8 Free Streaming Services to Save You From Subscription Hell
You may not have heard of Tubi, Pluto TV, or Kanopy—but they’re the perfect cure for subscription fatigue.
THE MAIN CASUALTY of the streaming wars so far has been your wallet. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, Discovery+: They all demand a monthly tithe. Toss in a live service like YouTube TV, the music app of your choice, and whatever gaming concoction suits your needs, and you’re suddenly ringing up a pretty grim bill. But wait! Recent years have seen a bumper crop of free streaming services as well. They’re the perfect cure for subscription fatigue.
The old adage that you get what you pay for does apply here to some extent. Free streaming services typically don’t have as many viewing options as their paid counterparts, and most make you watch a few ads along the way. But they’re also better than you might expect, and they continue to improve. Some even include original programming, or something close to it; the Roku Channel acquired the rights to dozens of shows that originally appeared on the ill-fated Quibi streaming service, and it began showing them on Thursday.
While you shouldn’t expect any of the following free streaming services to replace Netflix in your streaming regimen, you shouldn’t count them out either. Each almost certainly offers at least something you want to watch, and they won’t cost you an arm and a leg—or anything at all—to take advantage.
OK, this could potentially be confusing, since Roku is made up of thousands of “channels,” including the majors like Hulu and HBO Now. But it also operates the Roku Channel, which offers an eclectic mix of movies and TV shows. Typically it doesn’t have much that’s new new, although you can find plenty of older hits like Troy and The Queen, along with slightly musty television classics like Alias and 3rd Rock From the Sun. (Most notably: It has the full run of The Prisoner, the original 1967 version, which you should watch right now if you haven’t already.)
However! In January, Roku acquired exclusive global distribution rights to the shows Quibi produced before it flamed out. On May 20, it launched the first 30 of those, including fare starring bona fide celebrities like Kevin Hart, Anna Kendrick, and Chrissy Teigan. For all the fun everyone had at Quibi’s expense, some of those shows actually seem pretty promising. And either way, at least now you don’t have to pay money to find out.
The Roku Channel’s other neat trick is that it offers free linear programming—which is to say, it acts like a traditional television channel rather than on-demand viewing—including news reports from ABC and indie movies and classic TV from Filmrise. On Thursday, it also added the LOL! Network to that list, which, as you might have guessed, features comedy programming. You can also subscribe to other streaming services—HBO, Showtime, Acorn TV, and so on—through the Roku Channel, which should save you some navigational clicks.
If you already have the Roku app on your smartphone, the Roku Channel is right there waiting for you. Or you can get it—and everything else on this list—through your Roku device.
In terms of movies and TV shows you might actually be excited to watch, no other free streaming service comes close to Peacock. It has a paid tier, too, which unlocks even more goodies. But even without paying a dime, you can view the first two seasons of The Office, the first three Harry Potter movies, some classic WWE pay-per-views, a bunch of Bourne flicks, the Eurovision singing competition, and Mystery Men. (That last one is admittedly a personal favorite.) The point is that the selection is very, very good. There’s even a buzzy original, the Tina Fey-produced Girls5eva.
Peacock also throws in a few “channels,” in case you’ve got decision fatigue, with dedicated streams of The Tonight Show, Today, and yes, a 24/7 Real Housewives fix for those who need it.
For $5 a month, you can upgrade to unlock those other seasons, movie series installments, and other premium selections. For $10 a month, you can watch it all without ads. But the free plan has plenty to keep you entertained until you hit that wall.
Do you have a library card? Then you have Kanopy! Well, sort of. You still have to sign up for a separate Kanopy account, and your public library needs to be a Kanopy customer. Some big ones aren’t; the New York Public Library system dropped it in 2019 because of ballooning expenses. (While you can watch movies on the platform for free, your library pays per stream.) If your library does offer it, though, you can’t do much better in terms of quality indie fare. That includes recent breakouts like Another Round and, crucially, dozens of movies from the storied Criterion Collection. It’s a cinephile’s dream, and the perfect excuse to renew your library card. Everyone needs one!
Hoopla is another library-connected service that has a great selection but no Criterion. On the plus side, you can also manage your library ebooks, comics, and other media through it, while Kanopy is strictly video. So do with that what you will.
Most of the streaming services on this list specialize in on-demand content. Viacom-owned Pluto TV does have that—including 19 James Bond flicks—but its primary aim is to replicate the traditional cable-viewing menu with specialized channels serving up nonstop Doctor Who, Antiques Roadshow, and even Survivor. It also has traditional networks, like CNN and Fox Sports. There are hundreds of channels to surf through in all. Basically, if you’ve got decision fatigue—if you’re tired of wasting an hour scrolling through Netflix before you actually watch anything—Pluto TV is the elixir you’re looking for.
Tubi lacks the name recognition of some of its peers, but its library outpaces most of them, with thousands of ad-supported TV and movie titles. You don’t even need to register an account to watch. It also arranges its haul into helpful categories—including a “Not on Netflix” collection to help you better appreciate what you’re not paying for. There’s still a lot of junk to sift through on Tubi, but it doesn’t take long to turn up rewatchable classics like Boogie Nights, star vehicles like Cast Away, and hall-of-fame schlock like Snakes on a Plane. And if that doesn’t do it for you, might I recommend hours and hours (and hours) of Columbo on demand?
If you’ve never gotten around to Mad Men, here’s your chance. IMDb TV has the complete series, along with 31 seasons of The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. That alone should keep you busy for a few months. To access the IMDb library, you’ll need to create an account or use your existing Amazon credentials. The overall selection is decent but not great; the most popular movies currently appear to be Blue Valentine and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, if that gives you some idea. There’s some original programming here as well, mostly centered around the film industry. It’s probably unlikely that IMDb TV will ever catch up to its Prime Video sibling in terms of high-quality content, so manage those expectations accordingly.
Traditionally a media server, Plex entered the free streaming market a couple of years ago. If you already use it to store your digital content, it’s a very small jump to try out some of its gratis movie and TV options as well. The selection is a little hit or miss, but comedy fans can get every episode of the short-lived Dana Carvey Show, and art house devotees will be happy to see modern classics like Man on Wire and Melancholia. Plex also recently introduced dozens of narrowly targeted linear television channels as well, which offer a 24-hour fix of everything from poker tournaments to IFC hits.
Did you know that Sony Crackle has been around in one form or another since 2004? That’s three years before Netflix started streaming. The head start may not have won it a massive following, but Crackle does house some gems, particularly in the realm of cult and classic TV. You can binge the entirety of News Radio and Peep Show, and early seasons of The Carol Burnett Show and Father Knows Best. Relatively rare for a free streaming service, Crackle also has original shows like Rob Riggle’s Ski Master Academy and the very much less ridiculous StartUp. There are plenty of movies here, too, although your mileage will vary. You don’t need an account to watch, at least, and the content gets updated pretty regularly.