Are you a lifelong fan of everything Australia’s free to air networks have to offer? Then you know the simple pleasure of getting home from work, kicking back on the couch and flicking through channels to see what’s on. It’s almost a national pastime, one which has been made more complicated in recent years with the arrival of Freeview and the many extra channels that came with it. Thankfully, there’s a quick and convenient way to catch up with your favourite series.
There’s still just the five big networks – three commercials, and two government-owned. But thanks to the opportunity for multiple channels that digital TV brought, a session of channel-surfing these days will have you travelling through a whole bunch of new offerings. That can make it a little daunting to try to keep up with what’s on. You’re watching the semi-final of Masterchef but flick over during an ad break to find one of the new extra channels is running a Big Bang Theory marathon or the latest episode of Orphan Black. There are so many options it’s impossible to watch them all at once.
That’s where catch-up TV comes into the picture. All five networks have their own catch-up services, which most people access via apps for their smartphone or tablet, or directly via the networks’ web sites. Owners of Freeview Plus certified TVs also have all of those apps built right into their televisions, with interactive access available to past shows directly from the on-screen program guide.
And since recently we’re seeing free-to-air networks use their streaming services for more than just mere “catch-up.” There’s original available on some of them, and libraries of shows that you can’t access anywhere else. Along with behind-the-scenes mini-documentaries about your favourite shows and stars, interviews and more.
And the cost? Absolutely free across the board. You’ll have to watch some ads during the shows on most of the services – that’s what helps pay for running them. But other than that, you can grab apps for all five networks, lie back on a comfy pillow in bed with your phone or tablet and binge on TV without ever having to turn the actual television on. Thanks, technology!
Let’s take a quick tour of the five networks’ streaming apps. We’re looking at all of these on iOS, but they’re available for Android as well; also for platforms like Apple TV, Xbox One, Playstation 4, numerous brands of smart TV, and many more. They’re all also accessible via a web browser on any PC whenever you like.
Seven – Plus7
The Seven Network’s app is still, for the time being at least, co-branded with vanishing online company Yahoo. It’s one of the veterans of the free-to-air streaming line-up, and the developers have refined it into a slick, sleek offering that covers the full range of the network’s channels and programming. It even brings viewers live streaming from their specialised horse racing channel, Racing.com. Covering 7two, 7mate and 7flix alongside the main channel, the app can stream any of the channels live any time you like. However, you’re always going to have to watch an ad or two before the live stream starts. That can be amusing when you come out of your mandatory ads to find yourself in a live ad break!
On-demand streaming is nicely organised, with all shows accessible via category, date or alphabetically. Most of what’s on offer is catch-up content, with the time limit usually 3-4 weeks before it expires. It’s perfect for catching up with episodes you’ve missed while away, but not necessarily entire seasons. There are exceptions, though – like the library of All Saints episodes, all 12 seasons of them.
Nine – 9Now
The Nine Network was fairly late to the party with its fully-fledged streaming app, but they’ve made up for it in terms of features and quality. There’s only one minor drawback – to watch anything at all you have to create a free account, either by logging in via Facebook or setting one up from scratch. In the earlier days of the app this became a bit of a pain as it constantly forgot the fact you were logged in, but this seems to have been fixed now.
Once signed in you can live-stream any of Nine’s channels – Nine, Gem, Go, and Life. The streaming quality is brilliant, easily the best out of all five networks. If you’re a fan of Nine’s extra channels and have a reasonably fast broadband connection, you’ll find the picture quality of the extra channels is superior to the broadcast version. In the world of streaming, everything can be HD if it needs to be!
There’s the full range of shows to browse through, mostly as catch-up and some with app-exclusive extras. And since you have to be signed in to an account, you can freely add stuff to your list to watch later or even get notifications about new episodes.
The app also supports Google’s Chromecast (and Chromecast-enabled TVs). You can stream the high-quality video this service offers directly to a screen that can show it off properly. If you’re a fan of series airing on Nine’s extra channels, we’d recommend you give this app a try as an alternative way of watching; with higher quality than what you’d get on regular TV.
