports it, one of the best out there is Hoopla, which offers eBooks, audiobooks, movies and TV shows free to patrons of many public libraries. Kanopy and Overdrive are similar library-supported services. Some of these services also offer eBooks and audiobooks, so check with your local library to see what it offers.
There are also advertiser supported free services that tend to have a lot of older movies and TV shows, many of which are worth watching. I belong to a media where we pick a book with a companion movie to both read and watch and I often find movies on free services like Tubi, Plex or Crackle. In addition to being able to stream from a mobile device or the web, many of these sites have apps for Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast and other streaming devices. Roku owners can also stream free ad-supported content on the Roku channel and anyone with access to NBC-owned Peacock can also find plenty of free content.
My only major gripe about some of the ad supported services is that they sometimes repeat the same ad over and over again. If I have to watch ads, I’d at least like to watch different ones. Once, when my wife and I were watching a movie, we made a game out of reciting the one repeating ad which we had pretty much memorized by midway through the movie. I have the same complaint about the ads on Tune-In now that I’m no longer paying $99 a year for their ad-free experience.
Speaking of Tune-In, if you’re subscribing to Cable TV mostly to watch CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, you can get the audio feed from these channels for free on Tune-In. I frequently listen to these free cable news feeds in my car or when I’m out for walks and find that I get almost as much value from the audio as I do from watching on a TV or other screen. If you listen frequently, it might be worth the $99 annual payment to avoid ads.
Antennas still work
And speaking of free, don’t overlook hooking up your TV to an antenna. If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are pretty good that you can get all or most local stations with an inexpensive indoor antenna that no longer has to look like “rabbit ears.” CNET has a rundown of the Best TV Antenna for 2022, with some starting at $20. You can also find plenty of options by searching TV Antennas on Amazon, where you’ll find several with 4-star user reviews starting at around $11.00.
I haven’t used one of these lately, but a few years ago, I hooked up an indoor antenna to one of my TVs and got all but one Bay Area station with excellent reception.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.