The cheapest ways to watch TV

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Television is a great way to unwind after a long, stressful day. Understanding how to watch TV these days is a great way to tense up and get through a long, stressful night.

Between cable, satellite, and a growing number of streaming options, it’s hard to know which is the best way to watch TV without breaking the bank. Help Desk reader Emi in San Francisco writes with this exact riddle, pleading, “I just want to watch TV as cheaply as possible.”

Put fresh batteries in your remote, sit in a recliner, and let’s figure out together how to disconnect without going into debt.

What do you expect from television?

Before jumping into the cheaper option (spoiler: it’s an antenna), let’s see what kind of viewing you’d like to do. How long do you watch television per day or per week? Are you into the kind of big-budget shows that generate thought pieces and win Emmys (try streaming), or do you prefer switching channels and the latest Real Housewives drama (price excluding cable or satellite)? Maybe you just crave the low hum of CBS This Morning and basketball games in the background as you live your life (back on air).

If you’re not sure what you want to watch, check out our reviews of the latest shows or visit RottenTomatoes.com and see where to find the latest hits. Most prestige shows are spread across multiple services and channels, but if you find more than a handful in one place, start there.

Cost: One-time payment of $25 to $100

If you have a TV, you can get the major networks without paying a subscription fee, but you may have to shell out for an HDTV antenna.

The TVs received the basic channels without any subscription using built-in over-the-air antennas. Most new TVs no longer come with antennas, so you have to buy a separate new indoor HDTV antenna to go with the set. They can cost between $25 and $100, are fairly easy to install, and are available at big box stores such as Target or best buy. If you want even better reception, you can also invest in an outdoor antenna, but installation is more involved and will cost an additional $50-150.

The channels you will get with an indoor HDTV antenna depends on your location and the strength of your antenna or channel signals. However, everyone should be able to watch major networks live, including ABC, NBC, CBS, Univision, and PBS.

You can enter your zip code on the Channel Master site and see what other channels you’d get in your area and if that’s enough to skip cable or streaming.

Cable and satellite subscription

Cost: Monthly fee of $50 to $150, more for premium channels.

If you want to browse 50 or hundreds of channels, you can invest in a cable or satellite service. You sign up to make monthly payments that will likely end up being much larger than you thought and possibly increasing after a set period of time. The cable can cost between $50 and $150.

The details vary wildly depending on the type of plan you get, whether it comes with your internet service, and the options available where you live. Most areas are dominated by one or two big providers, but sometimes you can always shop around and even play them against each other for bigger discounts. For more details on what to look for and how to lower your cable, satellite and internet bills, check out our guide.

How to lower your internet and cable bill

With basic cable, you’ll get the same great networks and live TV as you would with an antenna. You’ll also get a mix of solid and deeply inferior channels filled with ads. If you want a “premium” channel with newer, ad-free content, like HBO or Starz, you’ll need to add more to the monthly payment.

One of the benefits of cable and satellite is that the services allow some on-demand viewing, and logging into your account can be used to connect to streaming apps for many popular channels such as Bravo or AMC. It’s a good choice if you’re not very picky about what you watch and just want access to the basics, news, and serialized shows.

The downsides are the unpredictable and often inflated prices, and the inability to watch many of the hottest shows your friends or colleagues are talking about. Paying for hundreds of channels when you only watch a handful on a regular basis is also wasteful for younger viewers who are more interested in paying for exactly what they use instead.

Cost: $0 monthly fee with ads at $20 each

Many people have ditched real-time channels and switched to streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. At first glance, they seem like a bargain: around $10 a month and no need to get special equipment or navigate terrible interfaces to find a show. But while each service may have a vast collection of content, quality shows are spread out.

If you can be happy with just one streaming option, it makes more sense to get cable or satellite. But if you’re interested in watching shows on different services — “House of the Dragon” on HBO Max, “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix, “Bluey” on Disney Plus — you’ll need multiple subscriptions, and the total will add up. will quickly add to the top.

Advanced options to pay less for streaming include sharing (as allowed) and browsing so you pay for Prime Video one month and Apple TV the next. For tips on how to get the most out of your streaming services, check out our guide.

How to juggle multiple TV streaming services without missing a show

To watch streaming services, you’ll need a smart TV that supports adding apps, or an inexpensive streaming stick or box, such as a Roku or Amazon Fire Stick. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

If your main concern is paying less or watching more obscure movies and shows, your local library has the answer. Use your library account to log into their site and see what services they offer to stream or download shows and movies, such as Kanopy and Hoopla. You can also check out DVDs from your local library for an old-fashioned movie night.

There are also free ad-supported streaming apps that you can download to your phone or a device like a Roku. Look for Pluto TV, IMDBtv, Fox’s Tubi TV, Roku’s own channel, Crackle, and Vudu. YouTube also offers free movies that you can stream through the app or the website.

For more tips on how to get free content, check out our guide to watching, listening, and reading without spending big bucks.

Free alternatives to all your paid subscriptions

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