Many people are looking for ways to save money and shrink their budgets in light of soaring gas and food prices. One common way to do that is by reducing entertainment expenses — like cable and streaming subscriptions. Last year, I finally cut the cord and got rid of an expensive cable bill, replacing it with our top cable alternative Sling.
Then, a few months ago, I realized my streaming subscriptions added up to a bill as sky high as a cable package. At the time, I was paying for a whopping 11 services to the tune of $133.44 a month. That's far too much, and I made a plan to "churn" some of them —e.g. cancel, then resubscribe when a favorite show returns, then cancel again when it's over.
But that still can only save me so much money. Even if I cancel Netflix and sign up for two services for the price of one, I'm still shelling out at least $15 every month. In a time of peak inflation, even that can seem a bit steep. If you're really feeling a pinch, spending any amount on entertainment can seem frivolous. Yet, giving it up entirely sounds like it'll result in a lot of dull evenings.
So, I decided to conduct an experiment: Could I get by watching only free TV? Absolutely, completely free. No monthly bills. Zero dollars spent. (Of course, that still requires an internet connection and a device, which most of us already have.)
I tried it for a week. Here's what happened.
The free streaming services I used
First, I set up the parameters of the experiment, to somewhat mimic my regular television viewing habits. I had to watch every day for at least an hour and engage in one three-hour binge-watching session. I also could not use any paid services — no Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, etc.
They each have their pros and cons. Peacock is perhaps the most high-profile, with the weight of the NBCUniversal back catalog behind it. The Free tier offers a lot of content, but most of the shows and movies I wanted to see were marked for the Premium tier.
More frustrating was the upselling — giving me a taste of something, then holding back the rest only if I paid for a subscription. For instance, I could watch the very first episode of the Western hit drama Yellowstone, but the rest of it required Premium access. At least I could binge the first five seasons of The Office and the first two seasons of Parks and Recreation.
Peacock's free movie selection is pretty abysmal, so that's why we should talk about Freevee: Amazon's recently renamed service that boasts more interesting options. The films are also older but better quality, like Knives Out, The Invisible Man and Emma. Freevee also has an extensive free TV selection (thus, its name), including Mad Men, Lost, and originals like Bosch: Legacy.
The Roku Channel is still playing a bit of catch-up as far as originals, though several of the Quibi legacy series are pretty good. The rest of their catalog is similar to other free streaming services, with a mix of classic sitcoms, dramas and movies.
As for Pluto TV, I mostly used it as background viewing, or what I call "laundry folding TV." The array of live channels makes it easy to find something to watch. I dropped in on a number of movies and shows in progress, from The Challenge to Midsomer Murders to Inside Llewyn Davis.
Surprise, the ads didn't drive me too crazy
Nothing in life is truly free, and the catch with free streaming services is that they play ads. These ads cannot be skipped. The amount of ads varies between the services, but most run anywhere between four to eight minutes per hour.
This is probably one of the biggest barriers for switching exclusively to FAST (free ad-supported streaming television). I began my weeklong experiment with apprehension about being inundated with commercials for cars, car insurance, pharmaceuticals, fast food, home goods and personal care products.
While the ads were certainly unwelcome, I was surprised to find they didn't drive me to the brink of insanity. In most cases, the ad load was lighter than what the streamers officially say. Roku says they cap theirs at eight minutes, but I only saw about a minute of ads during the first hour of Bridesmaids and 90 seconds during a 45-minute episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Freevee's ad load is also supposedly as much as eight minutes, but I got less than five during an episode of Hart of Dixie. Plus, the service helpfully marks shows with limited ads and I saw only around three minutes worth in an episode of Mad Men.
Pluto did come close to an eight-minute ad load, playing several two- or three-minute chunks of commercials per hour while I watched the Survivor channel.
Peacock reportedly runs 4.6 ads per show, which lined up with the four commercials totaling two minutes that played during an episode of The Office (one of which promoted other Peacock content).
An average of five minutes of ads for an hourlong show is really not that bad. It's certainly a lot better than what you get with broadcast or cable TV, which generally run 20 minutes of ads per hour.
The ads weren't the toughest part of my free TV week. FOMO was.
Free TV saves money but leaves you out of the zeitgeist
As my week of FASTing concludes, I've learned a few things. First, free streaming services offer a lot of content, some of which is very good. It's a great way to rewatch some of your favorites or catch up on quality titles you never got around to seeing. I don't actually mind the idea of rewatching Mad Men on Freevee. I already suffered through 20-plus minutes of commercials when episodes first aired on AMC; three minutes now seems piddling.
Second, the ads are annoying but acceptable. As long as the services keep them to a reasonable amount (less than eight minutes per hour), that's a decent trade-off for paying nothing for content.
Lastly, my main gripe has nothing to do with the free services themselves. It's the FOMO I felt all week, as my friends, colleagues and strangers on the internet chatted about Stranger Things, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ms. Marvel, The Boys and all the stuff to be found on paid streaming services.
Cutting Netflix, HBO Max and Disney Plus out of your budget doesn't just mean you lose access to their content — you also lose the ability to participate in face-to-face or virtual watercooler conversation. That is too heavy a price to pay, in my books. But it may be something you're willing to give up for extra cash in your bank account.