More than a month has passed since I told DirecTV to stuff its high rates. The satellite got unplugged, and I’ve been experimenting to learn if one can obtain high-quality television over the internet.
Actually, that was never in doubt, so I added a requirement: the programming must be free of charge. Could I get the television I wanted for free?
Turns out, I can.
I began with a Roku Stick + device, which plugs into the HDMI port of a modern television. It gets its power from the TV’s USB port; if the set doesn’t have one, you use the included power supply. Total investment was less than $60 – less than DirecTV wanted for a month’s service.
It plugged in, and I registered it easily enough. But then what? How does one watch television with such a rig?
Well, first, I had to replace my decrepit 42-inch flat-screen television, which had been on its way out for a while. It gave up the ghost a few days into my experiment. Shopping around and reading reviews, I decided to give myself the present – I picked it up on my birthday – of a 55-inch TCL set with Roku built in for $325 or so at Walmart.
Mounting it was an exercise that would have made a fine movie of the slapstick sort, but in due course I prevailed. A 55-inch Roku TV at that price is remarkable, but if I had to do it over, I’d have gotten a different television and used the Roku stick, for reasons I’ll get to.
Where were we? Oh, yes. The Roku start-up screen, whether stick or a Roku TV, is populated with a lot of things, most of which I didn’t want because most of them are paid services.
There’s a menu entry – you navigate by remote; I have no idea whether the set has any physical controls at all but the stick certainly doesn’t – that lists free streaming channels. I selected all the ones that seemed even remotely interesting, and in the last month I’ve winnowed them down to the ones I’ve actually watched. Tastes differ, but I quickly tired, for instance, of the channel that shows nothing but tropical fish swimming in an aquarium.
The most jarring aspect of the new arrangement was the distinction between the two flavors of streaming television. There’s “live” television – it’s on, and you may watch it or not as it is sent out – and “on-demand,” which starts and plays, and may be paused, whenever you want it. On-demand television is a bit disorienting. One grows accustomed over a lifetime of television viewing to particular programs being broadcast at particular times. Watching whenever you feel like it is a bigger change than I thought it might be.
For the last couple of decades I’ve fed the audio from my television to an old and wonderful hi-fi setup that gives me Dolby Surround sound. This adds to the realism of many television programs and most movies, but it’s problematic with the TCL television. The Roku stick offers an audio mode setting called “leveling.” This means that the difference in volume between the loudest and quietest parts of a particular program is reduced.
This feature is not available on my TCL television. Movie-makers, and some television producers, find virtue in both whisper-quiet and dynamite-loud sounds. The result is a choice, with the TCL, of missing the quiet parts or having the loud parts turn my speaker cones inside out.
(Also, the television is 4k, which means it uses four times as much data as a regular 1080p high-definition television uses for very little difference in video quality. If you have any kind of Internet data limit, this will get your attention, because 4k can suck up several gigabytes per hour! If the TCL set has a way of being set to 1080p, I haven’t found it, and I’ve looked.)
But this isn’t meant to be a television hardware review. Let’s return to a survey of some of the free channels that I’ve found worthwhile.
First on the list is WeatherNation. This service is in my estimation head and shoulders better than The Weather Channel, and the dedicated channel provides both live broadcast live radar and satellite views, as well as forecasts and other information. (You can also install it, as well as many of the others, on your phone, too. That’s a good thing, again if your data plan doesn’t mind.)
Second is something called NewsON. This lets you watch, whenever you want, the local news from scores of cities around the country. It includes Columbus, Cincinnati and Cleveland stations, as well as West Virginia stations. You may select your favorites, if you’d like to set a few from an old home town or something. At non-news-times, it will give you the particular station’s most recent newscast.
Third is a somewhat rickety channel from Haiti called GADE-TV. It has Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, WeatherNation and The Weather Channel. It also has – this is its glory if you’re not addicted to people arguing politics – stations, too, from around the Caribbean, Canada and elsewhere. My favorite is NCT, the Newfoundland station. The channel often operates in fits and starts, but it’s free and fun to explore.
Fourth on the list is Britain’s Sky News, which gives great international news coverage and deals with British politics, which is an enjoyable topic because it doesn’t much matter what we think about it.
A broad range of programming – everything from Bloomberg business to a 24-hour station devoted to “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” plus lots and lots of other stuff – is Pluto-TV. It is on everybody’s list of must-have Roku channels, and deservedly so.
I have and enjoy both NASA television and the PBS channel. The latter requires you to register and won’t show you everything unless you have what it calls a “Passport” from your local PBS affiliate. The passport thing costs money, and this is a look at free stuff, but there’s a lot of PBS programming available on demand there for free.
I also have the EWTN channel. This is an excellent Catholic channel; indeed, it played a big part in my decision to convert to Catholicism. There are other religious programs available for free over Roku, too.
There are several free movie channels. They have ads, but in most cases they announce onscreen at the beginning of a commercial break how long the break will be. And, unlike the cable and satellite channels that offer movies with ads, they’re free.
There are others; the point is that you can get a truly wide choice of programs for nothing more than you’re already paying for internet service.
My trial subscriptions to several pay channels accomplished their purpose: I’m keeping them. At $12, Hulu is cheap and offers much, ad-free (it’s cheaper with ads). Netflix, at least for now, has loads of movies and many self-produced series, also for $12. Amazon Prime is easy because for about $10 per month you get a lot of movies and self-produced shows, plus free second-day shipping on most anything you buy from Amazon. To which I’ve added BritBox, because I love old British televison, for $7. (The best mystery series ever is “Campion.”)
Which all together costs less than I was paying for DirecTV before they raised my rate.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.