How to Watch Live TV Online

Sling TV streams live sports from ESPN.Sling TV streams live sports from ESPN.

You can't beat watching something as it happens on live TV. The thrill of the last-second shot in basketball. The moment they announce the winner of "American Idol." Seeing the season premiere of "NCIS" without fear of spoilers.

Whether you're a cord cutter who's ditched cable or are just away from home, there are bound to be moments when you want to watch live TV online. Depending on the kind of content you like, the Internet may have you covered. You can get some options for free, but for the best selection and quality, you'll probably have to pay a little.

Here are seven ways to tune in when you log on.

Online "Cable-TV" Service Sling TV

The whole concept of online TV changed in 2015 with the launch of Sling TV: the first - though not perfect - online alternative to cable TV. Sling TV merges the traditional TV and online video models: You start with a basic package of just under 20 channels for $20 per month, and can add extra channel packs - for sports, kids or essentially, yuppie channels, for $5 each. Unlike pay TV, Sling doesn't require any equipment rental, it's month-to-month, and it plays on most of the major Internet-connected devices (though on only one at a time). Sling's biggest draw for many people will be access to live sports on ESPN. The basic package includes ESPN and ESPN2. The sports add-on includes five more ESPN channels and several others. Though ostensibly targeted at hipsters, the lineup seems more suited to the Gen Xers and older millennials living domestic lives. Channels offerings include HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel. 

MORE: Sling TV Online Video Review: Cable TV for Cord Cutters

News network live streams

If you want to keep up on local events, you can check out the many stations that stream their news shows live directly on their websites. From New York to San Francisco and most places in between, local TV news is available for free on the Internet. The sites often offer HD quality, too. The streams are usually only active during airtime, but many stations offer archived broadcasts on-demand. In addition, many stations broadcast over streaming site Livestream, which offers a listing of local channels along with other live events.

Some national news networks have thrown their hats in the ring as well. Sky News, a prominent UK news channel, offers free, live streaming for English-speaking audiences. Americans who enjoy CBS news can tune into CBSN, which also provides round-the-clock news coverage at no cost. 

Internet-only TV providers

Not all live video is available on your TV. Sites like Livestream, Ustream and YouTube offer thousands of live video streams featuring news, sports, music and more. And Yahoo is launching a service to broadcast live concerts every day. The quality of the entertainment varies widely, as does the selection. On Ustream, you'll find channels from CBS News and "PBS NewsHour." The U.S. Olympic Committee channel often features live soccer. YouTube's live offerings include events like a chat with "Futurama" and "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and live cricket matches. But with these options, timing is everything: You'll often find only self-produced, amateur live streams when you log into the sites. Of course, you can go back in time, since these live broadcasts are usually available on-demand, so you can view them later.

MORE: What is Net Neutrality - FAQ

TV aggregator sites

Several sites, including World Wide Internet TV and Live TV Café, repackage or aggregate live streams available around the globe and offer them in one place. You can see what's on in Italy, France or India, for example. These sites even stream some U.S. channels. The video quality of the streams tends to be low, but there's no shortage of things to watch.

Stream TV to your computer or phone with a device

If you have television coming into your house, whether over the air or through a provider, you can buy devices like the Slingbox that will stream your TV signal to your computer or mobile device. You connect the Slingbox to your TV source — antenna, cable or satellite — and then you use the software to stream programs to your remote device. Other streaming devices include the Vulkano and the HDHomerun.

Cable and satellite TV apps (for subscribers only)

Many cable and satellite-TV providers — including AT&T's U-verse, Charter, Comcast, Cox, DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner Cable and Verizon Fios — serve up live TV streams as part of a subscription. With these services, you use your browser or an app to access live programming. In many cases, you can only get select channels (usually not the major broadcast networks like CBS, NBC, Fox or ABC), or you have to be at home, which makes this option less appealing.

Channel sites and apps (subscribers only)

Individual companies offer channels online as well. The Watch ESPN site will stream what's on the sports network, but you must log in with your TV provider account info. Some channels are offered as part of mobile apps. Most channel apps only offer specific shows to watch on demand, but some do allow you to stream what is airing on the channel live, using a login to your TV-provider account. Examples include ABC, A&E, Cartoon Network, Disney, History, Showtime, Syfy, TBS, TNT and USA Network.

MORE: 5 Cheaper Netflix Alternatives

Sport-specific subscriptions

Fans of Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA can subscribe for a whole season's worth of live action. With, you can watch any out-of-market (in other words, not your home team) game live or on-demand on your computer, mobile device or set-top box for $130 a season. NHL GameCenter costs $150 per season, and NBA League Pass costs $190 for the premium package (last year's price; this season's price is yet to be announced). NFL fans are out of luck, though — the league doesn't offer a streaming plan.

Get Your Fix: Best Streaming Players

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Editor's note: The original article had also recommended TV streaming service Aereo, which subsequently lost a Supreme Court challenge to its business model by several major broadcasters.

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  • As a "new, former Dish Network" customer, Dish's "Dish Online" service was a portal to Hulu Plus. There was never anything live about it. Having subscribed to Hulu Plus, I find that more than what was available through Dish Online and costs $8/mo. rather than $88 / mo. I was paying for Dish. At this moment, it is even possible to get Hulu Plus for free using Bing points.

    I'll not be going back to Dish anytime soon.
  • You mention all these ways yet completely pass up PlayOn? It's actually a great service at a low price.
  • I'm on my 3rd different Slingbox since 2007.

    If you've got good upload at the source, do it. I've got 13.4Mb/s upload in the UK, and in Asia (even as far as Guam) it was a wonderful alternative over hotel TV.

    No subscription required. No subscription required.No subscription required.No subscription required.