The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Find the cheapest way to watch TV

From an antenna to streaming hacks, we find the least expensive ways to watch television

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
6 min

Television is a great way to relax and unwind after a long stressful day. Figuring out how to actually watch television these days is a great way to tense up and have a long stressful night.

Between cable, satellite and a growing field of streaming options, it’s hard to know the best way to actually watch TV without going broke. Help Desk reader Emi in San Francisco writes in with this exact conundrum, pleading: “I just want to watch TV in the most economical way possible.”

Put fresh batteries in your remote, settle into a recliner and let’s figure out how to zone out without going into debt together.

What do you want from TV?

Before just jumping into the cheapest option (spoiler: it’s an antenna), let’s figure out what kind of watching you’d like to do. How much TV do you watch in a day or week? Are you passionate about watching the kind of big-budget shows that spawn think pieces and get Emmys (try streaming), or are you more into flipping channels and the latest Real Housewives drama (price out cable or satellite)? Maybe you just crave the low hum of CBS This Morning and basketball games in the background while you go about your life (back to the antenna).

If you’re not sure what you want to watch, catch up on our reviews of the latest shows or pay a visit to and see where to find the latest hits. Most prestige shows are spread out across services and channels, but if you find more than a handful in one place, start there.

An indoor antenna

Cost: One time payment of $25 to $100

If you have a TV set, you can get the major networks without paying a subscription cost, but you might have to shell out for an HDTV antenna.

Televisions used to get the basic channels without any subscriptions using built-in over-the-air antennas. Most new TVs no longer come with antennas, so you have to buy a separate new indoor HDTV antenna to go with the set. They can cost anywhere from $25 to $100, are fairly easy to install and are available in big-box stores such as Target or Best Buy. If you want even better reception, you can invest in an outdoor antenna as well, but installation is more complicated and it will cost an additional $50 to $150.

What channels you’ll get with an indoor HDTV antenna depend on your location and the strength of your antenna or the channels’ signals. However, everyone should be able to watch the big networks live, including ABC, NBC, CBS, Univision and PBS.

You can enter your Zip code into the Channel Master site and see what other channels you’d get in your area and if it’s enough to skip cable or streaming.

Cable and satellite subscription

Cost: Monthly charges of $50 to $150, more for premium channels.

If you’re interested in having 50 or hundreds of channels to flip through, you can invest in a cable or satellite service. You’re signing up to make monthly payments that will probably end up much larger than you thought and possibly shoot up after a set period of time. Cable could cost anywhere from $50 to $150.

The details vary wildly according to what kind of plan you get, if it’s bundled with your internet service and the options available where you live. Most areas are dominated by one or two major providers, but sometimes you can still shop around and even play them off each other for bigger discounts. For details on what to look out for and how to lower your cable, satellite and internet bills, check out our guide.

How to lower your Internet and cable bill

With basic cable you’ll get the same big networks and live TV as you do with an antenna. You’ll also get a mix of solid and deeply subpar channels filled with advertisements. If you want a “premium” channel with newer content and no ads, like HBO or Starz, you’ll need to add more to the monthly payment.

One advantage to cable and satellite is the services allow some on-demand viewing, and your account log-in can be used to log in to the streaming apps for many of the popular channels like Bravo or AMC. It’s a good choice if you’re not terribly picky about what you’re watching and just want to have access to the basics, news and serialized shows.

The drawbacks are the unpredictable and often inflated pricing, and the inability to watch many of the hottest shows your friends or co-workers are talking about. Paying for hundreds of channels when you only watch a handful regularly also feels wasteful to younger viewers who are more interested in paying for exactly what they use instead.

Streaming services

Cost: Monthly charges from $0 with ads to $20 each

Many people have given up on the real-time channels and switched to streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. At first blush, they seem like a deal: around $10 a month and no need to get special equipment or navigate terrible interfaces to find a show. But while each service might have a vast collection of content, the quality shows are spread out.

If you can be happy with just one streaming option, it makes more sense to get cable or satellite. But if you are interested in watching shows on different services — “House of the Dragon” on HBO Max, “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix, “Bluey” on Disney Plus — you’ll need multiple subscriptions and the total will quickly add up.

Advanced options to pay less for streaming include sharing (as allowed) and cycling through them so you pay for Prime Video one month and Apple TV the next. For tips on how to squeeze the most of out of your streaming services, check out our guide.

How to juggle multiple TV streaming services without missing a show

To watch streaming services, you’ll need a smart TV that supports adding apps, or an inexpensive streaming stick or box such as a Roku or Amazon Fire Stick. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Free watching options

Cost: Yep, free

If your primary concern is paying less, or watching more obscure movies and shows, your local library has the solution. Use your library account to log in to their site and see what services they offer for streaming or downloading shows and movies, such as Kanopy and Hoopla. You can also check out DVDs from your local library for an old-school movie night.

There are also free streaming apps funded by ads that you can download on your phone or a device like a Roku. Look for Pluto TV, IMDBtv, Fox’s Tubi TV, Roku’s own channel, Crackle and Vudu. YouTube also has free movies you can stream through the app or website.

For other tips on how to get content free, check out our guide to watching, listening and reading without spending a lot of money.

Free alternatives to all your paid subscriptions

Help Desk: Making tech work for you

Help Desk is a destination built for readers looking to better understand and take control of the technology used in everyday life.

Take control: Sign up for The Tech Friend newsletter to get straight talk and advice on how to make your tech a force for good.

Tech tips to make your life easier: 10 tips and tricks to customize iOS 16 | 5 tips to make your gadget batteries last longer | How to get back control of a hacked social media account | How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation online

Data and Privacy: A guide to every privacy setting you should change now. We have gone through the settings for the most popular (and problematic) services to give you recommendations. Google | Amazon | Facebook | Venmo | Apple | Android

Ask a question: Send the Help Desk your personal technology questions.