When saving money is a priority — as it usually is — one of the first places people tend to cut back is their cable or satellite television subscription. However, you don’t have to give up TV entertainment in order to keep a few extra bucks in the bank. Thanks to a wide variety of free TV options and basic cable plans, you can access a number of basic channels or shows without having to pay hefty bills for a premium cable package.

Basic TV Channels vs. Basic Cable

Most major networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX used to be available to all viewers with a cable connection, even without a cable subscription. Public broadcasting stations, some government networks, and local news and sports could usually be accessed for free as well.

However, changes in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines have allowed cable companies to scramble those channels. While this does make cable package activation much simpler — the provider merely has to unscramble the signals that are already reaching the home — it also severely limits consumer access to basic channels.

Currently, depending on where you live, you can still pick up some of those basic TV channels via over-the-air (OTA) transmissions. However, the availability and quality of this free programming will vary widely depending on your location and antenna strength.

The other option to obtain basic channel access is to purchase basic cable — a limited selection of cable channels available from a cable provider. These paid packages typically include only the basic broadcast networks and a few local options, but the programming is clear and reliable.

Finding Free Basic TV Options

If you’re interested in having basic TV channels without having to pay a monthly fee, your best bet will be to purchase an antenna to capture the above-mentioned OTA transmissions. Keep in mind, however, that OTA channels are hit-and-miss. They may be fuzzy, unreliable, or incompatible with a high-definition TV.

Online streaming is another way to watch television for free. Services like Hulu offer a subscription-free viewing option that gives users access to a few episodes of TV shows, plus some additional clips and previews. Recent seasons and current episodes of popular shows may require a paid subscription.

Many networks now have websites that offer online streaming of current shows, too. Certain shows may require a cable or satellite subscription for access, though, so if you don’t have a subscription, you may only be able to watch selected clips and behind-the-scenes videos.

Obtaining Basic Cable

The best way to guarantee access to the major networks plus local news and live events, including sports and awards shows, is to subscribe to a basic cable package. But before settling for the most limited plan advertised on the company website, give the provider a call and ask them about their most basic cable package offerings.

It’s important to note that many cable companies don’t widely advertise the most basic packages — most providers want you to opt for a more expensive premium plan. Considering that basic cable plans generally cost between $15 and $20 per month, which can be close to $35 less than the cheapest advertised plan, a small conversation with a company salesperson can turn into big savings.

When you’re discussing plan options, let the representative know that all you really need is access to the basic channels like NBC and PBS. Explain that you have already looked up the available plans online but don’t need all the channels included in even the smallest advertised plan. Hold your ground if the representative tries to persuade you to opt for a higher package.

Don’t hesitate to shop around for the best basic cable plan at the best price, either. It’s worth talking to every available provider in your area to make sure you sign up for a plan that delivers the channels you want at a price that fits your budget.

It would be great to get the TV you want without having to pay a penny, but free TV options are extremely limited. Luckily, you can keep up with the shows on major networks without being saddled with extra channels and a big monthly bill. Just search for providers in your area to find a thrifty basic cable package today.