After years paying for streaming services, Drew Millard spent a week with the alternatives – including Bill O’Reilly and a big dose of Frasier
In July, Netflix announced that it had lost approximately 1 million subscribers in just three months. It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a company that, just a year ago, seemed to be on an unstoppable path to global domination – and although it has regained some subscribers this month, the company is still struggling to retain viewers in the long term.
That’s because with the price of everything rising, many people are hoping to save cash – and breaking up with a streaming services is an easy fix. In a 2021 survey conducted by Financebuzz, 46% of respondents said they spent over $50 a month on streaming and a new survey found that one in four of Netflix’s remaining customers are considering dropping the service by the end of the year.
But paying for monthly subscription fees for streaming services or an expensive cable bill aren’t the only options. Last year, people bought about 8.5 million analogue TV antennas, which have become cheaper, smaller, and smarter than they were in the 1990s. In New York, for example, a high-quality antenna can pick up more than 100 channels. Plus, if you have a smart TV then you probably already have access to literally thousands of channels, shows, and movies through free streaming services such as Pluto TV, Tubi and Roku.
There was a time in my life when I didn’t watch TV. That time was called “my early twenties”, and I was much more fun than I am now. As I’ve progressively become more of a homebody, I’ve racked up subscriptions to major content providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime, signed up for services so that I could watch a single show (Showtime and Twin Peaks: The Return, I’m looking at you), and experimented with niche services that seemed neat but mainly just repackaged stuff that I could watch elsewhere (this includes Mubi, which offers a tightly curated, rotating list of 30 must-see films, as well as Hi-Yah, which mostly shows martial arts movies). After all this time, more than a small part of me feels like I’ve been throwing money down the drain. With all this in mind, as well as a recent realization that I’d been unknowingly paying for Hulu for years, I decided that it would be a great time to see how much entertainment I could feast upon without paying for a single subscription.
I ordered a $30 Roku Express box for myself, as well as a cheap antenna, to see if free TV could ever replace my beloved streaming services. I would watch three to four hours of TV a day – about the national average – for a week, with no dipping into paid content.
I downloaded an app that the manufacturer told me would help me identify which part of my house would optimize my new antenna’s ability to pull in channels out of thin air. It showed me a map with my location surrounded by concentric colored rings denoting signal strength of the various little TV towers. I had no idea what to do with this information, so I just tacked the antenna to the wall behind our TV and told my set to start scanning for channels. I walked over to the kitchen to help with dinner, and before we knew it, an NFL game had spontaneously generated on our screen.
As we ate, I scrolled through our new channels. In addition to the local affiliates of major networks (NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC), we now had access to Court TV, QVC, a live feed of the weather, several Spanish-language channels, a channel called Cozi TV that showed a lot of Frasier, and a channel I never bothered to identify but seemed to broadcast the old-guy action flick The Expendables at least once a day.
After spending a few minutes watching a tense scene in the middle of the Jane Fonda film Klute, I set up the Roku box and began delving into its offerings, which were frankly astonishing in scope. Services like Pluto TV, Fawesome, Freevee, and Roku Channel Live essentially replicate the experience of watching satellite TV at the peak of its mid-to-late-2000s bloat, with countless TV channels offering a mix of original programming, reruns, and music videos. There are whole channels devoted to shows like Gunsmoke, Narcos, and Stargate SG-1; sports channels that air jai alai, cornhole, and obscure college baseball games; multiple poker-only channels; channels that show reruns of Ice Road Truckers, Storage Wars, and Cops on loop; more cooking channels than there are pots in a restaurant kitchen; a channel that shows people playing Fortnite and another devoted to the northern European “Slow TV” phenomenon; and, I swear to God, a channel that plays nothing but car crashes.
As we explored the plethora of free entertainment in front of us, my partner, who’d initially been wary of this entire enterprise, beamed. “I think we can make this work,” she said, and we pressed “play” on an on-demand episode of Freaks and Geeks.
