Whether it's to replace a cable TV subscription or to augment it, millions of Americans have turned to streaming services through the years, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu+ and YouTube Premium, to name just a few.
But with so many services available, subscription costs can really add up — especially if you opt for a few services to binge on a variety of TV shows and movies. It also defeats the financial reason for cutting the cord.
So budget-conscious consumers are discovering completely free and legal streaming solutions, collectively referred to as AVOD, ad-supported video-on-demand, services. As the name suggests, the services contain advertisements between and during content though fewer and shorter than over-the-air broadcast stations.
But hey, free is free.
"Ultimately, that's the appeal of AVOD services: These streaming channels are free and have no subscription fees tied to them,” says Tim Bajarin, a technology analyst and president of Creative Strategies market research in San Jose, California. “Most people understand that, in the end, there is no free lunch and are willing to view ads to avoid subscription fees."
How to set up AVOD services
If you have an Internet connection and a screen, you can watch most of these on-demand video services on just about any platform. You can access most on the service's website or by downloading a free Android or Apple app for viewing on a smartphone or tablet.
Several Smart TVs also let you install apps for many of these AVOD services. Or you can use a streaming device plugged into a television, such as an Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast or Roku product.
Most popular AVOD services
By far, YouTube is the leading ad-supported video-on-demand platform. But users identified 10 other AVOD services they watch.
• Facebook Watch: 17%
• Roku Channel: 14%
• Crackle: 11%
• Pluto TV: 11%
• Tubi: 11%
• Peacock, free version: 10%
• Dailymotion, short newsy videos: 8%
• Bloomberg, via Haystack News: 7%
• Twitch, a platform for gamers: 7%
• Vudo's free items: 7%
Note: Fourth quarter 2020 survey of 4,526 respondents, age 18 and older in U.S. and Canada
Source: TiVo Video Trends Report
Alternatively, when on an Android, iPad or iPhone device, you can choose to “cast” the video wirelessly to a nearby and compatible smart TV. You will need to be on the same Wi-Fi network as your television. Some video game consoles, like PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, also support AVOD services.
These services don't require users to have an account. But you might be prompted to create one and sign in for optional features such synchronization across various devices, like starting a show on an iPad and finishing on a Smart TV; personalized suggestions; or selecting something to watch later, which adds it to your queue. These options vary among services.
Along with advertisements, another downside to AVOD services is the quality of programming, Bajarin says. Don't expect it to equal streaming options such as Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. TV shows and movies are generally older, too.
"Each channel has limited content and, in most cases, has very little original content,” he says. “Even YouTube, the largest AVOD network, only offers high quality original content within their subscription layer."
What some AVOD streaming services offer
Along with YouTube, which has 40-minute to more than 3-hour films and TV that it designates Free with Ads in its Movies & Shows section, several other options are available in the burgeoning AVOD space:
- Crackle and Popcornflix. Owned by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, these two services dish up 10,800 films and 22,700 episodes of television programming, including classic shows like Bewitched and 3rd Rock From The Sun, as well as flicks such as Charlie's Angels, The Grudge and The Hurt Locker. Also check out the growing library of Popcornflix originals, such as As It Was, Clara, Crown Vic and Portals.
- IMDb TV. Amazon's free streaming service has some big-name television shows such as the award-winning comedy Schitt's Creek, Law & Order United Kingdom, Lost, Mad Men, Murder She Wrote, Project Blue Book, Switched at Birth, and 24 to name a few. It also has full-length movies and original content, all watchable on the IMDb TV website, Fire TV devices and within the Prime Video app.
- Peacock. NBC's Peacock has a free tier, which lets you watch thousands of hours of movies and TV shows along with some news, sports, and other kinds of programming. It's available to watch on several devices, including Apple TV. All the content Peacock offers costs $4.99 a month including live sports. To get most everything without the ads is $9.99 a month. TV shows include Downton Abbey, Modern Family, The Office, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, the Today show and Yellowstone.
- Pluto TV. “All you really need to know is ... it's free of passwords, it's free of payments, and it's free of all those Friday night spats about what to watch” the Pluto TV website says. As one of the newest and buzzworthy services, Viacom's ad-supported streaming video platform offers hundreds of channels of on-demand movies, binge-worthy TV shows, the latest breaking news, live sports, and more. Click on a genre on the left-side of the screen, or what's featured, to get going.
- The Roku Channel. If you have a Roku device or a Roku TV, included on some TV brands such as TCL, you have access to The Roku Channel, which aggregates the best of free content on its platform and licenses content directly from studios. Popular titles include Black or White starring Kevin Costner, How Do You Know starring Reese Witherspoon and In the Line of Fire starring Harrison Ford. Roku says more than 150,000 movies and TV episodes are available free on its platform.
- Tubi. Owned by Fox, it allows you to access more than 20,000 hours of streaming video content from studios such as Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount and Warner Bros. A section called Tubi Kids is available within the app and website so you can watch the 2014 Annie reboot, Daddy Day Care, How to Train Your Dragon and Spy Kids with your grandkids. Among its fare for an older audience: Forensic Files, Hell's Kitchen, The Notebook, Super 8 and Titanic.
- Vudu. Fandango's Vudu offers more than 150,000 new releases and cataloged movies and TV shows, including a growing section of titles in 4K resolution for televisions that support it. Available at Vudu.com, on Amazon Fire TV streaming devices and some smart TVs is also an option to purchase or rent titles. New this month are critic favorites such as The Mauritanian and Minari and recent seasons of TV series such as The Walking Dead and Young Rock.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.
6 of the latest options for your home entertainment
Your old Betamax and VHS videotapes, LaserDiscs, DVDs and Blu-ray Discs are likely sitting on a shelf these days. The last VCR was manufactured in 2016, LaserDiscs left the scene seven years earlier and only a handful of companies still make DVD or Blu-ray players.
Those on-demand technologies coexisted with broadcast and cable TV for years. But as more people get access to high-speed internet, streaming video is crowding out ownership of a physical copy of a movie or TV show, according to research from the Motion Picture Association. From 2016 to 2020, sales and rentals of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs declined by 95 percent to $3.5 billion; money paid for streaming and digital downloads more than doubled to $26.5 billion.
In the last three quarters of 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic began, more than 800 movies that would have ended up in theaters went straight to streaming, according to streaming guide Reelgood. At the end of 2020, the Motion Picture Association logged more than 135 online services in the U.S. providing movies and TV shows to home users.
The latest ways you can get your home entertainment:
- Ad-supported video on demand (AVOD), free
- Subscription video on demand, such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, monthly fee
- Transactional video on demand, digital renting such as what's now available through FandangoNOW or iTunes, fee per view
- Cable TV, monthly fee
- Over-the-air local TV, free
- Subchannels of local stations, often with networks that rerun classic TV shows, free