Tech Tip: Watch PBS Shows Online or Off

By J. D. BIERSDORFER

Q. I don’t have a cable television subscription but I want to watch shows on PBS. As this is a taxpayer-funded service, shouldn’t all the shows be free to get online without cable?

A. The Public Broadcasting Service is a private, nonprofit corporation and has about 350 noncommercial public-television stations it counts as members. In the New York City area, WNET and WLIW are two local PBS member stations.

PBS is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an organization created by Congress in 1967 as part of the federal government’s investment in public media, and receives taxpayer money to cover some of its budget. Grants, donations, corporate sponsorships and individual contributions also help foot the bills.

While some of its member stations create their own shows — like “Nova” from WGBH in Boston — PBS itself is primarily a distributor of content from around the world. The organization does not own the programs it distributes, which is why you cannot see everything anytime you want to free.

However, you can freely stream many of the shows aired by PBS and its member stations for a period of time after the original broadcast. You may need to sign up for a free account at PBS.org, but do not need a cable television subscription to watch the programs on the web, through the PBS apps for tablets and smartphones or with add-on streaming hardware like the Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV and Roku devices. Some PBS member stations also have their own apps, like Thirteen Explore.

Depending on your television set and location, you may be able to watch live PBS programming the old-fashioned way: broadcast over the air. The reception map on the Federal Communications Commission’s website gives a rough idea of the stations you may get on a digital television purchased in the last 10 years (especially with an antenna). Older analog televisions need a converter box to receive digital broadcast signals.