While the growth of paid streaming services has stagnated over the past few months, so-called "FAST" — free ad-supported streaming TV — has exploded. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that YouTube is exploring the launch of free streaming channels, joining the likes of Pluto TV (owned by Paramount), Tubi (Fox) and Freevee (Amazon), to name three of the most prominent.
You can spend hour after hour, day after day, or — if you really have no plans for the rest of your life — year after year streaming all of it, and spend not a single penny in the process, other than the internet bill or the cost of a streaming player such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick, or Roku (both starting at around $30).
But with the good comes some catches.Yes, there are commercials, and lots of those, too, although the so-called "commercial load" tends to be lighter than on regular commercial TV.
And under the heading "you get what you pay for," much of what's free on these streaming services is just shy of watchable. Wonder where busted pilots, forgotten one-offs, sad sack sequels and regrettable remakes end up? Wonder no more. They are all here. Because there is so much free content now, it's becoming more and more difficult to find the gold amidthe dross. The free-for-all — ahem — has only just begun, and for viewers, that means even more confusion.
Where to find the truly watchable, and how to find it? Read on, but a few rules of the road first.
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Foremost, YouTube is already a major player in the free TV field, most notably the "classics" — those beloved series that aired back the late '50s,'60s and '70s, and have found devoted fans ever since. Commercial-free full seasons of dozens of series are both easily available and well-organized on YouTube-based sites like TV Rerun Club by MGM and Throw Back TV. There are exceptions ("Get Smart" — available on a few pay sites), but not many. Meanwhile, you can also watch many of these shows on those digital linear channels devoted to small-screen classics —Cozi,Antenna,MEtv,Decades and Laff, to name a few.
Second, read the fine print. Free services promise dozens of current shows, but often just one or two episodes of each — a limitation, by the way, of the network-backed streaming websites, as well as Peacock+'s free tier.
Third, prepare to be disappointed. While voluminous, these sites are far from comprehensive. Much of the best remains walled off, tucked away inside pay sites.
But many shows are not, and, so — fourth — prepare to be amazed. There are some gems out there, and even a few treasures. Here's a handy guide to finding some that are "on-demand" — where you pick the episode you want to see, and when you want to see it. (One last caveat: shows often come and go unexpectedly, so it's wise tocheck back frequently with these streamers for their most up-to-date offerings.)
Roku's free channel (therokuchannel.roku.com) was launched in 2017, which makes it a bit of a latecomer to the field (Pluto arrived in 2013), but it's the leader now forfree on-demand TV content. Yes, Pluto has those famous linear "channels"like ones devoted to "Blue Bloods" and "CSI," but its on-demand menu is more limited. Roku — which has well over a hundred free streaming channels too — does come with a one-time cost (that streaming player) but you can also watch on your web browser.
"Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (1962-66) Not to be confused with "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" — which is widely available across the web — "Hour" was the follow-up series, and available only here.
"Bones" (2005-17) Surely you remember "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), but if not, all 12seasons are here as a reminder.
"Boston Legal" (2004-08) David E. Kelley's semi-wistful re-imagining of Beantown'slegal scene, along with Denny Crane, William Shatner's second-most-memorable character.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (1997-03)
Sarah Michelle Gellar classic that inspired a thousand other shows (and movies), and even a few college courses.
"Brothers and Sisters" (2006-11) Playwright Jon Robin Baitz' solid prime-time soap, with cast (Sally Field) to match. Also available for free on ABC.com.
"Cagney & Lacey'' (1982-88)TV's first female buddy cop show — frankly, there haven't been a lot since — and still arguably the best. (Also on Pluto).
Funny Craig T. Nelson sitcom about a football-obsessed coach and his hapless assistant Dauber (Bill Fagerbakke).
"Downton Abbey" (2010-2015) One of the treasures of FAST, butall six seasons are only here.
"Friday Night Lights'' (2006-11)Another treasure, five seasons about life in (fictional) Dillon, Tx., and the (fictional) football team that galvanized it.
"Hart to Hart" (1979-84)
Oddly enough, just the first three seasons out of five of this Sidney Sheldon-created glam detective series with Stephanie Powers and Robert Wagner — but that should suffice. The first couple of seasons are also on Tubi.
