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PlutoTV, Tubi and 12 more free streaming services

The first five seasons of "The Office," starring

The first five seasons of "The Office," starring Steve Carrel, are available for free on Peacock. Credit: Peacock

They're free. They're vast. They're exciting.

They're jam-packed with movies, TV shows, news, sports and (some of them anyway) commercials, too.

They're far and away the fastest-growing corner of the entire TV industry.

And (did I already mention?) free.

In industry parlance, they are labeled "AVODs" — advertising based-video-on-demand — but you can call them free streamers. Everyone else does.

As free alternatives to Netflix, HBO Max, Apple TV+, Disney +, Amazon and Hulu, these free streamers have lured millions of viewers the past year with their smorgasbord of shows and movies that seem to stretch to infinity and beyond.

But like any all-you-can-eat buffet, they have their limitations. Many of their shows are ancient, or "classic," as each refers to just about any show that aired over 20 years ago. Most of their movies have seen better days, too, and those days were usually back in the '80s or '90s. Each streamer is also structured as an endless scroll of channels, to mimic what you might see on cable and to entice cord-cutters. But many of those channels are the TV equivalent of watching wallpaper — or fulfillment of the adage that you get what you pay for.

Nevertheless, most of the streamers are getting better, and — if possible — even bigger. Each is adding new channels almost daily, like Fox-owned Tubi, which has begun to rollout a suite of live sports channels that will eventually comprise some 700 hours of programming. They're also adding shows they've produced themselves, including documentaries, dramas and limited series, just like the paid services.

I've sampled 14 free streamers for this survey, and I do mean "sample." To spend real time with them would consume weeks, even years, and also — ultimately — one's sanity. Pluto TV, for example, boasts 200,000 hours of programming, or 13 years total, which is (yes) insane.

While there's considerable duplication (why do free streamers love "The Beverly Hillbillies" so very much?) each does offer something special, and that's what I've gone looking for on this treasure hunt. You might find something else and almost certainly will because that is what lies at the heart of their rapid growth — a little something for everyone, with commercials.

How to watch them? Best to check with each site, but most smart TVs can access these, along with Amazon FireTV, Android TV, Roku, Xfinity Flex, and Xfinity X1 (also via any smartphone). Otherwise, all you need is an internet connection and computer.

Happy hunting.

CRACKLE

Founded in 2004 (it was then called Grouper), Crackle is a true free streaming pioneer; it most famously launched Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," which later went to Netflix. In fact, that departure was ominous. These days, Crackle — which was sold by Sony to Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment in 2020 — has an aura of also-ran about it. There's still a whole lot of TV here, but much of it is covered in a mantle of dusty or long-forgotten (like Matthew Perry's "Mr. Sunshine"). Yes, Crackle still has original content but much of that is years old too, like crime drama "The Oath" from 2018, although original "Promiseland" (about NBA star Ja Morant) just landed.

HOOPLA

With Hoopla, one enters the relatively rarefied world of library (and commercial-free) streaming. All you need is a library card and a huge appetite for British TV. Indeed, much here is British — full seasons of "Bloodlands," "Father Brown'' or "The Great British Baking Show," for example — but also lots of U.S. documentaries ("Ken Burns' The War"). Here's a tip: Click on the blue box in the center of the home page labeled "Genres & Collections," which really unlocks Hoopla's considerable (and eclectic) content spanning Acorn TV, Comedy Central, Lifetime, French-language shows, History channel, and collections dedicated to "meditation and mindfulness" and even fitness guru Jillian Michaels.

IMDb TV

The trick with IMDb TV is actually finding IMDb TV; it's IMDB.com/tv. (IMDB.com is the mother site — Internet Movie Database.) Like its rivals, IMDb TV is built on a suite of "channels'' like "recently added'' or' most popular." Unlike those rivals, it tends to blend its TV offerings with the movie ones, so that if you go on a search for (say) comedies, you'll scroll past "My Name Is Earl'' in one frame, and the Howard Hawks' classic "His Girl Friday'' in another. There are exceptions, like "Recently Added TV," where you'll find "24" as well as the web destination for all seven seasons of "Mad Men." IMDb TV, meanwhile, is growing rapidly, thanks to the largesse of owner Amazon. (All "The Hunger Games'' and "Die Hards'' are arriving in September.) Then there's the growing list of originals ---- series like "Luke Bryan: My Dirt Road Diary'' (the country music star and "American Idol" judge explores his life story, including the deaths of his brother and sister), or "Leverage: Redemption" (which launched in July and is a revival of the TNT dramedy about crime-fighting reformed criminals). And do check out the amusing "How Well Do You Know Your IMDB Page?," with stars (like Kevin Bacon) who are asked about that very thing.

