There's more to 21st-century TV than the shows in your cable guide. The Internet is full of entertaining, informative and educational programming, some paid and much of it free, if you know where to look.
See Also: Stream video throughout your home.
Netflix is a good place to start. While the company's DVD-by-mail subscription service is still available (starting at $7.99/month), the video streaming service has become increasingly popular in the past few years. Netflix offers an impressive selection of movies and TV shows, though there are still many choices available on DVD that aren't available for online viewing. The service's popularity has led to widespread availability: you can tap into the Netflix library through your computer as well as most smart TVs and Blu-ray players, video streaming devices, iPads, gaming consoles and even some phones. Netflix online access costs $7.99/month; you can try it free for one month by visiting www.netflix.com.
There are also several pay-per-program services available, including iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu and CinemaNow. Each of these offers the option to rent or purchase movies, and buy TV shows. You'll find more recent releases compared to the Netflix library, though you will pay for each individually versus a pay-one-price Netflix subscription. By and large, movie rentals run $3.99 each, purchases $12.99-$14.99, and TV shows $1.99-$2.99, with older releases at lower prices. Viewing options vary from service to service. All work with your computer, but you'll also find compatibility with various smart TVs and streaming devices, iPads and other tablets.
Does watching high-quality movies and TV shows for free sound appealing? Sony has created a site called Crackle that offers nearly 300 uncut movies and over 100 TV series at no cost. The selection is a mixed bag, and certainly the films aren't brand new releases, but there are some interesting choices, such as Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction, Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, and plenty of Seinfeld, Bewitched and All in the Family episodes.
Another interesting spot for free movies is PopcornFlix.com, a site specializing in free independent movies. You probably won't recognize most of the film names, but you'll certainly know many of the performers, including Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken and William Hurt. A fair number of not-in-a-million-years films are included, but I spotted some well-reviewed flicks too, such as Battle in Seattle and Equinox.
Hulu and Hulu Plus offer movies and TV shows, though the focus is really on TV. The basic Hulu service is free, supported by advertising that's not horribly intrusive. Hulu offers a mixed bag of current and older network and cable shows, though most recent episodes are only available 30 days after they air, and you can only watch on a computer. Hulu Plus charges $7.99 a month for a wider programming selection, high-def video and compatibility with many phones and tablets, gaming consoles, smart TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes. There's a free one-week trial offer at www.hulu.com/plus.
If you're an HBO and/or Cinemax subscriber, you may be eligible to stream both current and older programming to your computer at no additional charge — a great way to catch up on all those True Blood episodes you missed, including prior seasons. Your cable or satellite provider has to be part of the HBOGo and MaxGo system for you to have access — check the list at www.hbogo.com and www.maxgo.com.
For sports fans, the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL offer subscriptions to watch current-season games online. These services include games not broadcast in your area, the option to watch on a variety of devices, and archives of past games. Prices can change from season to season, but as an example, NFL Game Rewind offers a $39.99 season pass or a $19.99 monthly subscription. Marriage counseling not included.
Another option for watching a variety of college athletics, soccer and more obscure sports (dart championships, anyone?) is the WatchESPN service, but like HBOGo and MaxGo, your cable provider has to be a participant. You'll find the list at the espn.go.com website.
When it comes to free video, YouTube is the best-known choice, and for good reason — an incredible 48 hours of video gets uploaded to YouTube every minute. Many people don't realize that there's much more to YouTube than cute pet tricks and people harming themselves in creative ways. Whether you're looking for tips on hanging a picture on the wall, or information on Renaissance art, or video of Art Fleming hosting the original version of Jeopardy, you can unearth a wealth of video clips simply by using the YouTube search bar. There is also an entire section with full-length movies at www.youtube.com/movies (some paid, some free), lots of videos categorized into topical channels you can follow, and even live video streaming of concerts, sporting events, news broadcasts and much more from around the world by visting www.youtube.com/live.
YouTube is certainly not the only spot for free, fascinating videos on diverse topics. AOL Video offers a mix of professionally produced and amateur videos, with content conveniently organized by categories and channels. And if you're still feeling click-happy, the wide-ranging Veoh site has video clips, TV shows, movies, music videos and more, organized into categories ranging from Faith & Lifestyle to Celebrity & Showbiz, including many videos that would be too long for inclusion on YouTube.
Finally, there are all those sites offering free videos in specific categories. Foodies may flock to Chow, comedy fans to Funny or Die, folks eager for intellectual stimulation to the talks and presentations at Ted — the list goes on and on. Try using your favorite general-purpose search engine, try the "Internet Television Guide" at www.clicker.com, check your favorite magazine and news channel sites and, above all, have fun on the hunt. Every web video source you discover frees you from one more hour of dull mass-produced programming on network or cable TV.