How to Watch Live TV on Roku: (3 Powerful Tips)
Watching live TV on a Roku is pretty simple these days, even if you’re looking for local channels that you used to watch on cable.
But dozens of companies are getting into the streaming game now, competing for your hard-earned dollar.
And for Roku users, using a channel app for a local television station won’t give you prime time TV shows or live sports. Streaming apps from major networks such as NBC (owned by Comcast Corporation) still require a cable-TV login or pay TV service.
So what’s the best way to set yourself up with free live TV and local channels on a Roku for life?
A combination of over-the-air channels, ad-supported streaming and low-cost pay TV options should be in your wheelhouse. Some of your best options for watching live TV and local channels on a Roku or Roku TV still rely on some old-school methods.
If you’re new to cutting the cord, these tips will help you watch live local channels such as CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS and FOX for free. So you will be able to watch primetime shows such as This Is Us, live sports and news without having to take part in the so-called “Streaming Wars”.
I’ll also cover free ad-supported options. And a couple of inexpensive ways to get channels such as CNN, Fox News, AMC or ESPN.
All of these tips are completely legal. You can start using most of them right away on your Roku, and they should be useful to you for years to come. Just a heads up: my first tip is going to require some extra equipment.
How to add live local channels on Roku
There’s a simple one-two punch that can add a lot of local live TV channels such as CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX and even PBS to your Roku.
Buying a TV antenna makes a lot of sense, especially if you just got rid of cable TV or an expensive satellite subscription.
With a TV antenna, you can get free local stations from CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, PBS and a lot more. Adding these channels to your Roku is pretty simple.
You just need either a separate TV tuner or DVR to watch free over-the-air channels on your Roku.
Pick up an inexpensive DVR like a Tablo Dual, and you’ll be able to stream over-the-air channels to every streaming device, tablet and smartphone in your house. And you can record whatever you want too.
Setting up the Tablo Dual Lite is easy because you’re connecting just a few things into the back.
Plug in the hard drive to the USB port. Connect the TV antenna to the jack. There’s a power adapter you need to plug in. You can either plug in an Ethernet cord from your router, or you can use WiFi.
I used an app from my Android smartphone to complete the set-up process. But if you don’t have a smartphone handy, just hop on a PC and head over to TabloTV.com to finish up with a channel scan.
During the setup process, you will also need to download the Tablo app to your Roku.
And that’s it. I now have about a little over 60 channels — major networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX. One caveat: The number of channels any household can get will depend on its distance to broadcast towers.
Now I have an attractive channel guide, and ways to record anything from professional sports to the most popular TV shows on broadcast networks.
As far as TV antennas go, I use a ClearStream Eclipse. You can check-out my in-depth review of the Best Indoor TV Antennas for other models that perform well. My top pick of an outdoor TV antenna is the Antop BV-400.
For more on the Tablo, watch my video on the Best OTA DVRs. In that video, I also cover HDHomeRun tuners and DVRs, which is another inexpensive option that I like a lot. HDHomeRun is made by SiliconDust.
Gauging Antenna Range
AntennasDirect has a free tool you can use to figure out what kind of TV antenna you need. Just type in your zip code. You’ll see what direction broadcast towers are in your area.
Hit the View Channels button for a list of channels that you should be able to get.
There are similar tools such as the Federal Communication Commission’s DTV Reception Maps and TVFool.
Free over-the-air channels on Roku TV
If you own a Roku TV, then you don’t need a Tablo unless you want to record shows. You can plug the TV antenna directly into the back of the TV and scan for channels under settings.
Most Roku TVs have a built-in channel guide, including the highly-rated TCL 6-Series.
Here’s two more pro-tips before we move on.
- Tablo DVRs and HDHomeRun tuners give you a choice of subscribing to its guide service. But if you’re really frugal, you don’t have to subscribe, and can still use your hardware to record shows, or watch live TV on your Roku and elsewhere.
- There are a lot of honey-traps in the TV antenna market. Be wary of antenna-makers that promise more than a 50 mile range for an indoor TV antenna. You’ll see these kinds of antennas listed for $10 or $20 on Amazon and elsewhere. Don’t do it.
That said, you can get a huge value out of a quality TV antenna. For a one-time cost of the antenna and DVR, you will have free local TV channels for the rest of your life.
When the next generation of free over-the-air TV — ATSC 3.0 — rolls out over the next few years, you’ll still be able to use the same TV antenna.
The downside? You will need a new TV tuner or DVR to receive ATSC 3.0 signals once the roll out of Next Gen TV is complete . But keep in mind that the FCC is requiring broadcasters to simulcast digital channels for another five years once they transition to ATSC 3.0.
“Live TV” alternatives on Roku
There is a new generation of ad-supported television that’s been growing in the wake of cord cutting.
