Money Talks, So Should You

15 cheaper ways to watch TV shows and movies

Hannah Kim
by Hannah Kim, Staff Writer (@dimespring)

The 2012 fall TV season is upon us with new shows premiering this month. But with a cable bill that can be more than $100 a month, watching your favorite TV shows can be expensive, especially if you’re only watching a handful of the hundreds of channels for which you’re paying. 

Luckily there’s a number of cheaper alternatives to cable that can bring you significant yearly savings. The best option for you largely depends on your own viewing habits, format preference and what kind of services and products you already have. To find the best option, we give you 15 different ways you can (legally) catch your favorite TV shows and movies for less.

1. Get an antenna: It may seem like an antiquated idea to use an antenna these days, but even with $30 to $40 you can buy a decent indoor antenna that will let you see local stations in HD. Just go and enter your zip code to find what kind of antenna you need and what channels your antenna can receive. 

Pros: After your initial investment for the antenna, it’s free. 
Cons: If your favorite shows are not on the local networks, you’re out of luck.

2. Network websites: You’ll find a handful of full episodes of your favorite shows available on many TV network websites, including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, USA Network, etc. So if you’ve missed “America’s Got Talent” you can catch it next day online.

Pros: It’s free.
Cons: Not all your favorite shows are available and ads will interrupt your viewing experience. Also, some shows will require you to enter your cable provider information anyway. 

READ: Don't let pop culture ruin your financial life

3. Hulu: Fortunately, you’re most likely to find the most popular TV shows on Hulu, which will allow you to stream TV shows, TV clips, movies and documentaries for free. If you subscribe to Hulu Plus for $7.99 per month, you’ll have a wider selection of TV shows in the current season and back seasons and can watch them on multiple platforms, including video gaming consoles and smartphones.

Pros: It’s free and offers a large selection of TV shows.
Cons: The movie selection is not as large as other streaming sites and you’re subject to watching ads, even if you pay for Hulu Plus.

4. Netflix: For $7.99 a month, you’ll get unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows through your computer, video game consoles, tablets and phones. For an additional $7.99 a month, you can have DVDs mailed out to you one at time. 

Pros: With unlimited streaming, there’s no time expirations and you can view shows on multiple platforms.
Cons: It’s only good if you’re using it; otherwise you’re wasting $8 a month. Also the selection of movies is limited and new releases on DVDs are not always available for streaming right away.

READ: A sample of movie ticket prices on opening night across the U.S. (Infographic)

5. Crackle: Crackle may not be as well known as Netflix or Hulu, but if you’re in the mood to watch an occasional movie, Crackle is a free video-streaming service that you can view on multiple devices. Because Crackle is owned by Sony, most of the movies and TV shows offered are from Sony productions, although they do feature some movies from Columbia and TriStar Pictures. 

Pros: It’s free and you can watch it on multiple platforms. 
Cons: You’re subject to watching ads and the selection of movies and shows is smaller compared to other services. 

6. Vudu: Vudu is a streaming service that allows you to rent most movies at $2 for two nights, although newer releases range  from $3.99 for standard definition to $5.99 for the higher quality HDX format. You can also buy movies from $17.99 and up depending on the format of the movie. Vudu claims that most of its movies are available for streaming prior to Netflix since some studios prohibit Netflix from releasing DVDs until 28 days after release and from streaming the movie until a year later.

Pros: You can watch movies on a wide variety of platforms in different formats, and its pay-as-you-go model allows you to avoid monthly fees and late fees. 
Cons: Not all movies are available in the highest resolution or on the device from which you want to watch.             

7. YouTube: You can buy or rent movies that range from free to $9.99. Once you purchase your “rental pass” with a Google Wallet account, you have 30 days to watch the movie and finish it within 48 hours once you’ve started playing it.

Pros: It offers a wide variety of movies, including foreign films, classics, documentaries and films from Sundance and other film festivals. 
Cons: They don’t always have the latest mainstream movies available.

8. Amazon Instant Video: If you already have Amazon Prime to save on shipping costs, it’s worth looking into Amazon Instant Video. The service works in a similar fashion as YouTube movies, where most movies and TV episodes can be rented from $1 to $3 and can be watched within a 48-hour period or can be bought for $4.99 and up. However, a portion of TV shows and movies can be streamed for free for those who pay $79 a year for an Amazon Prime subscription. 

