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As streaming becomes an increasingly popular way to avoid monthly cable fees or to supplement an already overcrowded roster of options, Roku has taken the lead as the most popular device consumer for alternative TV viewing.
Research from Dallas-based Parks Associates reports that Roku is tops this year among streaming devices, with around 29 percent of the market, nosing out Google’s Chromecast. If going with No. 1 is appealing, it’s worth knowing what sort of content awaits you once you get the box up and running.
Much like its competitors, Roku is heavy on those well-known services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Amazon Originals. It also has online music (Spotify, Pandora), social apps, news, weather, sports, and so on. What separates Roku from others in its space is the abundance of what it calls private channels that require a treasure map (or clever searching) to locate. These are channels that are not listed in the online channel store and must be added manually via the Web. Manual additions only require the click of a button on any site that lists private Roku channels. (The same goes for adult channels, which Roku also does not list in its online guide.)
Mixing private options with some of the more obscure programs found in Roku’s online channel store creates an eclectic palette of programming that can make you laugh, cry and, more often than not, scratch your head.
We’ve rounded up 10 premier private channels that are free (many come with ads). We’ll leave the porn selections for another time (and author).
1) Nowhere TV
A private channel easily added from various websites, this is a curation masterpiece of sorts from a Tempe, Ariz.-based Roku developer who seems to enjoy personal anonymity. The self-admitted Apple fanboy has built up a strange roster of channels, including ones dedicated to police scanners and traffic cams from around the country.
Nowhere TV, on the other hand, is an info junkie’s delight. For starters, there are a number of live TV newscasts from Boston; New York; Panama City, Fla.; and Eugene, Ore., which provide various local takes on daily events. Add to that old clips of Jerry Seinfeld performing on The Tonight Show (circa Johnny Carson) and some vintage David Letterman interviews, and you have a nice way to kill an hour or two.
You have to wonder how the master of Nowhere TV gets this content, given the minefield that is copyright. Perhaps because he replies on donations rather than a subscription fee, this Arizona man has kept himself out of court.
2) Great Chefs
A popular series originally produced for PBS, the Great Chefs franchise includes such programs as Great Chefs of the West; Great Chefs, Great Cities; and Great Chefs of the Caribbean. The series originally aired more than 30 years ago, so the chefs have aged, but their stylish recipes have not. The Roku version is a “best of” curation of the 700 television episodes, and like a bag of greasy chips, watching one episode will surely led to another.
3) Tiny Desk Concerts
There are intimate performances in which famous musicians play small venues and provide a memorable experience… and then there are the sessions played at the desk of NPR’s All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen.
While these clips are available in many places, such as YouTube, they are amazing to watch on a big screen with good speakers in place. The segment with Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo performing “We Live for Love” made for amazing Web viewing. You have to love T-Pain bravely taking a shot at playing without Auto-Tune. And there’s a lot more where that came from.
Yes, this is exactly it sounds like—a 24-hour channel of goats. These creatures of the barnyard do nothing special other than eat, walk around, and wait for whatever comes next. In order to pull this off, there are several webcams deployed to ensure there is always a goat in action for a global audience of viewers.
The website that supports this peculiar offering says: “We’re just a couple of retired people living on a hobby farm, raising goats, ducks, and chickens. We first put the cameras up to show family, but decided that perhaps others would like to enjoy the antics of Molly and Joy-Joy as well, and we were right!”
So, you ask, how can these folks afford the technology needed for nonstop goat surveillance? Check out their online store fueled by CafePress, and you’ll find your own Molly the Goat-footed pajamas. At $49.99, they’re a bargain.
5) Los Angeles Times Originals
Originally started as a deal with DirecTV to provide documentary-style programming, the Los Angeles Times has since expanded its distribution pipeline to include Hulu Plus as well as Roku.
The clips run across four categories—sports, entertainment, documentaries, and lifestyles. For my money, the documentary work is the best. One series, Made in California, spins out interesting stories that include the saga of the real-life Nightcrawlers, the future of L.A.’s water supply, and women’s high school wrestling.
For anyone who thinks newspapers can no longer create compelling content, this is a convincing argument otherwise.
6) Comedy Dynamics
If you can live with the abundance of commercials and are a fan of standup comedy, this is nirvana. Offered by one of the more prolific producer/distributors of standup specials, New Wave, this channel can tickle your funny bone with short clips or longer, full-performance standup specials.
What will appeal to comedy fans is the broad range of talents, from the acerbic to the blasphemous, including such names as Bob Saget, Tom Papa, Brian Posehn, D.L. Hughley, and Whitney Cummings.
A Santa Monica-based creator/producer/distributor of all things cooking video, Roku is just one of many platforms the company uses to push its work to the world.
There is something for every appetite with how-to shows and programming that touches on travel, the fine art of making the perfect cocktail, and even gourmet tailgating. Production is first-rate. If you find something you like, you always have the option of watching more on your smartphone, tablet or on your computer via YouTube.
8) Do Your Part
Billed as “the everyday green channel,” this spot on the Roku dial focuses on the three Rs of conservation—reduce, reuse, and recycle.
True to its word, there are subchannels on DYP that provide in the neighborhood of 80 short clips on such areas as green home appliances, green cleaning tips, green Christmas tips, and how to safely shampoo your canine without harmful chemicals.
9) Ball Is Life
Dunks, crossover dribbles, behind-the-back passes, and every other hot-dog hoops move is showcased in this channel dedicated to the game and the lifestyle surrounding it.
Basketball fans can get lost in the eye-popping clips, with my favorite being the slam dunk contest competition where a 5-foot, 10-inch street star Sir Isaac Kils takes the crown with a crazy windmill dunk over the Phoenix Suns Gorilla.
Ball Is Life has a companion website that is as slick as its Roku channel.
10) Snag Films
Snag is another multiplatform distributor whose indie films are available via numerous streaming services include iPad, Xbox 360, and smart TVs from Sony and Panasonic. It is worth adding to your collection for its carefully curated batch of movies offered to viewers via personalized recommendation (account sign-up required). The company, founded by former AOL exec Ted Leonsis, says its films are hand-selected by a “kick-ass editorial team.”
The collection of videos you find online is not a 100 percent match to the available Roku titles. They can be watched for free with ads or for 99 cents without commercial interruption.
I find Snag to be a poor man’s Vimeo (which also has a Roku channel) with a decent selection of Bollywood films if you’re in the mood for melodrama and crazy dancing.
Roku does not have a set schedule on when it adds new channels. There is a blog that talks about “big name” content it adds to its growing list, but to find the hidden goodies (private channels) there are some good Web resources led by The Streaming Advisor.
Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.