One of the most common questions I get from prospective cord-cutters is whether they can stream local network channels without paying for a large, cable-style TV bundle (e.g., Hulu + Live TV or YouTube TV).
You might think this would be easy, given that the major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—are all available for free with an over-the-air antenna. Even so, most of these networks only offer live, local channel streams as part of a broader pay TV package. That’s because the companies that own those networks also own many other popular cable channels, and they expect you to pay for them all. (They also don’t take kindly to services that try and skirt local broadcast rules, as we saw with Locast and Aereo.)
The good news is that you don’t have to pay upwards of $65 per month just to watch local network shows. The bad news is that you’ll need to work a bit harder to get those shows, and you’ll miss out on the live sports and other event coverage that these channels offer. That’s just how it works when you’re trying to maximize your TV savings.
Still on board? Here are your options for unbundling network TV content:
Free network TV streaming options
Network TV apps still offer full episodes of their latest shows—no subscription needed.
While it’s not especially well-publicized, all the major TV networks have free streaming apps where you can watch many of their latest shows. You might need to wait for the latest episodes—up to eight days in some cases—and you’ll definitely have to sit through commercials, but at least you’ll be able to stream primetime network shows without a subscription..
CBS has free apps for Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV. (Not to be confused with Paramount+, which we’ll discuss shortly)ABC has free apps for all of the above platforms, plus Samsung smart TVsPBS has free apps on all the streaming platforms mentioned above, and it offers a free live stream in many marketsThe Fox Now app is free on all platforms above, plus Xbox consolesNBC has free apps for all the above platforms, plus Vizio TVs. (Some shows, such as Days of our Lives, are available for free on Peacock instead.)The CW has free apps on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, LG and Vizio TVs, and Xbox One consoles.
Note that with the exception of PBS, these apps will not allow you to watch a live stream of your local channel, at least not without logging in through a pay TV provider. They’re only useful for watching shows on demand.
Network TV shows on streaming services
If you’re willing to pay for a subscription or two, you can also stream network TV shows the day after they air on cable, and can even skip the commercials:
Hulu offers next-day access to ABC and Fox shows for $7 per month with ads, or $13 per month without ads. (Hulu also has next-day NBC shows, but not for much longer)Peacock Premium offers next-day access to NBC shows for $5 per month with ads, or $10 per month without adsParamount+ offers next-day access to CBS shows for $5 per month with ads, or $10 per month without ads, with a live local CBS stream also included in the pricier tier. Note that you can pretty much always get Paramount+ for free
Streaming local news broadcasts
Apps such as NewsOn may offer your local newscasts for free.
Watching your local news channels without cable is where things get trickier, because the major networks don’t offer live streams of their local stations without a full pay TV package. That said, many local affiliates have started streaming their newscasts for free if you know where to look:
NewsOn streams local news from more than 275 stations across 165 U.S. marketsVuit offers local news from more than 225 stations around the countryStirr has local news from Sinclair-owned affiliate stationsAmazon’s free Fire TV News app has local news from 158 U.S. citiesTubi offers local news from nearly 50 U.S. stationsHaystack has local news from various stations around the country
If you can’t find your local newscasts with those options, try visiting your local station’s websites or looking them up on YouTube, where you might find short news clips or even live newscasts.
LocalBTV: an option for lesser-known locals
LocalBTV offers local channels that even the live TV streaming services lack.
Jared Newman / IDG
LocalBTV is a free service that offers live over-the-air channel streams in 21 U.S. markets, with a focus on local news, public access channels, and digital subnetworks.
As of this writing, LocalBTV does not include any major TV networks, so you can’t use it to watch live ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox without cable. But because it offers channels that otherwise would require an antenna or cable subscription, it might help round out your no-bundle TV strategy.
Think shows, not channels
With all of these options to consider, my parting advice is to think more in terms of individual shows than entire channels.
While your favorite rerun channel might not be available without cable, for instance, chances are it’s still available on one streaming service or another. And even if you can’t watch live streams of NBC or Fox, you can still access their most popular shows shortly after they air. You can even use digital storefronts such as Apple’s iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play Movies & TV, or Vudu to buy the individual shows you care about the most.
If all else fails, you can always switch to a live TV streaming service, such as YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, Fubo TV, or DirecTV Stream, all of which stream local channels without any hoops to jump through. But as always, the added convenience comes at a cost.
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