Most people with a pay TV subscription get PBS through their cable or satellite TV provider. So if you’ve canceled your cable subscription, you may be worried about missing out on some of your favorite PBS programming, such as Nova, PBS Newshour, and Antiques Roadshow.
But don’t worry. Ditching your costly cable bill does not mean that you have to miss out on your favorite PBS shows. With this guide, you’ll be able to watch all of your favorite PBS shows without a cable subscription.
Over-The-Air Television – How to Watch PBS Live Without Cable
Did you know that you can probably watch PBS in HD – for free? It’s true! In our cable and satellite-TV dominated world, many people often forget about over-the-air (OTA) television.
But in fact, OTA broadcasting is the oldest form of television broadcasting. It uses powerful radio signals to deliver content directly to your TV, through an antenna. (Think the “rabbit ears” that your parents probably had on their TV.)
And the best part about OTA television is that, like radio, it is totally free as long as you are set up to receive it. You don’t need an internet streaming service or a cable subscription to watch OTA networks like PBS.
Strangely, 30% of adults are not aware of free OTA, HD channels, according to Consumer Reports. If you’re one of them, you’re in luck. We’ll break down everything you need to know about OTA TV, and talk about what you need to start watching PBS for free!
What PBS Stations are Available?
Depending on where you are, you may get quite a few PBS or PBS-affiliate stations. These stations include:
- PBS – The main PBS channel carries nationwide programming as well as local PBS coverage of current events, sports, news, and much more.
- PBS Kids – PBS Kids, revided in 2017, is focused on children’s programming, with educational shows like Wild Kratts, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and Arthur.
- World – World, formerly known as PBS World, is still carried by many PBS stations. It focuses on news and documentaries, with an emphasis on international affairs.
- Create – PBS contributes to Create, and carries it on many affiliate stations. Create is primarily focused on how-to and DIY programming, such as home improvement shows and cooking programs.
- MHz Worldview – MHz Worldview primarily broadcasts foreign-language dramas, musical performances, and international newscasts. While it is not owned or contributed to by PBS, it is often carried by member stations.
If you live in an area that gets OTA PBS broadcasts, you will probably also be able to receive most of these other channels, as PBS stations often use “multiplex” technology to deliver multiple channels via one OTA signal.
How to Use an OTA Antenna and a TV Tuner to Watch PBS Without Cable
For just a few bucks, and with a little bit of research and work, you can get PBS as well as dozens of other channels for free – forever. Here’s all you need to know about setting up an OTA antenna in your home.
Step 1 – Check your location
First, you will need to make sure that you live in an area that receives PBS stations. Luckily, PBS covers about 97% of Americans – so the chances are good that you’ll be able to get PBS, as well as its sister channels such as PBS Sprout.
The best way to check the strength and location of your local OTA signals is by using a tool such as AntennaWeb. On this website, you will be able to see all of the OTA broadcasts that are within range of your home.
You will also be able to see the relative signal strength of each one, which can help you when it’s time to choose your antenna.
Step 2 – Start shopping for an antenna
Once you have figured out which PBS stations and other networks are in your area, it’s time to start shopping for an antenna. You’ll need this antenna to actually receive the OTA TV broadcasts.
There are two primary types of antennae you can choose from. Both indoor and outdoor antennas cost between $20-$40, so you won’t have to spend too much money on your antenna.
Indoor antennas: best for city dwellers
If you live within 10-20 miles of your nearest PBS affiliate station, you will probably only need an indoor TV antenna to get a crisp, high-quality HD signal. Indoor antennas tend to be lower profile and small. Usually, they either rest on your entertainment stand, or attach to the wall.
Most indoor antennas do the same thing. They connect directly to your TV, allowing you to receive over-the-air broadcasts. While there are some variations in style and range, the differences are not that important.
If you are looking for a very basic, low-cost antenna, the AmazonBasics brand is a good choice. This antenna is easy to set up, and because it’s an Amazon product, it’s available at a very inexpensive price.
Some other leading brands include Tablo and Viewtek. If you do a little bit of research, it’s easy to find an antenna that will fit your budget and your needs.
Outdoor antennas: best for rural viewers
If you don’t live within 50 miles or so of your nearest PBS affiliate broadcast station, you’re going to need to invest in a more high-powered antenna in order to get good HD reception.
Outdoor antennas have not changed much since the early days of TV, but they have dropped in price. Today, you can get a high-quality outdoor antenna such as the Vansky TV Antenna with a 150 mile range for under $40.
Outdoor antennas can be a bit more tricky to setup and install. Because they’re meant to stay on the outside of your home and be mounted to a wall or roof, you’ll need to get them properly installed, or be comfortable standing on your roof and using power tools.
