Did you know you can watch live TV on Roku? With the right Roku channels, you can watch live dramas, sports and news as it happens. Our guide will show you how to get:
- Free over-the-air broadcasts from CBS, FOX and other networks
- A live feed of Showtime
- Internet based live TV service via Hulu TV, PlayStation Vue and Pluto
Watch Local TV for Free
You can watch dozens of local and national channels with minimal up-front cost and effort. Your mileage will vary depending on how far the local broadcasters are from your home, how your home is constructed and other factors. Most people will get channels like:
- Network TV stations like ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC
- Public TV stations like PBS, CreateTV and Worldchannel
- Hispanic TV stations like Telemundo, EstrellaTV and LATV
- Rerun channels like MeTV and CometTV
- Business and sports channels like Newsmax, American Sports Network and BizTV
All you need is an inexpensive HDTV antenna, a network-connected HDTV tuner and a few cables. This system converts the broadcast signal from the antenna into a digital stream on your home network that a Roku channel can play.
The Best Way to Stream Local TV
An over-the-air solution is the only guaranteed way to get your local TV stations. The broadcast TV system is a patchwork of independently-owned stations linked together through affiliate relationships with the national networks. ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX only own a dozen TV stations apiece. The hundreds of other TV stations across the country are owned by independent companies.
That makes it much more complicated for streaming services to get the licenses needed to stream local content live TV over the internet. Not every broadcast network has deals with every streaming service. And even when one of the networks cuts a deal with one of the streaming services, the station owners may not be on board.
DirecTV Now, for example, can stream all four of the big networks to its customers in Denver, but can only stream content from the ABC and FOX affiliates in Houston. Hulu’s live TV service, on the other hand, can stream ABC, NBC and FOX in Houston but only CBS, NBC and FOX in Denver.
How to Get Local TV Channels
To get all of the big broadcast networks, you need a way to grab the over-the-air signals and feed them in your Roku device. Mohu Airwave and Tablo TV are two of the easiest Roku-compatible options for grabbing local TV streams.
Mohu Airwave offers the best combination of simplicity and price. For $199, you get all the hardware you need in the box. Once you’ve plugged in your Mohu Airwave, you can use the Mohu Airwave Roku Channel to watch local live TV streams.
The Mohu Airwave also adds a number of internet streaming channels to round out the experience. The streaming lineup is basic with channels like NASA TV and Bloomberg TV, but Mohu promises it will add more.
The Airwave does have some limitations. You can only stream to devices on your home network. The programming guide only lets you see what’s playing now. There’s no ability to pause and rewind live TV or to skip commercials. Another potential deal-breaker: you can’t record programming to watch later.
Tablo TV provides a more complete, but more expensive, solution to watching live TV through your Roku. It’s a DVR set-top-box with either two or four HDTV tuners depending on the model you buy.
Tablo TV DVR connects to an HDTV antenna (sold separately) and to your network. Once set up, Tablo TV Roku channel picks up the live TV streams coming from the DVR. You can pause, rewind and fast-forward the live streams and set the DVR to record programs in the future.
While easy to install, the biggest issue with Tablo TV’s solution is the price. Their DVRs start at $139 for a dual-tuner solution. You will need to buy an HDTV antenna separately, another $10-$50 purchase. Without a $5-per-month subscription, you can’t use the programming guide, advanced search views or the remote access feature.
Each of the broadcast networks offers Roku channels, but the amount of content you get with each varies widely. The best availability comes from CBS, but at a price. Channels offered by NBC and The CW are on-demand only. FOXNow and ABC require a cable subscription and, even then, your local options are limited. FOXNow does not stream local content (just the FOX national stream) and ABC can only stream local content from 8 markets.
CBS All Access
CBS All Access offers an interesting, full-featured service – but you have to be OK with paying another monthly subscription for a single network. The $6-per-month, ad-supported subscription gives you access to your local TV station’s live feed, CBS’s archive of on-demand programming and its original programming like Star Trek: Discovery. You can go completely ad-free for an extra $4 per month.
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The FOXNow channel streams the company’s national programming live. That gives you content from FOX, FX, FXX, FXM and National Geographic. That is, of course, as long as your cable or satellite provider offers those channels. The only way to access the live stream is to have a subscription with a TV provider. Once logged in via TV Anywhere, you can watch live streams in progress or hit the restart button to stream from the beginning.
The fact that FOXNow does not stream local content can be an advantage. When local stations aren’t available, many network apps set themselves to an on-demand mode which means you can’t watch live TV. With the FOX Now app, you can watch all the network’s live programming – including the sports that you’d be able to watch on your local FOX station.
