Disney content is on one streaming service. You can find HBO titles on another. Netflix and Amazon have competing networks of deals for popular (and sometimes not so popular) titles, crisscrossing all kinds of production companies and genres. All these major streaming services also produce their own titles. Access to so much content comes with a price though. In return for access to these streaming libraries, you pay a subscription.
Paying regular fees for a particular media brand or popular show is nothing new. Children of the 90s may have flashbacks to the cable packages we grew up with. They included different channels being bundled together at different rates. The sport channels were an extra few dollars. The cooking channels were a different package too. And so on.
The Costs Add Up
The standard price for Netflix is $8.99 a month. It can be higher for 4K or adding additional screens. Disney+ is currently priced at $6.99 (or $69.99 for 12 months). Over the course of a year, a basic Netflix subscription adds up to over $108. If you’re paying for multiple streaming services, like many of us are, then that price increases quickly.
For example, maybe you’re subscribed to Netflix, Disney+, and have access to Prime Video through your Amazon Prime account. You could be spending almost $300 a year on entertainment alone. What’s more, you probably aren’t consistently using them. You might go months without taking full advantage of a service you’re spending money on.
In 2020, streaming became more popular than ever with the closure of movie theaters. However, it doesn’t need to cost you as much as it currently does. We have compiled a list of some free streaming services (or paid streaming services with a free option) that you should take a look at in 2021. You might even be able to drop a paid service or two.
A quick head’s up, though. All of these free options feature ads (but you probably expected that). It’s also worth noting that it’s unlikely any one of them will have what you’re looking for in a streaming service, since their selections tend to be rather patchwork compared to paid options. But hey, they’re still free, so you can’t really complain.
Owned by Walmart, Vudu comes with many advantages over other major streaming services. Unlike Netflix or Amazon, Vudu does not require a subscription in order to use it. If you want to watch the latest movies or TV shows, though, you’ll still be paying money for them. However, Vudu has an extensive library of free content that is easy to find and filter through. Since you are not locked into a monthly fee, there is no risk of spending money for a service that you only use sparingly. You never have to spend a cent on Vudu if you don’t want to. Of all the options on this list, Vudu has the broadest selection and the most versatility.
Other than their ads, Crackle is a 100% free movie and TV streaming service. They don’t necessarily have the best or most recent options — with some exceptions. However, you can find some real gems if you take the time to look. The service tends towards comedy and action movies. If those genres are your jam, we recommend you at least take a look.
Unlike Vudu, you don’t even need to make an account to watch Crackle flicks. With entertainment, you pay in hours, and the great thing about Crackle is that there’s a low investment. You can watch 12 minutes of a movie before deciding to bail or not. All it will have cost you is an advertisement at the beginning.
YouTube isn’t just for vloggers anymore. Late-night shows upload full clips of key parts of their episodes. Major news stories stream live to YouTube for free. While it can be a den of copyright infringement, you can also find a wealth of free movies and TV shows uploaded legally by their rights holders. These won’t necessarily be the crème de la crème, but if you’re willing to scrounge, you’ll be able to find some great options. Like Crackle, you don’t even need to have an account to take advantage of YouTube’s truly vast entertainment library.
If anime is your thing, Crunchyroll is a godsend. With a massive library of new and old anime of all genres, Crunchyroll is a reliable service that is easy to use and delivers what it promises. Both popular shows and more obscure options are all available to stream. While the service is quite specific, they are easily the best at what they do.
One downside (or upside, depending on where you fall on the “sub vs dub” debate) is that a good deal of Crunchyroll’s content is subtitled with audio in its original Japanese. I consider this a benefit, as it means you get to watch shows as they air. However, if you’re an English-only speaker (or if you just like to have a show on in the background while you work) that’s one thing to keep in mind.
PBS has a fantastic selection of documentaries that are available for free viewing. NOVA, Nature, FRONTLINE, and Antiques Roadshow are all free along with other non-fiction shows, providing hours of rich educational content for people of all ages and with a variety of interests. While you will need a paid account for premium content (typically the network’s fictional dramas like Poldark), if you are learning about a particular topic or just want to watch a documentary about squirrels (without needing to sign up for an account or pay a fee), PBS absolutely has your back.
PBS Kids also offers a live TV option from their website or app. That makes it easy for your kids to watch popular shows as they air. PBS Kids also offers a limited on-demand selection of recent episodes of popular shows like Sesame Street and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. It’s a great option for free kid-focused content.
Owned by NBC, Peacock hosts a whole catalog of free content from the network’s backlog. Early seasons of shows like The Office and Parks & Rec are available for viewing after signing up for an free account. However, later seasons (and a ton of other content) is only accessible after paying for premium service. Peacock is also a great free option if what you’re looking for is live sports. The networks’ NFL games, for example, are broadcast right to the app.
Peacock boasts that their free option has “thousands of hours of content.” While that’s true of many streaming services, Peacock absolutely has the highest quality and the most varied free content on this list. Since it fundamentally exists to support the NBC brand, Peacock doesn’t waste time scraping the bottom of the digital license barrel for the dredges of American cinema. It saves their time, as well as yours. There’s a good chance you’ll find something you like and never need to pay a cent.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to streaming, the old saying “you get what you pay for” rings especially true. If you want to watch the latest big movies, like Pixar’s Soul or Wonder Woman 1984, you won’t find them for free. The most popular Netflix series, like Stranger Things, are also locked behind their paywall. However, if you’re not seeking out any specific piece of content, you can save a ton of money by checking out some of these free options.
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