Pluto TV is pretty much the leader in the realm of free live television that’s being streamed online instead through a cable cord or satellite feed.
Pluto has more than 250 live TV channels and a massive on-demand library of movies and older TV shows that once appeared on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and Investigation Discovery.
Owned by Viacom, Pluto TV is able to draw from a massive TV and movie library for its on-demand section.
So what’s the catch?
You still have to watch commercials just like with traditional TV, and no you can’t skip through them. The other caveat is that you’re not getting traditional cable channels like NBC, ESPN or HGTV.
But hey, it’s free. So get off the couch and use your commercial-time wisely.
Pluto TV is a decent way to catch up on news. There are 22 news channels within Pluto’s menu. Go check out CBSN — it’s CBS’ first all-digital channel with actual live anchors and dedicated reporting all over the country.
There’s also a CBSN app that you can use on Roku as well that will give you the same thing, but other news channels such as WeatherNation are worthwhile.
There are a couple of competitors to Pluto TV — STIRR and XUMO. You might find some gems that might appeal to you. As far as I’m concerned, Pluto TV has the best lineup of live channels out of the three.
Watching Live News on Roku
The NEWSON app has pretty much every live, local TV newscast that you’ll need. It’s a huge resource, and you can just add it from the Roku Channels store.
Locast.org is a non-profit that live streams local ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS to computers and most major streaming devices.
So if you are in Locast’s coverage area, it’s a quick way to add local, live TV on your Roku or Amazon Fire TV. I can get 22 local channels on Locast. You can easily add two to three dozen channels to your TV depending on where you live. Locast requires you to create a profile to use its service. It’s free. But expect to get hit up for a donation while watching.
Adding CNN, ESPN or AMC for cheap
The day of a la carte cable channels will likely never come. The majority of live TV streaming services have crept around the $50-per-month mark.
But there are still a couple of inexpensive options for cord cutters who want to pay less for live TV channels such as CNN, Fox News, or ESPN.
Sling TV is one of the cheapest options around for live streaming television channels at $30 per month.
With a Sling subscription, you need to pick core bundle of channels. The Orange plan has a little over 30 channels such as ESPN, AMC and A&E for $30 per month.
The other core bundle is Sling Blue, which has about 47 channels and costs $30 per month.
Sling Blue has FX, FS1, FS2, both National Geographic channels and regional NBC Sports networks. The Blue bundle also offers local NBC and FOX channels in some markets.
But Sling TV recommends using their service in addition to a TV antenna.
One thing to be aware of is that ESPN is only on Sling Orange.
So if you want ESPN, and NFL Network on Sling Blue, you do have the option of mashing both the Orange and Blue bundles together for $45 per month.
Sling TV now gives you 10 hours of Cloud DVR on the house. That can get you by for a few TV shows. Or you can get 50 hours of DVR space for an extra $5 per month.
Sling TV is built on the premise of offering smaller bundles, so budget-minded people have more control over cost and what channels are added to their subscription. Sling TV has a free 7-day trial for new customers. And if you sign up for a brief subscription, Sling TV will give you a free streaming device.
5 Facts about Sling TV
- 32 or 47 Channels with Orange or Blue plan
- Base price: $30 per month
- 1 to 3 simultaneous streams
- 10 hours of Cloud DVR included
- On-demand shows and movies
Philo: Live TV on Roku without sports or locals
Philo has 59 channels — A&E, History Channel, Discovery, HGTV, Travel channel, Paramount Networks, and all the Hallmark Channels.
A subscription costs $20 per month.
There is unlimited Cloud DVR and a huge-on demand library of movies and shows.
Philo takes a very different approach to the channel bundle. There are no sports and no local channels.
It’s the cheapest way to watch The Walking Dead on AMC or Live PD on A&E. Philo subscribers can stream on up to three TVs, smartphones or tablets at once. Philo supports Roku, Roku TVs and a number of other streaming devices. My new Philo review gives a comprehensive overview of the service. Philo offers a free 7-day trial for new customers.
5 Facts about Philo
- 59 Live TV Channels (No sports)
- Single base plan: $20 per month
- 3 Simultaneous streams
- Unlimited Cloud DVR
- On-demand movies and TV shows
TV Everywhere: Activating Roku apps
If you’re paying for a live TV streaming service such as Philo or Sling TV, you can use your subscription to sign in to a lot of apps that you see on your streaming device.
So if you want to sign in to A&E, and you are subscribed to Philo, just choose Philo as your TV provider instead of a cable TV or satellite TV provider.
Sometimes these apps are worth signing in to — not so much for on-demand content — but because they carry extra live streams of their channels that you won’t get within your live TV subscription.
So now that I’ve shared with you a few ways to watch live TV and free local channels on a Roku, what options are you going to try out? Let me know in the comments below.
For more how-to guides and product reviews, head over to the main page of The Cord Cutting Report.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble