The Cord-Cutter's Guide to Free Live Television (that's legal)

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National networks

The following listing is a collection of networks (be they cable/satellite or over-the-air) that provide live feeds of their programming for free over the Internet. I have excluded televangelism networks, home shopping, foreign propaganda, and Internet-only services that do not match the schedule of a traditionally distributed network.

CHCH Canadian news and classic reruns

Syndicated programming

Accuweather Weather (via affiliate WFAA-DT2/Dallas)
Weather (app required)

NASA TV U.S. space program and educational science programming

Congressional sessions
All programming is available on the C-SPAN mobile app, audio only

News, conservative talk, documentaries

Newsy Rolling news coverage

Bloomberg Business news

NBC News Select news programs from NBC and MSNBC

CBS News Select news programs from CBS

CBS Sports
🏀NCAA basketball, 🏈SEC college football, ⛳PGA golf
NBC Sports NFL football, Notre Dame football, NHL hockey

Fox Sports
NFL Thursday Night Football, talk shows from FS1
NFL local Sunday games and most prime time contests (app req'd, mobile only)

Stadium Sports talk, live alternative and mid-level college sports

CHARGE! Action films and shows

COMET Science fiction films and shows

Gaming and millennial-oriented programming, children's programs mornings

PBS KIDS Educational children's programs

Buzzr Classic game shows

TCN The Country Network - Country music videos

LIGHT TV Family entertainment
📵 Pursuit
Outdoors programming (via affiliate KPBN-DT2)
General entertainment
📵 Youtoo
Youtoo America - Entertainment (via affiliate WVVH, requires Silverlight)

Jewish Life Television - Variety/comedy, Jewish-themed programming

World Harvest Television - Westerns

BYUTV Family entertainment, LDS-themed programming, college sports
🍁 CBC Canadian programming, NHL hockey

Update October 2018: NTV/CJON, which had streamed Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune and Judge Judy, has indeed pulled that programming from their online feed. They were the last sources for those programs online (they had been on yesTV, which also alas has stopped streaming), and with regret, because the remaining programming on the online feed is only local news and their eccentric local-origination overnight broadcasts (they might still be carrying some holiday specials but I haven't tested the feed for those and there isn't a place for me to put them), there is nothing left on the feed of national or international interest. Added: WHT (World Harvest Television). I have been on the fence regarding this channel because so much of its programming is driven by televangelism and it only carries two shows on repeat (The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers, both in the public domain) on its weekday afternoon secular block, but it does have a limited amount of additional syndicated programming on the weekends.

NOTE ON AMGTV: AMGTV's streaming service requires Adobe Flash (hence the 📵 icon). As most browsers now disable Flash by default, you will have to manually enable it to watch that stream. In Google Chrome and Opera, this can be done by going to the menu, selecting “Settings,” then “Websites,” scrolling down to “Flash”and clicking “Manage exceptions...” Enter (or copy and paste) into the text box, make sure the dropdown menu says “Allow,” and select “Done.”

NOTE ON YOUTOO: WVVH, the Youtoo affiliate streaming the network's programming, relies on an outdated Silverlight plug-in that I think only works with Internet Explorer (blech). The iPhone/iPad link used to work, but for reasons I don't totally understand, it's stopped working.

Additional tips

Get an outdoor antenna

An antenna will be your best source of free television programming. The major broadcast networks still broadcast with an antenna, and you'll get programming live that isn't available on the Internet. Note that if you are in a hilly area, television reception is going to be difficult, regardless of what kind of antenna you use. The higher you can get your antenna, the more likely it is to work properly.  Point your antenna in the direction of the broadcast stations you want to receive (consult the FCC digital TV signal reception maps to figure out which direction to point your antenna), and make sure that there are as few obstructions in that direction as possible. If you live in a rural or hilly area any substantial distance away from a broadcast signal, an amplifier will likely be necessary.

If you want to watch programs on demand, invest in a DVR.

If size doesn't matter―and getting the most free TV is your primary goal―buy a portable TV and head for the hills

This may seem a bit counterintuitive considering the need for a good antenna, but especially if you have difficulties in picking up signals because you live in a valley, a portable, battery-powered TV will give you the best chance at actually finding them. The trick is to head to the highest publicly accessible hill in your area, then run your channel scan. Hilltops offer MUCH more favorable signal reception conditions, and a smaller antenna (usually included with the portable) will usually suffice.

Then, when you come down off the hill, if you have your bigger home-based antenna, you can hook it up. One of the biggest differences between analog and digital TV is how it handles weak signals: an analog TV can display whatever shows up on that channel, no matter how weak or distorted it may be. For digital, you have to scan first, and if that channel's signal is weak or distorted, it'll be skipped over and not added to the channel lineup—meaning there will be no way to actually get that channel on your TV. By scanning on a hilltop, when you come down, all those channels are already in your lineup, and you can then manually adjust your antenna to lock in a usable signal, just like you used to be able to do with analog. (Otherwise, you're basically aiming blind and hoping for the best.)

The one drawback to this method is that portable TVs usually don't carry HD displays and, naturally, are very small.

Check out a free over-the-top service

There are a few free over-the-top content providers. Most of them don't provide cable-quality programming, but a few of them have some notable shows. Pluto TV, for example, includes the program library from the late Anthony Bourdain, the talk shows of MSNBC and Fox Sports 1, some of the channels listed on this page, and a surprisingly wide array of reruns, including the Nosey channel, which carries daytime talk shows. Xumo TV has a somewhat more limited selection, including some of the same channels Pluto carries, and is only available in the United States. Both services have a large number of “web-exclusive” services that collect short-form video content and airs it on a linear channel.

With some programs, you're just going to have to pay for them, so decide what ones you want

Cable networks will never offer their most popular programs for free. It's not part of their business model. There are a large number of subscription “over-the-top” services out there, some run by the individual channels and others run by middleman companies bundling channels together. We're in the late 2010s now, so some over-the-top services are producing their own original programs that aren't available anywhere else. Keep all this in mind when assessing which services you want to buy, and note that if you buy all the channels available on a cable or satellite provider, it will likely cost more than a subscription, so if you want a huge selection, paying for cable or satellite may still be your best bargain.

Local sports, in particular, will likely pose your biggest obstacle. National sports networks can be found on most over-the-top providers, but the local ones that carry a majority of your local major league teams' games are difficult to find, and what ones that are carrying them tend to be very expensive. If you're thinking of buying an out-of-market package and hoping to get your local teams, think again—your local teams will almost certainly be blacked out. So, with that in mind...

Use a radio

If keeping up with live sporting events without paying for an expensive channel is what you seek, tune in a radio. At night, a large number of clear-channel stations audible over diameters of over a thousand miles still carry a number of different sporting events, depending on the station and market. Your local teams will almost certainly be within range. For certain sports, the games are also streamed on the Internet (although with the major leagues, many of the same issues that make it difficult to find TV broadcasts also restrict online radio broadcast availability—you might find it, but expect to pay).

If at all possible, get an ISP not tied to your local cable company

If you're cutting the cord, you're trying to avoid the cable company that has a vested interest in you not cutting the cord. Research what your local phone company offiers, see if there is WiMax or other similar service available in your area, and if all else fails, satellite Internet is available nationwide from HughesNet or Viasat (although HughesNet has common ownership with a satellite TV provider, the companies and accounts are separate). Try to avoid metered connections if you can.

All video streams are freely provided by the actual channels. No ownership implied.

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