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

A Service of Fullervision Enterprises

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. (Note that CBS operates on a somewhat strange model: all their feeds are separate, their sportscasts each have their own feed for each sport, their live news feed operates on a delay from live TV, and their other programs are not streamed live, instead offered on demand between 1 and 7 days after airing for free before the network begins charging for "All Access" subscriptions.)

I have excluded televangelism networks, home shopping, foreign propaganda, and Internet-only services that do not match the schedule of a traditionally distributed network.

New channel added June 26: Buzzr, a channel devoted to classic game shows. They have recently begun streaming their over-the-air channel online. The alternate feed is a separate channel.

STATUS: WHVL and KCTU/This TV have (alas) been removed, as it appears both have ceased streaming. Also unfortunately removed was Yes TV, which is ending streaming August 1. (While a lot of its programs are available on other feeds, such as CJON and BYUTV, Yes TV was one of those signals I could sometimes pick up under perfect circumstances, but it also carried some of the programs I watch regularly in real-time with the stations available in my area, which isn't the case with the other channels.)

Items with a crossed-out mobile phone icon (📵) only work on desktop computers. Others have been tested on an Android phone and appear to work properly.
Items with a maple leaf icon (🍁) are only accessible in Canada. (In theory, one could use a proxy server to access them, but because this stretches the limits of what constitutes “legal” and those feeds are likely restricted to Canadians for a reason, I won't list the instructions on how to do that here.

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.”

Notable programs by channel

Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Judge Judy: CJON
Charlie's Angels, Batman, Soap, Bewitched, Barney Miller, Who's the Boss?, Justice with Judge Mablean: CHCH
Pawn Stars, Impractical Jokers, Judge Faith: AMGTV
Positively Paula (Deen), Independent Network News, The Daily Buzz: YOUTOO
Small Town Big Deal: YOUTOO, AMGTV
Heartland, Highway to Heaven, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?: LIGHT TV
Just Like Mom and Dad: BYUTV
The Danny Kaye Show, The Soupy Sales Show, That Show with Joan Rivers, Candid Camera: JLTV

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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