You can spend up to US$100 a month for various cable and satellite services to watch the new season of programming that began this week. Or, if you've got an internet connection and are willing to be a little more creative than buying episodes for US$2 off Amazon Unbox or iTunes, you can view most of it for free. There are limitations, of course, but after digging through each channel's website, I found the sheer amount of cost free (and often commercial free) content to be staggering—even for the traditional "cable" channels.
So here's how you get it.
AU: Most, if not all of these have geographical limitations on them, which kind of makes it irrelevant here in Australia. Still, some of the more enterprising among you might find a way to do the same thing locally - let us know if that's you.
Network Shows (HD) Grade: A+
We're going to knock out a big "duh" point right off the bat. If you have an HDTV with an integrated HD tuner, there's a good chance you can get all of the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and even PBS) in HD for no cost at all. How? Over the air (OTA) HD via antenna—a signal that probably has less compression than cable or satellite. Stick it to the man by purchasing any UHF/VHF antenna. If you don't have the time/money for a roof mounted antenna, we've had success with the flat (non rabbit eared) RCA ANT1500. It runs about US$30. To find the OTA channels offered in your area, go here.
Network Shows (Runner Up Options) Grade: Mostly Honour Roll
For NBC and Fox/FX programs including 30 Rock, The Office, Heroes, and House, Hulu is your best runner-up resource to OTA HD (full show list here). The quality isn't quite as good as you'd get in a standard def broadcast, but the shows are available commercial free online and play instantly in full screen mode. ABC.com is superb as well, offering their highest rated shows like Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy and even 4 seasons of Lost in HD streaming. CBS.com is the most disappointing with somewhat random, limited offerings of their programming, and no episodes of their top-rated CSI shows available online.
Bravo Grade: F
Our first cable channel starts with a strike-out. Bravo has a huge thumb print online, all of their content is chopped into tiny clips, as if sliced and diced by Top Chef contestants into a mocking plate of amuse bouche. Bravo's site lacks any full episodes of their big shows; Hulu lacks them too (which is a bit surprising because NBC owns both entities). Moving on...
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Grade B+
Both Cartoon Network and its after dark Adult Swim alter-ego offer substantial content online. It's standard streaming quality, but the embedded video goes full screen and quite a few original shows (like The Boondocks) as well as syndicated shows (like Family Guy) are available in constantly rotating episodes.
Comedy Central Grade: A+
Sometimes it seems like Comedy Central plays nothing but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Luckily, both of these programs are available in full online dating back several weeks (the price is that you have to put up with a few commercials). A huge amount of South Park's back catalog is available as well. But don't go to Comedy Central's main site. Instead, hit up the links that we cleverly hid in each show's title.
Discovery Networks (Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, etc) Grade: F-
This is where you take a blow for being cheap. The only programs currently offered online from Discovery Networks are Meerkat Manor, Flip That House, Smash Lab and Project Earth. Plus, you'll also have to download their player (ick) to watch these programs. One of, if not the highest rated show on Discovery Networks is What Not To Wear. Needless to say, it's not part of their online lineup. But kudos to Discovery for not compressing Sunrise Earth to YouTube sizes.
ESPN Grade: A for Effort, C- for Execution
It's not HD. It's not even SD. But while the true sports fan might feel slighted by ESPN360's resolution, no one can question the content. Quite simply, there's more on ESPN360 than the real ESPN and ESPN2 combined. At any time, you can watch a multitude of live major sports games—over 10 while we're writing this. And if you forget to tune in, ESPN360 keeps the content online for 24-48 hours. The big catch: ESPN360 won't work with all internet providers (depending who your ISP is, you may not be able to access the player).
FX Grade: B- and Improving
On their site, FX promises complete shows "coming soon." But until then, we have an alternative. In case you didn't see the note above, many FX shows are available on Hulu. Their complete show listing is here. (Note: Hulu claims to have The Shield, but its links come up dead.)
MTV Grade: B+
MTV is now shoved full of so many advertisements that nobody should pay for it. Luckily (depending on your definition of the word), most (if not all) of their content appears to be available through their website. Music videos along with their top-rated show The Hills are available, as are many of their other shows including gems like True Life and Made. Aside from the commercials, the main catch is the spastic, often unorganized presentation of MTV.com.
SpikeTV Grade: Incomplete
Good news and bad news. The good news is that SpikeTV has an excellent, high quality video player that offers most of their shows commercial-free, and shows are easy to find in straightforward episode lists. The bad news is that if you watch SpikeTV for Ultimate Fighter—their biggest show—you'll still have to tune in the old-fashioned way.
Travel Channel Grade: FF
Complete miss here. But if you enjoy one-minute clips of Samantha Brown, live it up. Their site is chock full of 'em. Otherwise you have to subscribe (!) to the channel or buy episodes through Unbox etc.
USA Grade: B- for Execution
Does anyone watch USA anymore? If so, Monk, Psyche, Burn Notice and In Plain Sight are available on their site. Streaming is fast and quality is somewhere around SD widescreen. About three episodes of each show are available at a time in rotation and a pretty annoying DirecTV logo knocks the full screen player off centre. If you're not satisfied with the USA website, Hulu has a nice selection of USA content as well.
When It's Worth Paying For
If you don't have a media PC, then the convenience of watching television on your television may be worth the large premium for cable/satellite. Then again, a few hundred dollars can buy you a powerful media PC that will not only allow you to watch streaming content, but record OTA HD with a tuner. How much is your cable bill per month?
If you watch niche interest channels like TLC, Bravo or Travel Channel, you'll find that only limited content is available at all online (through services like Amazon Unbox) and, of course, it costs money. Still, if you only use Bravo for, say, Top Chef, buying a season through Unbox for $23 isn't the worst alternative to a multi-month cable subscription.
But most of all, if you want to watch non-network content in HD, cable and satellite are both, by far, your best options. Even with as much as Comcast and DirecTV compress HD signals, you'll be looking at a picture that's far more beautiful than streaming web content or what you can buy from Amazon or iTunes (at the time of this writing). But if your service provider still doesn't offer the smaller cable channels in HD, then just why are you renting that box again?