If you have to be parked in front of your big-screen TV to watch your favorite shows, you're missing out on half the fun—viewing them on your tablet or smart phone.
Many cable, satellite, and telco TV service providers, along with broadcast and cable networks, now let you watch movies, TV shows, sports, and more on mobile devices. It's all part of an initiative called "TV Everywhere." Broadcasters and TV providers are giving customers more ways to view the content they're already paying for, rather than forking over more money to streaming video services such as Amazon Instant Video and Netflix—or even cutting the cord to traditional TV and using only those alternative services.
To start watching content on your mobile device, you simply download a free app. Most cable companies and the two satellite services have an iPad app, and some have one for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Those apps are available at the iTunes store. Support for Android-based devices is less common but expected to grow. You'll find those apps at the Google Play website.
What you can watch also varies. Some companies (including Cablevision, Cox Communications, DirecTV, and Time Warner Cable) let you stream live TV, but others limit you to viewing video-on-demand shows and movies only after the program initially airs. In addition, you may find that some providers restrict viewing to within the home on devices connected to the same home network as your cable box or DVR. Other providers, including AT&T (U-verse), Comcast (Xfinity), and Dish Network, let you watch programming anywhere you can access Wi-Fi or receive a 3G or 4G cellular signal.
If the situation seems confusing, that's because it is: Each cable, satellite, and telco TV-service company has to negotiate separate, often-complex deals for each channel they want to offer, where they want it to be viewable, and sometimes for each type of device they want to support. And new agreements are being reached all the time. That's why it pays to check your TV service provider's website periodically for the latest information about new deals and partnerships that could expand its mobile offerings.
Also, a word of caution: Some TV service providers, including Comcast and Cox, have instituted data caps on your broadband service and count your video streaming against your monthly allotment. Caps can also apply if you're using a 3G or 4G cellular network to access programming. You'll have to pay extra if you exceed your monthly data allotment.
Here's a quick look at what some of the major TV service providers are offering in the way of TV Everywhere service, which hasn't yet quite lived up to its name. All the providers we contacted said they'd be rolling out new services and support for additional devices in the coming months, so check your provider's website for the latest information.
Cablevision: Cablevision offers all the live channels you get on your TV, plus some on-demand programming—about 300 choices in all, according to the company. Subscribers can watch on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, but only within their home.
Comcast: Comcast's Xfinity service currently provides video on demand only, though unlike many other cable companies, it provides access from anywhere there's a reliable Internet connection. The company, which recently signed a content deal with Disney that includes online access to 70 channels including ABC, Disney Channel, and ESPN, has live TV on the horizon. (It's currently testing the service, called AnyPlay, in Denver and Nashville. It's limited to the iPad for use within the home.) Like Cox, Comcast has data caps on its broadband service, and video streaming counts against your monthly allotment. The company says it's working on Android support.
Cox Communications: Cox provides a limited selection of live TV—about 30 national cable channels, but none of the major broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, and NBC). The app runs only on the iPad, and you can watch TV on it only at home. Video streaming counts against a subscriber's monthly data allotment, so it'll cost extra if you exceed your cap. The company said it intends to support other Apple devices, plus Android-based mobile devices, in the future.
Dish: Dish Network has one of the broadest offerings available, enabling subscribers to view some content almost anywhere, though it requires an optional Sling adapter. Using a free app, subscribers can then watch live TV as well as programs recorded on a DVR using an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Android device anywhere there's Wi-Fi or a 3G or 4G cellular connection. On-demand is currently limited to iPads. For an extra $10 per month, subscribers can add the Blockbuster@Home streaming video service (now owned by Dish), providing access to movies and TV shows—plus about 20 linear channels such as Starz and Epix—from an iPad.
DirecTV: DirecTV currently offers live TV—no on-demand programming—on an iPad, though viewing is restricted to within the home. But NFL Sunday Ticket Ultimate subscribers can view games anywhere using an iPad, iPhone, and some Android phones. With live TV, you're limited to the channels in your service tier, but you don't always get everything you would on your TV. DirecTV is testing a more comprehensive TV Everywhere service for the iPad, and a new hardware-software package called DirecTV Nomad lets users access content stored on a DVR on portable devices within the home.