Pros: There is a wide variety of content from over 50 TV networks and studios including Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, HBO, TNT and MTV.
Cons: May not be as beneficial to those without an Amazon Prime subscription and not all shows are available in HD or can be viewed at a discount with a TV pass.

9. iTunes: iTunes offers more than 4,500 movies from all major movie studios and more than 3,000 TV shows. You can purchase most of the movies on iTunes for $9.99 or rent them from $2.99 to $4.99. You have 30 days to watch a rental and 24 hours to finish watching it before it disappears from your library. Apple offers more than 85,000 TV episodes that can be bought from $1.99 to $2.99 each.

Pros: If you’re a big Apple fan, it’s convenient to be able to watch movies and shows across all your Apple devices, including Macs, iPads, iPhones and Apple TV. 
Cons: Buffering or downloading content is not always speedy, which can be an inconvenience. Prices are slightly higher than other services, meaning iTunes can get expensive if you’re a heavy viewer.

10. Google Play: If you have an Android device, Google Play allows you to rent TV shows and movies from $1.99 to $6.99 or buy them for up to $14.99. Like YouTube, you have 30 days to start watching a rental and 48 hours to finish watching it. Google Play offers nearly 9,000 movies from five of the six major studios and more than 10 independent movie studios.

Pros: Google Play offers a wide variety of apps, including Hulu Plus, that its competitors may not carry.
Cons: Google is still catching up to iTunes and Amazon so content is pretty limited for now.

11. Redbox:  Redbox is cheap at $1.20 plus tax for each DVD you rent per day. If you know that you’re not going to watch enough movies to justify paying a monthly fee, then Redbox may be a good alternative. 

READ: Verizon, Redbox plan Netflix challenge 

Pros: You can find new releases not yet available for streaming on other services, and at $1.20 it’s relatively cheaper than renting on On Demand cable.
Cons: If you don’t return the DVD by 9 p.m., you’ll have to pay for another day. Finding your DVD scratched up is also a nuisance, but you can be refunded and rent another DVD.

12. Blockbuster: Blockbuster’s Total Access is a monthly subscription plan that allows you to rent DVDs by mail or at a store at different pricing plans. If you want to rent one disc at a time, it’s $9.99 a month, two discs at a time is $14.99 per month and three discs at a time is $19.99 per month. You can also stream or download movies for $1.99 to $4.99 per month. 

Pros: For those who still like the comfort of going to a store to peruse DVDs and be able to exchange a scratched DVD right away, Blockbuster is still around. Blockbuster also claims to carry more new releases than Netflix and other streaming sites.

Cons: Monthly subscription is more expensive than Netflix.

13. Mubi: Mubi is for the those who enjoy independent, international and classic movies. Movies can be streamed for $2.99 per film or you can watch an unlimited number of movies with a $6.99-a-month subscription. 

READ: Cheaper ways to watch movies at the theater

Pros: At $6.99, it has a cheaper monthly subscription than Netflix ,and it integrates social networking into your viewing experience.
Cons: You’ll find some Hollywood favorites here, but not many.

14. Roku: Roku offers set-top boxes that connect to your TV so you’re not limited to watching movies from your laptop. The Roku set-top boxes range from $50 to $100 and will stream from Netflix, Pandora, Hulu and other services. The most expensive model comes with a remote control and can play in HD.

Pros: It’s easy to set up and you can use your smartphone as a remote control through the Roku app.
Cons: While there are no monthly fees, there are yearly or monthly fees for premium content services such as MLB, NBA and Netflix.

15. Boxee: Boxee is a streaming media player that allows you to watch movies and shows from Hulu, Netflix, and other streaming sites. The box is $180 and it’s another $50 if you want the HD antenna that will allow you to watch live TV broadcasts.

Pros: Boxee can play a wide variety of formats, and with its social media integration, you and your friends can see what each other are watching.
Cons: The initial cost is hefty and you won’t be able to record live TV shows.

Hannah Kim is a personal finance reporter at Dimespring. She has a master’s of journalism from the University of Maryland and has written for The Business Insider and Before changing careers to journalism, she previously worked in the finance industry for six years in New York City.