Most of the cable networks won’t bite the hand that feeds them. Free channels like Syfy or HGTV require a cable subscription. Premium subscription channels like HBO Now have independent subscriptions that don’t require a TV provider, but don’t offer live streams. One of the few exceptions to this rule is Showtime.
Showtime lets you watch its live TV programming without a cable subscription. It does require a $11-per-month subscription, but with that, you can access Showtime’s East Coast or West Coast streams (one is 3 hours ahead of the other).
Showtime doesn’t provide a cloud DVR service. Instead, it makes brand new episodes available on-demand as soon as it airs on the East coast.
Be sure to pick the right Roku channel if you decide to subscribe. Showtime Anytime is the Roku channel that cable subscribers should use to access their premium cable subscription. Showtime is the Roku channel that does not require a cable subscription.
Faced with the reality that their customers are cutting the cord, cable companies have begun offering streaming options for their cable TV services. Don’t expect innovative, customer-friendly features or pricing – these are cable companies we’re talking about.
People living in markets served by Charter Communications’ Spectrum service can stream content to a variety of Spectrum TV apps. This is a feature of Spectrum’s cable TV service, so not of much use to cord-cutters.
On the other hand, the Spectrum TV Roku channel is one way to get content to bedroom TVs without renting more cable boxes. Licensing issues mean the Spectrum TV Roku channel only gets 23 of the 60 channels available to stream through Spectrum TV. Note that you cannot stream CBS through any of Spectrum TV’s apps.
Xfinity Stream (beta)
Comcast Xfinity released the beta version of its Xfinity Stream channel to the Roku Channel Store earlier this year. It gives cable subscribers streaming access to all of their channels plus content recorded to Xfinity’s cloud DVR service.
Currently, Xfinity waives the service’s extra fees. Once the Xfinity Stream channel exits beta, though, customers may find a surprise on their monthly cable bill.
The beta program comes with a lot of restrictions. You must have both a cable and an internet subscription from Xfinity. You must connect the Roku wirelessly to Xfinity cable box and wireless gateway that’s in the house.
The restrictions and potential up-charges from Spectrum TV and Xfinity Stream remind us why cord-cutting is so compelling. Over-the-top services offer to reproduce the cable selection without reproducing the horrible cable experience. Many of them have Roku channels that deliver that content to your TV.
Sony’s streaming service may be named after its gaming console, but it offers a compelling channel lineup for gamers and non-gamers alike. Even with the most basic plan, the PlayStation Vue channel for the Roku includes 45 national networks plus local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC stations (depending on availability). You can upgrade to more premium plans and nearly 100 channels.
Monthly subscriptions start at $45 for the basic package. Sports fans will add another $5 to get ESPN and other sports networks. Families will add yet another $10 to get movie and lifestyle programming. By the time you add premium cable channels, you’re at $80 per month.
Hulu unveiled its Live TV service in early 2017 and added it to the Hulu channel on Roku a little later. Hulu with Live TV combines the deep on-demand library of Hulu’s traditional service with live streams from dozens of TV networks.
The live TV service comes in two flavors: at $40 you get limited advertising during on-demand playback while at $44 you get on-demand streams commercial free. Any live broadcasts, of course, include whatever ads are part of the stream. You can, however, pause the broadcast and then fast forward through commercials.
Hulu’s live local streams have the potential to include your local ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX stations. If local coverage is a priority, you should check the Hulu site to confirm before making the commitment.
The Pluto TV channel gives you a free option for watching live TV on Roku. Pluto streams more than 100 channels live. Although you don’t get any local networks, you do get news and sports content from both FOX and NBC. Pluto TV has specialty streams with geek-centric content from Nerdist, pro wrestling and anime.
Pluto TV is a legitimate service and has cut licensing deals with each of its content providers. So how can it offer its live streams for free? The answer: by inserting ads into those streams. Commercial interruptions are just as frequent as on broadcast TV, but the limited variety of ads gets annoying after a while.
Watching Live TV on Roku
Roku’s expandability lets you tailor your Roku experience to meet your unique viewing tastes. With the channels we’ve talked about here, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find the content you’re looking for. It may not be free – and you may have to do some research to find a service that offers your local TV stations. But there are plenty of live TV options out there. Let us know in the comments about your experience with live TV on Roku.
Chris Casper is a former tech industry product manager who escaped from California for New Mexico. Now he writes about science and tech while searching for the perfect green chile sauce.