The biggest thing that Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other paid streaming giants offer is an ad-free experience. But the tradeoff is having to search for precious needles amid the haystack of their aggressively pushed original content, as well as outmaneuvering their predictive, pigeonholing algorithms. Or, you can withstand the odd 30-second commercial interruption, look at it as a built-in bathroom break and explore the bountiful outlying regions of your Roku (or Apple TV or Amazon Fire) device’s channel menu.
In time for a holiday season full of network hiatuses and idle hours indoors, here is a handful of recommended, largely free-to-access streaming channels that should provide the pure thrill of discovery as you scour their queues and unearth cult gems and old favorites.
The service: Tubi TV
The developer: AdRise
Specializes in: A little bit of everything, be it modern prestige flicks, cult-fave TV comedies, family friendly detours or adult-appropriate genre obscurities.
Archetypal titles: Film — The Hurt Locker (2008), All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989), Virgin High (1991); TV — IT Crowd (2006-2013)
User-friendliness: Tubi is very sleek, nearly rivaling Netflix’s dynamic scroll (though thankfully without the autoplay preview). The categories could be narrowed down to more curated suggestions, although some (like “crime TV”) are more finite than others (like “documentary”). But it’s hard to quibble with the streaming experience itself, which boasts high resolution and an awesome toggle bar that appears at will with options to pause, play, skip scenes and even jump ahead or back 30 seconds.
How ad-heavy is it? Hopefully, all of the above suffices as an excuse for the trio of ads that must be endured before the show begins.
The service: Wicked Horror
The developer: Wicked Content
Specializes in: Seminal genre fare spanning from the 1920s through ’80s, focusing on a heady and beheading mix of stylish shockers, allegorical thrillers and innovative jump-scare classics.
Archetypal titles: Carnival of Souls (1962), Dementia 13 (1963), Deep Red (1975)
User-friendliness: Its Stranger Things-aping title image makes the thumbnail hard to miss, and from there it’s fairly fluid and glitch free, with quick-loading times from home screen to menu and during actual playback. Info and credits for selections can vary, though the capsule summaries tend to be helpfully editorialized.
How ad-heavy is it? Perhaps this contradicts this list’s stated purpose, but there is a subscriber section of Wicked Horror (annual membership is $9.99) that eschews ads and opens up a Pandora’s box of additional titles, such as Lamberto Bava’s unnerving Demons (1985). But the free offerings are solid, and prefaced by a painless 60-second paid spot.
The service: Baby Boomer TV
The developer: Attila’s Creative Works
Specializes in: What its name would suggest, or at least what’s available via public domain. Vintage black-and-white sitcoms and cartoons share airspace with first-generation horror and sci-fi, as well as classic Westerns.
Archetypal titles: Film — White Zombie (1932), Charade (1963); TV — The Lone Ranger (1949-1957), Casper the Friendly Ghost (1945)
User-friendliness: Much like turning the dial on an old Zenith, navigating Baby Boomer TV is a fairly no-frills experience. And the bulk of its 200-plus titles epitomize syndicated comfort food. Picture quality will be roughly as bold as when these oldies-but-goodies first made waves, but, like aged vinyl or worn-in leather furniture, that’s part of the eternal appeal.
How ad-heavy is it? Thirty-second ads for modern products are a jarring juxtaposition to the opening credits of, say, Mr. Ed, but they beat being berated for squeezing the Charmin.
The service: SnagFilms/SnagXtreme
The developer: ViewLift
Specializes in: For SnagFilms proper, it’s contemporary documentaries and artsy-ish features from around the world. Its Xtreme sister channel zeroes in on a hodgepodge of low-budget castoffs from cultish corners of public domain, sensational reality and documentary, as well as a wide range of bootlegged music bios and concerts.
Archetypal titles: SnagFilms — LIE (2001), Devil’s Playground (2002), The Atomic Cafe (1982); SnagXtreme — Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll (2003), Driller Killer (1979), Top 10 UFO Sightings (2007), Drugged: High on Crack (2012)
User-friendliness: You’ll definitely hit playback hiccups from time to time on Xtreme, and overall, SnagFilms is more optically pleasant and streamlined than its counterpart, with more robust preview info and better buffering. Although perhaps it’s fitting that the grittier offspring feels lower tech. Pervasive “academy ratio” (i.e black bars on either side) viewing is a slight bummer.
How ad-heavy is it? Xtreme still carries a $0.99 ad-free alternative, but the fact that SnagFilms no longer does suggests that that revenue model wasn’t sticking. So just grin and bear a sponsor’s message before diving into some of rebel auteur Abel Ferrara’s insanity or somber human-interest examination.
The service: Shout Factory TV
The developer: AdRise
Specializes in: What those familiar with music- and home-video archivists Shout Factory would hope for — a slew of hard-to-find nostalgic oddities, more recent insomniac-theater goodies, far-out kids’ content from all eras and even a whole section of DVD film commentary from some of the channel’s most popular movies.
Archetypal titles: Film — A Boy and His Dog (1975), The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), Holy Motors (2012); TV — Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999), Thunderbirds (1965-1966)
User-friendliness: The categories aren’t frequently replenished, but they are creatively sorted for discerning sojourners with labels like “VHS vault,” “martial arts theatre” and “TV specials.”
How ad-heavy is it? Shout Factory TV is among the most saturated of this list, with at least a few 15-second quickies to be expected. But it’s arguably worth it when most of the titles are restored and in widescreen — except, of course, those intentionally left in retro condition for the VHS vault. Fast forward over the FBI piracy warnings at your peril.