If you’ve got a Roku, odds are you’ve already connected your Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon account for streaming. You probably know that you can buy movies and TV episodes on other services too, like Google Play. But there is a lot of free content on the Roku too…if you know where to look.
Browsing through the channel store can be frustrating, because so much of what’s offered requires a cable login or other subscription. But there’s free content all over the place. Here’s a list of some of the best (legal) Roku channels that offer free TV shows and movies you can start watching immediately. (And if you have kids, be sure to check out our kid-friendly list, too.)
If you want to watch current TV shows, the first channels you should add are those of the major TV networks in your country. (We’re based in the US, so we’re focused on TV networks here, but major networks in many countries also offer Roku channels.)
NBC, ABC, Fox, and The CW all allow you to watch ad-supported TV episodes without a cable subscription, or even signing into a service. When you can watch varies: The CW offers full episodes the day after they air, but Fox makes free users wait a full week. If you don’t own a DVR, and missed a few episodes of your favorite shows, these channels can help you catch up.
You’ll notice one network is missing: CBS. That’s because CBS’ Roku app requires an All Access pass to watch anything more than clips, meaning you need to pay $6 a month to watch shows that are broadcast for free over the air ($10 if you don’t want to see commercials!). Of course, you can still watch those shows with an over the air antenna if you really want to.
I’m listing the PBS Roku channel apart from the other broadcast TV networks because it really does stand apart. For one thing, it is the only major network channel with no advertising whatsoever, apart from the brief “brought to you by” before the show. Not being interrupted is very nice, and finding that for free is rare.
Second, the sheer volume of content offers dwarfs other free Roku channels. If a show is made by PBS, you can watch most if not all of its back catalog. British imports like Sherlock and the Great British Baking Show only offer recent episodes, but domestic shows like Nature and Frontline offer more content than you could ever watch. Another thing I like: your local PBS station, and its shows, are highlighted, so you can watch shows featuring your city or state in addition to national content.
If you have kids, there’s also a PBS Kids channel with thousands of ad-free videos. Curious George, The Cat In The Hat, and Seasame Street are all offered, so check it out.
The Roku Channel: A Generous Catalog of Hollywood Movies
The new Roku Channel is unique: it’s the first channel offered by Roku itself, and is exclusive to Roku devices. So what’s it got? A bunch of recognizable movies from decades gone by: Legally Blonde, Snatch, Talladega Nights, and The Karate Kid are a few highlights. There’s also a variety of documentaries and westerns worth looking through.
The free channel has commercial breaks, but not that many: here are the stopping points we saw for Nacho Libre.
Three breaks is not bad for an hour and a half movie, and Roku says they aim for “approximately half the advertising per programming hour” as traditional television. We wonder how long this channel can remain this generous, but for now call us impressed.
The channel is powered by partnerships with major studios like Lionsgate, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Sony Pictures Entertainment and Warner Brothers. None of the titles are terribly recent, but there are a lot of them, so dive in and see what you can find.
Crackle: a Decent Back Catalog of Shows and Movies
Crackle is Sony’s attempt at a streaming service, and it has a respectable back catalog of TV shows and movies. You won’t find the latest and greatest, but shows offered include Firefly and Seinfeld, and movies include classics like Apollo 13 and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There are also a few web-specific projects, including Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, to check out.
Popcornflix: Even More Movies and TV Shows
You’ve likely never heard of Popcornflix, but it offers a bunch of movies and TV shows free of charge if you’re willing to put up with ads. Again, you won’t find anything recent, but there’s some good stuff here, including movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Bad News Bears. There are also some fairly obscure TV shows, including those terrible Zelda and Mario cartoons from the early 90s.
Pluto.TV: Channel Surfing on Roku
We’ve pointed this one out before, but it’s worth mentioning here as well. Pluto.TV aggregates content from around the Internet into an interface that resembles live television. There are channels offering everything from cartoons to news to standup comedy, all for free. There’s even a channel that broadcasts nothing but Mystery Science Theater 3000.
YouTube: The Best of Web Video
YouTube needs no introduction, and if you don’t have this on your Roku yet you should. It’s free, you can log in to see your subscriptions, and browsing the recommended videos is a quick way to find something fun to watch. The HTML5 interface does not feel at home on the Roku, and was a little slow in our tests, but it’s the easiest way we’ve found to watch web videos from your couch.
ReutersTV: Quick News Updates
This channel, from wire service Reuters, is mentioned for the quality of the presentation alone. When you open the app you’re asked how much time you have: 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or a half hour. Pick an option and the channel will put together a news broadcast for you, featuring all of the latest headlines. It’s a great way to catch up on what’s happening, though you can skip stories you don’t care about. There’s also the ability to watch live events, and browse for specific stories.
Private Channels Offer a Lot More
We’ve focused on channels you can find in the official Roku store for this article, but there’s a whole world of unsupported channels out there if you know where to look. We already explained how to add hidden private channels to your Roku, so be sure to check that out if you want to find even more channels to watch. Enjoy!