Roku, once a bit of a joke in the streaming world, is betting big on the potential of free. In its 29 July quarterly report to shareholders, the company estimated it had added about $46m worth of “goodwill” (basically, technically intangible value that Roku nevertheless decided to quantify) to its brand, “primarily attributable to the expected synergies in the advertiser offerings as the company brings more free ad-supported content to the users”. It’s all a very convoluted way of saying: the old TV model of selling advertising next to free programming is not dead. Over the past couple of years, it’s also snapped up the home-improvement juggernaut This Old House and the entire catalog of the once-maligned and now nearly-forgotten Quibi.
In November, it’s releasing its biggest budget original production to date: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s fictional biopic about himself starring Daniel Radcliffe in the title role, which is … a choice. It’s also a hint at Roku’s larger ambitions: in September, it brought on Charlie Collier, the TV executive who midwifed hits both highbrow (Mad Men and Breaking Bad at AMC) and low (FOX’s The Masked Singer), to oversee its content division.
For now, though, Roku’s original programming is somewhat lacking. Many of what it describes as “Roku Originals” are actually shows created for failed streaming platform Quibi, which Roku acquired: shows like a revival of Punk’d hosted by Chance the Rapper and a car show hosted by Offset from the rap group Migos.
The problem with spinning up a slate of original series that are actually just rejected shows from other failed services is there isn’t much in the way of quality control. Which might explain the existence of Doomlands, Roku’s sub-Rick & Morty adult animated comedy show, or Adam Devine’s Bad Ideas, where one of the lesser Workaholics attempts to anchor a show that wants to be a cross between No Reservations and Wildboyz. Slightly better is Immoral Compass, in which the comedian Bill Burr portrays an ageing guy in his garage who rants Spalding Gray-esque monologues at a video camera.
Eventually I settled on the Roku/Quibi revival of Reno 911!, the Cops spoof that was a staple of Comedy Central’s lineup when I was in high school. The central conceit of its newest season is that the Reno police department has been defunded, and its dopey cops are now even more hapless than usual. Two of them are hunted for sport by a Ted Nugent-esque rightwing gun nut, played, and I’m not making this up, by “Weird Al” Yankovic of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story fame, while a couple others get yelled at by a guy from the ACLU who’s surrounded by antifa. I hadn’t watched the show in years, but I seem to remember it being less topical and more gleefully offensive. To quote the title and tagline of another show from its era: NEXT!
After the crushing disappointment of Roku’s original content, I decided to explore what free TV could offer me in the way of live news. Between Pluto TV and Roku Channel Live – which share a large amount of overlap when it comes to basically everything – you can find a fair amount of local news and weather affiliates, as well as name-brand non-partisan news from the likes of CBS, NBC, Reuters, Bloomberg, Cheddar, and Newsy (there’s also something called CNN Replay, which seems to show the network’s news coverage from earlier in the day). But let’s be honest – what people really want from TV news is someone telling them how to think about what they already know about, and preferably at a loud volume.
Conservatives have been really good at this ever since the heyday of talk radio, and their mastery of the news analysis form has helped make Fox News the dominant player in cable news, so it’s only natural that there would be a billion low-rent Fox knockoffs plying their trade throughout the free-TV multiverse. These channels are sort of an Island of Misfit Toys for rightwing figures who are slightly past their prime. Newsmax, controversially still carried by Roku, provided a soft landing to Donald Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer, while Glenn Beck’s Blaze Live mainly serves as a platform for Beck himself.
Skimming through Pluto TV, I came across an episode of Steve Bannon’s War Room: Pandemic in which he interviewed Marjorie Taylor Greene, airing on something called Real America’s Voice; confusingly enough, when I flipped over to One America News (OAN), I found a show called Real America hosted by Dan Ball, who may be the angriest man on television. Bill O’Reilly, who previously held that distinction and was ousted from Fox News back in 2017 amid a slew of sexual harassment and verbal abuse allegations, has a new home on the First TV (stylized The F1rst), a Pluto-specific conservative news channel. While O’Reilly’s invective is still very much far-right nonsense, his affect is slower and more didactic; his speaking style is uncannily reminiscent of Joe Biden, whom O’Reilly happened to be criticizing in the segment I caught.