Time Warner: Time Warner Cable has as many as 200 live channels (including foreign-language stations), depending on where you live, but it doesn't include all the stations you get on your TV. The TWC TV service lets subscribers watch live TV on Apple devices—iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch—but only within their homes. The company says it plans to add on-demand video to its mobile lineup, as well as support for Android-based devices.
Verizon: Verizon relies on partner apps to deliver most of its free programming, but the company offers a FlexView app that lets you buy or rent movies and TV shows and view them on an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and many Android devices. Its My FiOS app, currently only for Android but coming to Apple devices, lets you manage content and schedule recordings but also connects you to FlexView to let you rent or buy on-demand movies and TV shows.
If you're not happy with the limitations imposed by your TV service provider's app, there's another option: downloading a third-party app directly from the channel or network you'd like to watch.
Apps are available from broadcast networks like ABC and NBC. Because they include commercials, these apps can usually be used by anyone, provided your mobile device is supported. Note that some content providers are restricting TV Everywhere access with some TV providers.
Cable-style channels such as Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) and CNN, and premium subscription channel such as HBO and Showtime also have apps. With these, you'll be asked to authenticate that the channel is part of your TV package, usually by using your TV provider login and password. Nonsubscribers can sometimes view a limited amount of content—short video clips, previews, and trailers—but only subscribers have access to more extensive content offerings, including full episodes or full seasons of popular network shows.
Also, device support varies. Some apps work only on devices using the Apple iOS (iPads, iPhones, and the like); others also work on Android devices—sometimes only smart phones, but in a few cases, also Android-based tablets.
Dozens of free apps let you view programs on a mobile device. Here are a handful we like:
ABC Player: Do you get a bit desperate when you have to miss "Desperate Housewives"? There's no need to if you've downloaded the ABC Player app, which lets you watch your favorite ABC shows free. You get access to a good number of full-length shows—including "Dancing With the Stars" and "Grey's Anatomy"—and when we did our evaluation, we even watched a new show ("Don't Trust the B---- in Apt 23") before its premier. And you can sync your viewing history across all your iOS devices if you have iCloud enabled, so you can pick up where you left off, regardless of the device you're using. For iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch (the newest version of the app requires iOS 5.0 or later).
Cartoon Network (CN): Looking for a way to keep antsy kids occupied? This app from Cartoon Network can be a lifesaver. If CN is part of your TV package, you can view full episodes of many of its popular shows, such as "Adventure Time" and "Regular Show." Some programs are available the day after they air on TV. Nonsubscribers get only video clips and promos. For iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch (iOS 4.2 or later); and devices running Android 2.1 or later.
HBO Go: Never miss an episode of "Game of Thrones"—or any of the network's lineup of original series, movies, and special events—even if you're away and your DVR is full. HBO Go has one of the most extensive offerings around, including full episodes of every season of its original shows. As long as you subscribe to HBO via a participating TV provider, you can watch from anywhere you have access to Wi-Fi or a 3G or 4G connection. Some shows come with a great interactive guide that provides special bonus materials and behind-the-scenes vignettes from actors, writers, and producers. And the Series Pass feature automatically loads all the episodes of your favorite series for later viewing. For iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch (iOS 4.2 or later) and many phones running Android 2.1 to 2.3.
HGTV to Go: Want to watch "Curb Appeal," even when you're parked next to one? Then HGTV to Go may be the mobile app for you, and you don't have to be a subscriber—you just need access to the Internet (via Wi-Fi or 3G or 4G cellular). You can tune in full episodes of many popular shows, including "Curb Appeal," "Design on a Dime," and "House Hunters International"; watch shorter video segments; and look at the channel's Facebook and Twitter pages. And don't miss the numerous photo galleries that can help inspire your creative home and style designs. For iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch (iOS 3.2 or higher).