"The Hollow Crown" (2012-16) Excellent two-season BBC adaptation of William Shakespeare's history plays — but just the first season here.
"House of Cards"(1991) The original one-season British version (starring Ian Richardson) which inspired the Netflix series of the same name.
"Malcolm in the Middle"(2000-06) Linwood Boomer's sitcom about family dysfunction (a Fox specialty) and two hapless, long-suffering parents (Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston).
"The Mentalist" (2008-15) Fine Aussie actor Simon Baker finally gets the hit he'd been waiting for, in this cop procedural about a psychic detective.
"Murder, She Wrote" (1984-96)For a 12-season walk down memory lane, Roku is the only place for the Angela Lansbury mystery series— all of it.
"NewsRadio" (1995-99) All five seasons of Phil Hartman/Dave Foley comedy about all-news WNYX (only a couple seasons available on Crackle and Pluto).
"The Practice" (1997-2004) You be the judge to see if this once-celebrated David E. Kelley courtroom drama holds up 20years later (but parts probably do).
"Real Husbands of Hollywood" (2013-16) Every franchise needs a sendup, or at least the "Real Housewives" does, and over five seasons this filled the role, with "real husbands" Kevin Hart, Boris Kodjoe, J.B. Smoove andNick Cannon.
"The Rockford Files" (1974-80)
The James Garner staple about the wrongfully convicted PI who struggles to make ends meet after he does time — and which was really just an updated version of Western "Maverick" who Garner also played.
Sliders" (1995-2000). FAST is relatively weak on sci-fi, but at least this cool, late-'90s time travel series with Jerry O'Connell found a free home here.
"The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (1962-92) Beware the "free" offers to watch "Tonight" that have proliferated across the web because most are just clip jobs. At least Roku has taken 232 episodes, mostly from the '70s and '80s, and arranged them into "seasons." The list is both good and representative, albeit far, far from complete (there were, after all, about 6,700 Carson episodes). And yes, Johnny's "Tonight" is also available on the linear "classics" channels.
"The Twilight Zone" (1959-64) This Rod Serling classic is easy to find on the internet, but it is best browsed here or on Pluto.
Eight seasons of this darker-than-dark comedy about a widow (Mary-Louise Parker) who sells pot to support herself.
Coming up on its 10th anniversary this August, Pluto.TV is the best-known of the FASTs, and the biggest, thanks to its huge suite of free linear channels (more than 300 on the U.S. service alone.) Paramount took control in 2019, which opened the floodgates to CBS shows, with more on the way. Indeed, Pluto is such a vast FAST that it really is two separate services — the on-demand one, and the linear service. Moreover, the linear one is divided by genre (like the"Sitcom Legends" channel) and shows, like the "Blue Bloods" channel. "Sitcom Legends" recently added "Frasier" and "Cheers" — the only place to see them on free streaming TV — while "Blue Bloods" recently added the first six seasons.There are some exceptions, but not many.Meanwhile, here are some on-demand gems:
"The Addams Family"
(1964-66) And here's the exception — both on-demand episodes, and a whole linear channel (and still great after all these years).
Michael J. Fox's classic sitcom that managed to poke fun at both Reaganism and liberalism (often at the same time).
"Gunsmoke" (1955-75) Pluto owner Paramount has made certain this is the only place to see the genre-defining Western (from the 7th season on.)
"Highway to Heaven" (1984-89) Michael Landon as an angel sent to Earth to save us — and boy, do we need saving.
"In the Heat of the Night" (1988-94) Carroll O'Connor and Howard Rollins starred in this spinoff of the 1967 movie that starred Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier.
"Laverne & Shirley" (1976-83) This eight-season spin-off of "Happy Days" was a high-spirited charmer with a pair of gifted physical comedians who made the series a primetime classic (it was about a pair of bottle-cappers at Milwaukee's fictitious Shotz Brewery.) Cindy Williams (Shirley) died recently at the age of 75, Penny Marshall -- Laverne -- in 2018. The first five seasons stream here.