KANOPY

As always, the best-known (and best) of the library streaming services, Kanopy, still requires a library card and affiliation with a participating institution (typically a college or university). Since the 2008 launch, Kanopy has been the highbrow alternative to the commercial-based streamers, with channels devoted to "Bias & Discrimination," "Gender Studies," "Directed by Women," "Health and Wellness" and — best of all — the famed classic film Criterion Collection. And Kanopy — 30,000 movies — is growing. Meanwhile, there are plenty of recentt movies too, like Oscar winner, "Moonlight." Designed for college students, Kanopy was purchased in June by digital platform OverDrive, which means more titles are coming. What's weakest with Kanopy? TV, although there are still plenty of documentaries here (like HBO's recent "Exterminate All the Brutes").

PEACOCK

As you already likely know, Peacock = "The Office," but not all of "The Office." The free site offers just the first five seasons, and you have to buy the pay tier to see the next four. And that is pretty much the story with the rest of what's on the free tier. ("Parks & Recreation?" Only the first two seasons are free.) Nevertheless, free Peacock is still very good. It's not soaked in "classics," but instead has far more contemporary shows, somevery contemporary (including "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," which is just now wrapping its run). Peacock TV also has a robust and growing originals list — the strongest of the freebies — including "Girls5Eva" and new drama "Dr. Death" with Joshua Jackson and Alec Baldwin, about a sociopathic doctor who kills his patients. Peacock just ordered a "Field of Dreams" sitcom reboot from Mike Schur ("The Office," "The Good Place") and a true crime six-part series starring Renée Zellweger.

PLEX

Among the lesser known of the free streamers, Plex is nevertheless among the best. The live TV portion alone has 186 channels, organized (or navigable) by a grid, much like the one you find in newspapers. And the offerings are truly wild, like "The Wu Tang Collection" channel or the K-pop channel, or the one devoted exclusively to Nashville — the ABC prime-time soap, not the city. (You can also stream "The Walking Dead.") Many channels have names that are far from self-explanatory (Rakuten VIKI? Hmmm.), making any search something of an adventure. What's also good are the channels devoted to music and better still, to podcasts — dozens of 'em.

PLUTO TV

Pluto is the Pacific Ocean of the free streamers, and as such, it's either sink or swim when navigating this giant. Since CBS parent Viacom (now ViacomCBS) bought this in 2019, it has grown rapidly, and in late August added a batch of new 24-hour channels to the 250 linear channels already here, including channels devoted only to "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Matlock" and another to seasons 7-through — 20 of "Gunsmoke."

Pluto has seen rapid growth during the pandemic (currently 52 million users, per ViacomCBS) because of its shrewd bid for viewers seeking nostalgia. For that reason, the classic channel lineup is probably the best of all the streamers. There are entire channels devoted to just "The Tonight Show Starrinf johnny Carson," "Happy Days," "Family Ties," "Three's Company," "Mission: Impossible," among many (many) others. The rest of the content (remember — 200,000 hours?) is divided by genre (you can access it via a "live" or "on-demand" function similar to the rest of the free streamers), which are then broken down into linear channels. There are whole networks devoted to poker, Minecraft, Dr. Phil, you-name-it. Then, there are those commercials: Pluto has an ocean of them as well, which you can't speed through. You'll get about three minutes of them every 15 minutes or so.

REDBOX

You know Redbox from that kiosk next to the checkout aisle in the supermarket, but just last year it also launched its free streaming service. As such, this still feels like a work-in-progress. The free TV channels (there are about a hundred) mostly have what you can get anywhere else, like ones devoted to Johnny Carson and Carol Burnett, and movies like "Django Unchained." But Redbox is still growing and just recently announced a deal with Kevin Hart's production company which will bring a hundred hours of comedy specials to the service — some which will actually star Kevin Hart.

ROKU CHANNEL

Launched in 2017, Roku now has dozens of channels, with 17 added just since mid-August — including the TriBeCa Channel, which draws from the film festival of the same name, and of course the usual classics, like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Roku has also added some 30 Quibi shows from the defunct short-form iPhone network which comprise the bulk of its original content. What's best about Roku is ease of use: You never feel overwhelmed (see: Pluto) while Netflix-style algorithms offer suggestions (good ones) based on your initial choices. What's tricky about the Roku Channel is the occasional bait-and-switch: You click on something you assume is free but are then directed to an outside premium pay site to watch.