Sadly, the opposite side of the political spectrum isn’t exactly thriving on these services. The closest thing to counter-programming on offer is The Young Turks (TYT), whose creator and driving force, Cenk Uygur, is, shall we say, an imperfect messenger for the cause. On one hand, places like Democracy Now! or Means TV might blanch at the idea of breaking up their anticapitalist content with commercial breaks, but on the other, sometimes you’ve got to meet people where they’re at. The least Pluto TV, Roku, or any of these platforms could do is pluck a few random podcasters off Patreon, put them in a studio, and see what happens.
One thing that economists like to talk about when it comes to customer loyalty is the concept of “switching costs” – the price of ending your old subscriptions and starting up with a new service. In actually buying an antenna and a Roku box, I introduced costs that were arguably unnecessary: I spent $60 on an antenna that was recommended by the New York Times’ Wirecutter site when I could have bought this random antenna on Amazon for ten bucks, and instead of getting a Roku unit I could have downloaded its mobile app, which includes free TV streaming, and watched stuff on Pluto TV through my web browser. But even if someone spent the $100 or so that I did to get my setup, those one-time costs are a drop in the bucket compared with the hundreds of dollars I’ve given HBO Max over the years.
The switching costs I’m most interested in, though, are the cultural ones: the cost of not being able to watch big-budget extravaganzas like Amazon Prime Video’s The Rings of Power, indie-esque character studies like Hulu’s The Bear, or gonzo documentaries like Tiger King on Netflix. Would I be left out of the conversation?
But I quickly discovered that as long as I relaxed my standards a tad, I wasn’t missing out on much. I found Bar Rescue, which has its own Pluto TV channel, to be no less enjoyable than The Bear – after all, both shows are, at their cores, about people yelling at each other in the kitchen of a business that’s on the verge of failure. Of course, Bar Rescue is a formulaic reality show that’s obviously contrived, while The Bear is a scripted drama that aims to authentically recreate the dynamic of restaurant work, but despite the Bar Rescue host Jon Taffer’s cheesy and slapdash redesigns and abysmal success rate, his show genuinely captures the sort of establishments where most Americans eat and drink, as well as the people and personalities who work in them. Even though The Bear attempts to reflect reality, actual kitchens rarely enjoy the presence of a gruffly sexy line cook or find staff trading snappy one-liners while trying to handle the rush. “You come off like an idiot,” Taffer yells at a rotund bar owner with a doo-rag covering up his gray ponytail, announcing his establishment is about to be rescued. “I am an idiot,” the owner, who moments earlier was screaming at his employees but is now visibly uncomfortable, responds. That’s more like it.
At a certain point, I realized that flicking around channels, dropping into the middle of a program for a few minutes, and then hunting for something else is a fundamentally different action than what streaming services train us to do. Within the span of an hour, I was able to sample Cheaters, in which a private detective showed a man pictures of his girlfriend kissing another guy, a rerun of The Carol Burnett Show, and a show where Jerry Springer adjudicated disputes between angry people.
Seeing Jerry Springer sit in a courtroom wearing judge’s robes and attempting to fairly settle a case involving a car loan that was somehow both overpaid and underpaid was honestly more fascinating than anything I could have watched on purpose, yet I would have never thought to seek out this show, which was called Judge Jerry and ran from 2018 to 2022.
What is TV actually for? Should we watch it expecting to derive the same feeling of intellectual stimulation we get from novels or auteurist films, or are we strictly watching it to distract ourselves from our workaday lives? And if we are to derive intellectual stimulation from our TV, isn’t it a bit condescending for a show to lay its themes on the table, as so many prestige programs, from Mad Men to Game of Thrones, do? Wouldn’t it be better to stumble across something so inscrutable and obscure that we’re free to take our own reading of it? Streaming services emphasize that viewers are “empowered” to watch what they want, when they want. But that’s an illusion; rarely do we delve past the Netflix home page.
Maybe the most intellectually stimulating and genuinely engaging television show ever created is Jeopardy!, because it encourages viewers to yell the answers to trivia questions at their TV, which is exactly how my partner and I spent our evening.