Step 3 – Get a TV tuner and DVR (optional)
A TV tuner may be optional if you have a TV that was built after 2009. After the U.S. transitioned to digital television, most companies began building a TV tuner into their televisions, allowing viewers to watch TV without a digital set-top box.
However, if you have an older TV, you may need to buy a TV tuner. And even if you already have a tuner, investing in a DVR is a great way to save your favorite OTA programming, and watch it later.
If you want a DVR and digital tuner, we recommend the HDHomerun.
This TV tuner connects to both your antenna and TV. The best part about it is that it transmits your television signal across your home WiFi network.
Using the HDHomerun app for Mac, PC, Android and iOS, you can watch TV just about anywhere in your home. You can also watch TV on gaming consoles like the Xbox One, PS3, and PS4, and quite a few other platforms.
The primary drawback is that you don’t automatically get DVR functionality, which costs a $35 annual subscription. Still, this is a negligible cost compared to a monthly cable bill.
HDHomeRun also does come with DVR functionality. However, you will need to buy a $35 annual subscription to unlock it.
Other DVR options
If you aren’t interested in the HDHomerun, you can get another DVR/tuner from a brand such as Tablo or TiVo. While these products don’t require an annual subscription for DVR access, they are quite a bit more expensive – often 3-4x the price of the HDHomerun.
Step 4 – Scan for channels
Once you have your tuner and your antenna set up, all you have to do is scan for channels! You’ll need to use your tuner for this if you’ve bought one, but if your TV has a built-in tuner, you should just be able to open up the menu and use the “scan” function.
Check your user’s manual if you are having trouble locating the scanner. Your antenna will scan for stations that are available in your area, and assign them the proper channel number on your TV. Once the process is complete, you’re ready to watch TV!
Step 5 – Enjoy PBS programming without cable
Once you’ve set up your OTA antenna and tuner, and scanned for channels, you’re good to go! You’ll be able to watch PBS live without cable – for free! It’s just that easy.
Your Other Options
Don’t want to pay for an antenna to watch PBS live over the air? Don’t worry. Since PBS is funded by members and is a non-commercial network, it offers all of its programming online – for free.
In addition, some leading streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime carry PBS shows.
However, none of these alternatives offer live streaming of PBS content, only archived and recently-aired episodes. If you want to watch PBS live without cable, you will need an OTA antenna.
Here are your other options for watching PBS without cable.
The PBS Website
If you visit the primary PBS website, you can watch full episodes of all of the currently-airing shows on PBS, free of charge. You don’t even have to sign up for an account!
Head over to the Shows category on the website, and you can browse all of the programming that is available to you. There are thousands of hours of shows available – from Call the Midwife to Nature, NOVA, and Masterpiece.
However, you won’t be able to stream currently-airing programs live. To make up for this, PBS typically uploads full episodes of new shows the day after they air, so you won’t have to wait long.
PBS Anywhere Apps
Not interested in watching PBS on your computer? You can download the PBS Anywhere app and watch on all of your favorite devices.
PBS supports both iOS and Android mobile devices and tablets. You can also download the PBS Anywhere app for Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Android TV, as well as Windows 10.
The content offered on the PBS Anywhere apps is pretty much identical to the content that you get on the PBS website. You can watch a variety of web-only clips and show previews, as well as full archives of most currently-airing PBS shows – all for free.
Not seeing the full episodes of your favorite PBS shows online? It’s possible that your programming is locked, and only available to PBS Passport members.
PBS Passport is a program available to all eligible PBS donors and supporters who contribute at least $60/year, or who have an ongoing $5/month donation to their local PBS stations.
Free PBS streaming is limited to series and shows that are currently on the air. Shows that are off the air or archived may not be streamed on the PBS website or the PBS app without a Passport membership.
PBS Passport allows donors to unlock content such as Downton Abbey, and other shows that are unavailable on the free PBS streaming service for legal and copyright reasons.
In total, you get access to over 1,000 episodes of content, and a variety of rotating films from Ken Burns, as well as other unique history and lifestyle programs.
To join, all you have to do is contact your local PBS station. If you’re already a donor, you will be given Passport eligibility right away. If you are not, you will have to donate in order to become eligible.
Netflix & Amazon Prime
If you have a Netflix subscription, you’ve already got access to hundreds of hours of PBS content, such as The Great British Baking Show, Prohibition by Ken Burns, and Vikings Unearthed. See the full lineup of current PBS content at this link.
Amazon Prime also has quite a few free episodes of PBS shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Victoria and Downton Abbey. You can take a look at the full lineup of currently available shows at this link.