I only watched free TV services for a week – here’s what happened

Many people are looking for ways to save money and cut their budget in the face of soaring gas and food prices. A common way to do this is to reduce entertainment expenses, such as cable and streaming subscriptions. Last year, I finally cut the cord and got rid of an expensive cable bill, replacing it with our Sling, an alternative to high-end cables.

Then, a few months ago, I realized that my streaming subscriptions were as big a bill as a cable plan. At the time, I was paying for 11 services at $133.44 per month. It’s way too much, and I’ve made a plan to “churn” some of it – for example, cancel, then re-subscribe when a favorite show comes back, then cancel again when it’s over.

But it still can only save me a lot of 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 a month. In times of peak inflation, even that may seem a bit steep. If you really feel comfortable, spending any amount on entertainment may seem frivolous. Yet giving it up altogether seems to lead to many boring evenings.

So I decided to conduct an experiment: could I get by just watching free TV? Absolutely, completely free. No monthly bills. Zero dollars spent. (Of course, this still requires an internet connection and a device, which most of us already have.)

I tried it for a week. Here is what happened.

Free streaming services I’ve used

First, I set up the settings for the experience, to somewhat mimic my usual TV viewing habits. I had to watch every day for at least an hour and commit to a three-hour binge-watching session. I couldn’t use paid services either – no Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus, etc.

After going through our guide to the best free streaming services, I downloaded them all, but ended up using mainly four: Peacock Free, Amazon Freevee, The Roku Channel, and Pluto TV.

Pluto TV on Phone

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

They each have their advantages and disadvantages. Peacock is perhaps the most prominent, with the weight of NBCUniversal’s back catalog behind him. 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 upsell — giving me a taste of something, then only holding back the rest if I paid a subscription. For example, I could watch the very first episode of the hit Western drama Yellowstone, but the rest required Premium access. At least I could binge on the first five seasons of The Office and the first two seasons of Parks and Recreation.

Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc in Knives Out

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Peacock’s selection of free movies is pretty abysmal, which is why we should talk about Freevee: Amazon’s recently renamed service that offers more exciting options. Movies are also older but higher quality, like Knives Out, The Invisible Man, and Emma. Freevee also has a huge selection of free TV (hence the name), including Mad Men, Lost, and originals like Bosch: Legacy.

The Roku Channel is still playing a bit of catch-up when it comes to Originals, though several of Quibi’s 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 for background viewing, or what I call “folding laundry TV”. The range of live channels makes it easy to find something to watch. I came across a number of films and ongoing shows, 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 show ads. These announcements cannot be ignored. The amount of ads varies from service to service, but most air between four and eight minutes per hour.

This is probably one of the biggest hurdles to switching exclusively to FAST (ad-supported free streaming TV). I started my week-long experience dreading being inundated with advertisements for cars, car insurance, pharmaceuticals, fast food, household items, and personal care products.

The cast of Mad Men (L to R) Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, Jared Harris as Lane Price, John Slattery as Roger Sterling, Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Robert Morse as Bert Cooper and Elizabeth Olsen as Peggy Olson in key art for the show

(Image credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC)

While the ads were certainly not welcome, I was surprised to find that they didn’t drive me to the brink of insanity. In most cases, the ad load was lighter than what streamers are officially saying. Roku says they limit theirs to 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 supposed to be eight minutes, but I got less than five on an episode of Hart of Dixie. Additionally, the service helpfully tags shows with limited ads, and I only saw about three minutes into an episode of Mad Men.

Pluto approached an eight-minute ad load, playing several bits of two- or three-minute commercials every hour while I watched the Survivor Channel.

Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and Michael (Steve Carell) in the Christmas episode of The Office

(Image credit: Reveille Productions/NBC via Peacock)

Peacock would air 4.6 ads per show, which matches the four ads totaling two minutes aired during an episode of The Office (one of which promoted other Peacock content).

An average of five minutes of ads for a one-hour show really isn’t that bad. It’s definitely a lot better than what you get with broadcast or cable TV, which typically airs 20 minutes of commercials per hour.

The commercials weren’t the hardest part of my free TV week. FOMO was.

Free TV saves money but keeps you out of tune

As my week of fasting comes to an end, I 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 revisit some of your favorites or catch up on quality titles you’ve never seen. I don’t really mind seeing Mad Men on Freevee again. I’ve already suffered over 20 minutes of commercials when the episodes first aired on AMC; three minutes now seems paltry.

Second, the ads are annoying but acceptable. As long as the services keep them to a reasonable amount (under eight minutes per hour), it’s a decent compromise to pay nothing for content.

Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson in STRANGER THINGS 4

(Image credit: Netflix)

Finally, my main complaint has nothing to do with the free services themselves. That’s the FOMO I’ve been feeling all week, as my friends, co-workers, and internet strangers chatted about Stranger Things, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ms. Marvel, The Boys, and everything in between. on paid streaming services.

Cutting Netflix, HBO Max and Disney Plus from your budget doesn’t just mean you lose access to their content – you also lose the ability to participate in a face-to-face or virtual conversation. It’s too high a price to pay, in my books. But it might be something you’re willing to give up for some extra cash in your bank account.

Christy J. Olson