Most Americans who cut the cord with cable do so to lower their monthly bills.
That makes sense, given that the average household pays $64.41 each month for an expanded basic package, according to data from the FCC's annual Report On Average Rates. The problem is that while it might feel nice to not write a check to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, DISH Network, or any of the other pay television providers, the cost of streaming services can pile up fast.
Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon.com are cheap alternatives to traditional cable, with each costing less than $10 per month. Other services, such as HBO's Now, which costs $15 a month, and DISH's Sling TV, starting at $20 a month, are a little pricier, but they're still values on their own.
The problem is that most people aren't buying just one streaming product. Over half of Americans who paid for digital content subscribed to more than one service, according to a report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Nearly 20% paid for at least three, while roughly 6% paid for six different services. Add up any six paid streaming options, and you may not reach $64.41 a month, but you're likely to come very close.
But just because you can pay for content as a way around dishing out cash each month for cable doesn't mean you have to do that. It's possible to entirely cut the cord and still watch high-quality network-like (and sometimes network) television programming. Yes, the Internet is filled with cat videos and other low-quality free video choices, but there are also a shocking number of free, legal places to watch full programs with top-end production values.
Hulu's free service is sort of awesome
While Hulu Plus offers an amazing catalog of full seasons (current and past) of a variety of popular shows, the site's free service has a respectable selection of recent episodes for free. A number of Fox shows, including Family Guy and Last Man on Earth, have their latest shows posted, as do some NBC stalwarts, including Law & Order: SVU and Saturday Night Live.
Hulu also has free shows from the CW, as well as clips from late-night comedy programs, including The Daily Show and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
The selection is not as deep as the paid service, and you have to watch most shows in a relatively short window, but there are lots of choices, including some of the most popular shows on television.
Cancelled shows find a digital home
Paid streaming services have occasionally become second-chance homes for shows that were once network programs. Arrested Development may be the most famous example, as Netflix brought back the beloved one-time Fox show for another season.
Reviving a show on a paid platform is one thing, but now Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) has brought back NBC's Community, another cult favorite, on its free Yahoo! Screen platform. The service also offers Saturday Night Live clips, as well as other original shows, interviews by Katie Couric, and a sports show, NFL Now.
The offering isn't very expansive yet, but the production values are network-level. Community looks like it did before The Peacock Network cancelled it, and the other programs are of similar quality.
Look on the network sites
Hulu has some network shows, and it's the easiest place to find a volume of broadcast shows for free, but a number of network sites also offer zero-cost episodes. This can be a somewhat maddening experience, as none of the networks appear to have an official policy as to when programs are posted for free streaming.
ABC, for example, is currently offering much of the first-season run of its new comedy Off the Boat for free on ABC.com. That, however, appears to be a limited-time offer, which is typical of how the networks dole out free programming. Sometimes it's just an episode designed to get people to sample, and other times whole seasons are offered.
There's no logic to it, but if you check regularly, a lot of popular programs can (sometimes) be found.
Crackle gets in on the action
The Sony (NYSE:SNE) video service, Crackle, has both original TV-like programming -- including a sports version of Jeopardy, starring Dan Patrick -- and episodes of older TV shows, including Married With Children, Damages, and The Larry Sanders Show. The site also offers original movies that are closer to TV-level budgets than feature films.
Crackle has a nice enough selection of original programming, older shows, and movies that it's surprising it's offered for free.
It's about saving money
If your goal is to not pay any money for television but still have broadcast-quality programs to watch, it's possible, albeit a bit confounding. These sources aren't the only ones streaming TV-level shows without charging for them. Free shows -- some familiar, some new -- are dotted all over the Internet.
Not having a cable bill comes with some major sacrifices, but the level of programming that you can find for free is shockingly high. You won't get everything, but you may get enough, and the savings will be substantial.