Commercials. Let’s talk about them. They’re bad, and avoiding them is one of the main reasons someone might want to subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, et al. And yet in the world of free TV, where content is sourced cheaply and indiscriminately from the clearinghouses of rights-holders, they are an inevitability. My Roku device definitely knew that I live in Philadelphia, because in addition to an alarming number of ads for a local auto parts dealer – does Roku know something about my car’s health that I don’t? – it also served me ads for nearby jewelry stores, as well as political attack ads from my state’s Senate candidates, John Fetterman and Mehmet “Dr Oz” Oz. It’s been a while since I’ve watched an honest-to-God local political attack ad, and I’d forgotten how crazy they can get. Once every commercial break, I was subjected to this ad, which essentially accuses Fetterman, the current Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, of letting criminals out of jail and wanting to legalize murder (the reality, if you can believe it, is much more nuanced and humane). Another featured a burly-sounding man claiming Fetterman wanted to cancel student debt for “gender studies majors” and bartenders with crazy-colored hair, and that real taxpayers would be voting for Oz. Meanwhile, Fetterman’s attack ads tended to either feature veterans talking about how they dislike Dr Oz’s stance on immigration, or simply make fun of him for living in New Jersey.
The ads seem in line with each candidate’s place in the polls: Oz is trailing Fetterman by about three points, according to RealClearPolitics, and seems desperate to generate some momentum any way he can, while Fetterman appears above the fray. Seeing as Oz’s camp is attempting to tease the new fantastical talking point implying that Fetterman is somehow associated with the Crips, it might not even be possible for Fetterman to sink to his level.
On one level, having to sit through drivel like this was extremely annoying. On another, if we don’t pay for entertainment with our dollars, we pay with our attention. Or at least by screwing around on our phones for a few minutes while the ads play on mute.
My week of free TV helped me understand that what I actually watch on TV usually isn’t that important. There are a handful of shows out there that I view as irreplaceable landmarks of culture (Twin Peaks, Deadwood, certain bits of the X-Files, and, on a strictly conceptual level, Saturday Night Live and Star Trek), and I actively seek out live basketball games and golf tournaments because those are the sports I like. But really, everything else falls into the category of “stuff I put in front of my face when I don’t feel like reading”. If I usually just want to put a show on and slip into a state of narcotic passivity, I might as well not pay extra for it.
Amid the detritus of free TV, though, is the occasional gem. “I feel like free TV culls from the infinite archive of the past,” my partner observed approvingly during a commercial break of the 1974 classic The Parallax View, which we’d discovered while browsing Pluto TV’s on-demand offerings. “A lot of this stuff predates this data-driven moment, so you’re almost more likely to find good entertainment in this archival morass than you are on Netflix.”
The Parallax View is directed by Alan J Pakula, the guy who directed Klute, and stars Warren Beatty as a muckraking journalist hot on the trail of a shadowy corporation that specializes in political assassinations. As Beatty’s reportage leads him to infiltrate the organization, he gets in over his head. By the time he’s subjected to a several-minute psychedelic brainwashing sequence, the viewer begins to wonder if he’s walking right into a setup.
It’s not a matter of life or death, but if you’re thinking about quitting your streaming services, you probably should and see what happens. Even after my experiment ended, I’ve found myself spending more time watching free TV than I do watching paid streaming services. Maybe I’ll cut them off for good. After all, consumer freedom might be an illusion, but consuming things for free is very real.
South Park: Still the funniest cartoon for adults that isn’t The Simpsons, and mostly less offensive than you remember. (Pluto TV)
Sports: There’s not some show called Sports that you’ve never heard of or anything; I mean that if you have an antenna you can watch your local sports team play ball of the foot- and/or base- and/or basket- variety.
Mad Men: Once again, you can revisit the drama of drunk men in suits selling ads on Madison Avenue as it was meant to be seen: periodically interrupted by ads that were made by Millennials on Adderall. (Freevee)
Star Trek: The Next Generation: A protozoic example of “prestige TV”. and as technologically quaint in the 2020s as The Original Series must have felt in the 1980s. (Pluto TV)
Frasier: Its very presence on broadcast TV would have been enough to make me buy an antenna even if I hadn’t been paid to write this. (Weeknights and Sundays 8pm-10pm ET on Cozi TV)
I quit Netflix, bought an aerial and went back to free TV. Was it worth the savings? – The Guardian
After years paying for streaming services, Drew Millard spent a week with the alternatives – including Bill O’Reilly and a big dose of Frasier