SHOUTFACTORY TV

Another pioneer, ShoutFactory began n 2002 as a DVD supplier, but launched its AVOD in 2015, with "Mystery Science Theater 3000" as chief draw. (Cult classic "MST3" has had various iterations over the years, but ShoutFactory has the original Comedy Central one from the early '90s.) Whimsy, in fact, is ShoutFactory's big draw. You never quite know what you're getting here — a channel devoted to Roger Corman movies ("Candy Stripe Nurses," "Humanoids from the Deep''), or another to Gene Autry flicks. Aside from Corman (if that's to your taste), ShoutFactory's chief claim to fame is the Werner Herzog 17-film collection. The TV collection, alas, is largely mediocre, with a gem or two as compensation, notably 12 seasons of "The Dick Cavett Show," which aired on various networks (mostly ABC) from 1968 to 1996. There's another treasure here: The first season of Ellis Haizlip's "Soul!" (1968), a TV pioneer and showcase for African American music, dance, art and spoken word poetry.

And definitely check out the ShoutFactory original "Back Lot" — interviews with Hollywood pros (including -- who else? -- Corman).

STIRR

Sinclair, the largest TV station owner (190 stations total), launched Stirr in early 2019, with a promise to deliver a lot of free local news from its many stations, and much else. There is a whole lot of local news; it's the "much else" that's the problem. STIRR (Sinclair never quite explained what the acronym stands for) is the buggiest of the free sites — channels will jump from one of the next, without explanation — and navigation is clunky too. (It consists of linear channels only, with no discernible search function.) But best of these is classic TV which offers "The Patty Duke Show" and "Battlestar Galactica" reruns.

TUBI

Like archrival Pluto TV, Tubi is all about the numbers, and the numbers here are large indeed: 30,000 movies and TV shows, and 900 million hours viewed just last fall alone, per Fox, which bought Tubi in 2020 for $400 million. So what is here exactly? The better question is, what is not? You can't see "Dynasty," for example (but you can see "Duck Dynasty"). Can't get "Dallas" (but can get a '40s Western called "Tulsa"). This points up a key weakness to all of the free streamers. They're vast yet confined, boundless yet cramped. Here's another helpful tip: You probably don't go to find something specific, but rather to stumble upon something. The bigger the service, the better the stumbling, and that's Tubi's core strength. It mines some of the vast Fox catalog and it is especially well-organized. Tubi aggregates some of that content into collections, like Black Cinema or Bollywood, and it has also borrowed from Netflix's playbook, with drop-downs that tell you what's "leaving soon" or "most popular" or "recommended." Yes, there are lots (and lots) of shows, some more-or-less recent, like "Rosewood" (2015) or "Devious Maids" (2013), some much less so, like "Dark Shadows" and "Columbo" (both from that long-ago time called the 1970s.) , Tubi has originals too, including one that just launched -- "Tales of a Fifth Grade Robin Hood," about a vice principal (Jon Lovitz) who steals from his school fundraisers and is caught by a 5th-grader (Chase Brown.)

The news channel selections (drawn from many sources, from "Today" to Bloomberg) are generous and there's even a "News 12" channel too (alas, covering only the tristate area, not just Long Island).

In fact, Tubi -- also Xumo, Pecock and Pluto -- don't stream the "Today" show" but rather "Today All Day," the 24-hour channel launched by NBC News in 2020. Like the mother show, the channel has interviews, news, entertainment, cooking and shopping shows and now something called "Today in 30," a condensed version of the daily show, also hosted by Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb.

Meanwhile, that new suite of sports channels will offer content from the MLB Network and the NFL Network.

VUDU FANDANGO

Vudu is actually two streaming services in one — Vudu, formerly owned by Walmart, and Fandango, owned by NBC Universal. NBCU recently merged both and together they do seem to exceed the sum of their parts. Vudu Fandango boasts a total of 200,000 titles "for sale or rent," while the TV collection alone lists 935 series. But there is a catch. Vudu gives you the option of either buying one of those series, or watching the others free (with ads.) Only half of the titles have that free option and they are the weaker — to be kind — of those series. Indeed, many of these freebies are unwatchable dreck but not all ("Hell's Kitchen" fans will rejoice). Is there something actually worth watching? You will be the judge of that but I couldn't find anything.

XUMO

Comcast's Xumo is both familiar and quirky — the quirkiest of them all. Yes, it has all the functions that the others do ("live," "on demand") and its 600-plus linear channels are divided by genre. It also offers a function that ranks shows/movies/news channels by popularity (news ranks high; the channel devoted to pickleball ranks low — surprise!) It's what's on so many of those channels that is so deeply, wonderfully odd. Some of the TV channels have familiar titles ("Bonanza") but mostly you'll find stuff on the others like "Scalpel," about a mad plastic surgeon who reconstructs à go-go dancer's face. There's also the "Killer Movie" channel where you will find "Phenomena," about a young girl who talks to insects, or "Revenge of the Blood Beasts," which is self-explanatory. Junk? You already know the answer, but it's junk you won't find anywhere else.

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