A broken television recently forced me to ponder the unthinkable: A summer without my favorite shows. As someone who consumes reality television with the passion that some reserve for five-star restaurants, I knew I couldn’t resign myself to that fate. So I spent some time figuring out how to watch television online for free. (If we were going to have to buy a new television, we certainly didn’t want to start squandering money on pay-per-episode shows.)
[In Pictures: 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]
Here’s what I discovered: There’s enough free entertainment out there to make you wonder why you’re paying $60 a month (or more) for cable. From the network news to serialized primetime shows to cable programming, the show you want can almost always be found online. In most cases, all the viewer has to do to access it is watch a short 30-second ad before the opening scenes, or a longer two-minute ad where a commercial break would normally be. Not a bad price, considering most of us watch ads anyway when we tune into our expensive cable channels.
If you’re ready to cash in on these freebies yourself, here are my top four tips:
1. Use Hulu.com. As most people under age 25 know, the website Hulu.com makes it easy to watch many shows for free, including fan favorites such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Office, and Modern Family. With limited ads and easy streaming, the only downside is that not all shows are available at all times. That’s when you might need to use the next option. [See also: The Economic Reality of Primetime Families.]
2. Before paying for a new episode of your favorite show on iTunes, do a Web search with the name of the show and the words “full episodes.” Networks don’t always make it easy to find the latest show through their websites, but a Web search with those terms will help turn it up. This technique helped us find the latest 60 Minutes, Survivor, and Amazing Race episodes, for example. But it can also turn up spam sites. Steer clear of any urls that you don’t recognize.
3. Take advantage of the online content you might already be paying for. If you subscribe to a cable provider, you might be able to watch even more of your favorite shows online than you can find through your TV screen. For example, the HBO Go app allows users to access all episodes of shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sex and the City. We were happy to rediscover these long-lost (to us) shows. (To access to shows, you must be a HBO subscriber.)
4. Check out iTunes, and not just for music. Networks often make their shows available through iTunes at low or no cost to the user. We also figured out that it was easier, and in some cases cheaper, to rent foreign films through iTunes than it would be through a video rental company (such as Netflix or Redbox). For just a few dollars, we downloaded an amazing French film (The Heartbreaker, for anyone who wants a recommendation) and watched it in high-definition on our laptop.
The good news: Our television started working again after a visit from the repair shop. So I’m back to watching Real Housewives and 16 & Pregnant on the big screen—but I’m still finding new ways to apply these TV-for-free techniques. We invested in a USB device that allows us to stream shows from our iPad onto the bigger television screen, so we can still watch all our new Internet shows for free. It’s going to be a good summer.
Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.