By now, the fact that anyone can watch TV online without paying a dime to a cable company is practically common knowledge. But lucky for most cable companies, time-sensitive television programming such as news, sports, and popular shows the first night they air are still somewhat off-limits unless you know where to look. Here are some quick and dirty ways to get TV programming with just an Internet connection and a computer or a mobile phone--no gazing into neighbors’ living rooms required.
If you’re a news junkie, you probably already have places you visit for free news updates--you’ve bookmarked all the good websites, for instance, and maybe you listen to the radio on your way home from work. But what about watching TV news for free? Of course, basic cable can bring you all the local news you need, but sometimes you want a national perspective.
For starters, big events such as presidential debates or State of the Union addresses are usually available live on CNN.com or MSNBC.com for free. And all major news outlets offer clips of their previously run programming for free, often in linked clips; when one clip ends, the next begins, in a decent approximation of a live news TV broadcast. Some local stations will even let you watch live news broadcasts in their entirety through their website.
If watching clips doesn’t bother you and you’re not tied to a specific news station, give the free app Newsy a try. Newsy produces its own high-quality video blogs using media from major news and sports cable channels. Sure, the result isn't Pulitzer-winning stuff, but it is a fast way for you to gauge what’s going on in TV from your phone or tablet.
If you already subscribe to cable, and you just want to watch CNN or BBC America from a cable-free place, those two news networks will allow you to access their live programming over the Web through a sign-in code that you can obtain from your cable provider. MSNBC streams programming clips every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., although it isn't truly live because the spots air on MSNBC first. Similarly, Fox News Live streams online--along with a chat room beneath the video player for viewers to share their thoughts--but although the broadcast is supposed to air between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. EST, in my trials I usually wasn’t able to access the live stream until 10 a.m. EST.
A lot of what applies to news also goes for sports, but you should keep some caveats in mind. Networks that cover sporting events usually clamp down more on live streaming sports broadcasts than they do on news, and you won't find as many options available. While news broadcasters have dozens of competitors that offer the same information, coverage of big games often belongs exclusively to a single network.
Still, you have a few ways to get down-to-the-second coverage of important games without streaming the broadcast illegally. You can always listen to games on AM radio; or, if your event is halfway across the country, you might be able to find a local radio station that streams its broadcast online. The latter isn't always the case, though, since some professional sports leagues require listeners to use a paid service to access nonlocal audio broadcasts. For example, if you want to listen to an out-of-town Major League Baseball game, typically you'll have to use MLB's mobile app or sign up for its paid Gameday Audio service.
In addition, most major pro sports leagues offer some sort of paid online streaming service in which you can watch most (or all) of that league's games on your computer. The NBA, NHL, and NFL, along with MLB, all have online streaming services, though in some cases they block you from watching locally televised games.
ESPN frequently offers its programming after airing, and at WatchESPN you can see replays of recent games (for instance, I watched a Gonzaga vs. BYU basketball game the morning after the teams played).
ESPN usually posts its SportsCenter content online as short clips, but if you watch the clips on autoplay you’ll get frequent--and annoying--replays of the same commercials over and over. ESPN also has a mobile app that lets you stream live programs to your mobile device; to access the cordless cable service, however, you have to subscribe to Brighthouse Networks, Time Warner Cable, or Verizon FiOS.
Another option for smaller-name sporting events is to check out Ustream. Although Ustream offers all kinds of programming, from Campaign 2012 coverage to spirituality shows, a lot of the nonsports programming consists of independently run video streams--usually radio hosts who don’t mind having a webcam on them while they work, and made-for-Internet video shows that don’t always have access to interesting primary-source video. But Ustream does offer live coverage of smaller events at pay-per-view prices, such as the World Series of Boxing ($25) and the Alpine Skiing World Cup ($6). If you don’t want cable but you have a few must-see sports entertainment events, this service will fill in some of the gaps, depending on what your interests are.
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