Ten – Tenplay
Ten’s veteran streaming app Tenplay is one of the longest-serving of them all. And while it’s never been all that great in terms of picture quality, the organisation of the service and apps has come a long way. Currently, you’re getting a lean, fast app that lets you find the show you want to watch seamlessly. And if you’re a fan of Ten’s flagship show Masterchef, there’s four full seasons here to view completely free any time you like – 247 episodes, to be precise – plus extras!
It’s pretty straightforward stuff all round, with the list of available shows noticeably shorter than the rival networks. However, it includes almost everything the network offers. Even the latest Formula One race.
All in all, the app is snappy and well made. It also comes with a comprehensive up-to-the-minute TV guide that covers all networks, not just Ten. Hence, it’s handy to see what’s on even if what you want to watch turns out to be on another network. Then again the Freeview FV app does a much better job at this, and also gives you direct access to Ten’s streams.
ABC – iView
There’s no user accounts or logins to deal with iView – not with the apps, anyway. On the web site, you can sign in with a free ABC account to keep track of your favourite shows and where you’re up to. But the smartphone and tablet apps are a little smarter than that, saving your watch list and show progress based on the unique ID of your device. That means you can download the app, add a bunch of shows to your personal watch list, and there they’ll stay – seemingly forever, unless you choose to remove them. We’ve got shows on the iOS iView app here that have remained on the watch list for many years. You know when you fire up the app that the latest episodes of the shows you want to see right now are going to be right there for you without hassle.
The apps are also blazingly fast. On a modern smartphone or tablet, that’s a given with all the free-to-air streaming apps, but iView is a cut above. Running it on an ancient iPad 2, it’s just as fast and responsive as it is on this year’s smartphones. The ABC’s app developers know their stuff well. And even as they add features the app never, ever gets bogged down.
The biggest complaint people have had with iView is the picture quality. For many years it was below standard definition, largely to try to keep costs under control. Lately, though, they’ve added a high quality option to apps on some platforms (such as PS4 and Apple TV) that delivers pretty decent picture quality, and HD is coming down the track. Chromecast is supported.
If you watch the ABC’s broadcasts you know they push iView pretty heavily, and there’s a lot of content available to stream. This includes complete seasons of shows before they even air on the network, exclusive to the app. It’s a must-have freebie that any fan of Australian television can’t be without.
SBS – On Demand
Taking in content from their main channel along with sub-channels Viceland and NITV, SBS’s excellent On Demand service has been growing strong in recent years. The video quality of its streams is getting progressively better – it’s now close to full HD. Plus, the app is unique in its emphasis on a library of content, especially movies. There are hundreds of films available to stream for free on the service. And if you’re interested in the less mainstream side of cinema, there’s so much to watch you’ll be occupied for months.
A more recent change is the requirement of a user account to stream anything. It’s an annoyance, sure, but setting an account up is easy enough, and you can use Facebook to handle the details. Once logged in, all the stuff you bookmark to watch later, as well as your progress through the stuff you’ve been watching, is flawlessly saved across devices.
While it’s government-funded, SBS supplements its income with ads on its broadcast channels, and the same is true of the streaming service. Ads will be inserted into the program or movie you’re watching. They’re not too obnoxious, though they sometimes pop up mid-sentence in movies when the automation gets it wrong.
The sheer size of the catalogue of free stuff to watch here is incredible, though – free TV seasons and all. Furthermore, the mobile apps support Chromecast if you want to throw your latest find onto the big screen. As slick and content-rich as a paid streaming service, SBS On Demand’s only price to pay is the occasional interruption for ads. It still seems too good to be true!
It’s taken a few years for the free-to-air networks to properly get their streaming apps up to par – well, except the ABC’s iView, which has been stellar from day one. But if you grab the five networks’ apps now (or visit their websites) you’ll find a huge amount of completely free streaming shows and movies that will give you many months of entertainment without paying a cent.
Unlike other countries, where even the free-to-air networks want some kind of payment for their online streaming, Australia’s got it good. In fact, your smartphone’s probably a better, more versatile TV than your actual television!