“Free” streaming cable TV channels are not what you think they are


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Did you know that you can stream channels like “CNN,” “Fox Sports,” and “MTV” for free, all without an expensive pay TV subscription?

It’s true—as long as you don’t pay too much attention to what’s on those channels (and ignore my use of scare quotes). With the success of free streaming services such as Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, Xumo, and Plex, TV networks have found a new and somewhat disingenuous way to cash in: They’re providing these services with free live streams that have the same or similar branding as their paid cable channels. The catch is that the two versions have hardly any of the same content.

This week’s launch of “Sports on Tubi” is the latest example, imbuing the service with free channels from the likes of Fox Sports, the NFL, MLB, and BeIN Sports. Because those channels aren’t in the business of giving away their best content, Tubi’s offerings will mostly consist of reruns.

None of this is a problem if you know what you’re getting. But as more of these channels arrive, they could very well give cord-cutters the wrong impression about what they can watch without a big TV bundle.

Surveying the fake cable channel scene

PlutoTV’s free CNN live stream is the perfect example of what I’ll refer to as a fake cable channel. The branding is exactly the same as CNN proper, and Pluto’s channel guide doesn’t suggest anything different, advertising only “The Latest News from CNN.”

plutocnn Jared Newman / IDG

PlutoTV’s CNN channel looks like the real thing on the surface, but it’s not.

But when you tune to the channel, you’ll notice it’s not the same at all. Instead of distinct programs that air on the half-hour, it’s mainly just a procession of short video clips. Unlike streaming-first news channels such as CBSN and Cheddar News, CNN’s channel has no anchor to tie everything together, so the viewing experience feels jarring.

Other channels use more sleight of hand to distinguish themselves from their cable counterparts. PlutoTV’s Fox Sports channel has the same branding you see on Fox’s cable feeds, but it’s clearly not a mirror of FS1 or FS2. The free stream carries no live sporting events, and it only offers reruns of popular talk shows such as Skip and Shannon: Undisputed.

Likewise, PlutoTV has the NFL Channel, but not the NFL Network, with only the latter carrying Thursday Night Football (though they both share a logo and font). Pluto’s “MLB” channel, meanwhile, spends much of its time airing classic games, not the live events or MLB Tonight show found on MLB Network.

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