"Stargate SG-1" (1997-2007) All 10 seasons about that alien gate to other worlds.
"The Odd Couple" (1970-75) The Tony Randall/Jack Klugman series, and the rare TV classic that did not end up on YouTube.
"Sanford and Son" (1972-77)
Only the first two seasons are available of this still funny sitcom about a junk dealer (Redd Foxx) and son (Demond Wilson) but that's better than you'll get anywhere else.
"Sister, Sister" (1994-99)
Both the ABC and WB versions of the Tia and Tamera Mowry sitcom about twin sisters— a total of 119 episodes — are here.
Tubi may be the fastest-growing of the FASTs at the moment, and it wouldn't disparage that assessment. There are now 51 million active users, just behind Roku, while the industry leader remains Pluto (68 million).You can wander for days, or weeks, here. There just aren't quite as many gems as you'll get on Pluto or Roku.
"The Bernie Mac Show" (2001-06)
Based on Mac's own parenting adventures and drawn from his stand-up, this was a sensation for Fox in the early aughts.
"Dark Shadows" (1966-71)A total of 1,225 episodes of ABC's afternoon cult classic — about the ghostly occurrences surrounding the Collins family of Collinsport, Maine — were produced, and remarkably, they're all here.
"Degrassi: The Next Generation" (2001-15) Best known for launching the rocket known as Drake, this fourth series in the long-running "Degrassi" teen soap was a sensation.
"The Jeffersons"(1975-85). This "All in the Family" spinoff lasted eleven seasons, and only two seasons are available here, under the heading, "two are better than none …"
Launched in 2004, Crackle has gone through many changes over the years, most recently its sale in 2018 by Sony to Chicken Soup for the Soul. There's still a lot of content — but nothing compared to the leaders. .
"The Beast" (2009) Patrick Swayze's final performance before his death in 2009 wasthis one-season series — about a veteran FBI agent in Chicago — and it wasactually pretty good.
"The Dick Cavett Show" (1969-75) While the original ABC late-night show is well-represented on YouTube, Crackle has organized several seasons thematically, including many episodes for Black History Month.
"Everybody Hates Chris" (2005-09)
While widely available on free streaming TV, this funny alt-universe "Everybody Loves Raymond" comedy with "Abbott Elementary's" Tyler James Williams comes with all four seasons.
"Sherlock" (2010-17) Easily the best reason to come to Crackle, because all four seasons of this great Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman revival are here, and only here.
"Soul!' (1968-73) Ellis Haizlip's endlessly fascinating exploration of Black life, music and culture in the late '60s and '70s is all here.
"The Partridge Family'' (1970-74).
Hilariously and quite possibly hopelessly dated, watch if only for the great Shirley Jones. (Also on the all-classics linear channels, by the way.)
Launched in 2019 as IMDB TV but re-branded as Freevee last April, this does feel like a work in progress at times. Foremost, Freevee is difficult to navigate (and even more difficult to find.) But it's worth the effort. There are a few welcome surprises here, and a treasure or two.
"Burn Notice" (2007-13). Jeffrey Donovan's Michael Westen — the spy who was "burned" — and his Miami-based thriller lasted seven entertaining seasons.
"Dallas" (1978-91)The granddaddy of prime-time soaps, and (arguably) the best;all 14 seasons are here.
"Desperate Housewives" (2004-12)
Seven seasons of the great soap/comedy/murder mystery/what-have-you are on Freevee but fAmazon makes you pay for the 8th and final one.
"Fringe" (2008-13) The FBI's Fringe unit seeks to explain weird otherworldly happenings thatarrived from a parallel universe. A great series that gets new life here.
"Lost" (2004-10) "Lost" lasted justsix glorious, perplexing seasons, but it did change culture and television — so it seems reasonable that you should get it for free.
"Mad Men" (2007-15)
Speaking of those treasures, Freevee has offered this since the IMDB days.
"The X-Files" (1993-2002)This has been one of Freevee's big draws. The free package even includes the lamentable 2016 and 2018 revivals..
By Verne Gay
Verne Gay is Newsday's TV writer and critic. He has covered the media business for more than 30 years.