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How to Watch Live TV on your Apple TV

Posted by William Sattelberg on May 28, 2018

Though it might not feel like it, the Apple TV has been around for more than a full decade. The original Apple TV was unveiled in September 2006, just five years after the original iPod and several months before the first-generation iPhone would be announced to massive acclaim and appeal. At the time, Apple called it the “iTV,” keeping the name of the device in line with the iMac, iPod, and iTunes naming structure Apple had held fast with for the better part of a decade. Apple was forced to change the name, however, at the behest of British broadcasting network ITV; not long after, the Apple TV went on sale in 2007.

That first-gen device was very different than what many of us think of when considering the Apple TV in 2018. Its physical design was closer to the appearance to a much-thinner (at the time) Mac Mini, with a silver band around the side and a white plastic piece on the top. The remote looked like an odd iPod shuffle, and the device used a low-power Intel processor to playback video and audio. At the time, streaming boxes were still pretty rare, thanks to the lack of streaming video. YouTube was only a few years old, Netflix didn’t kick off their streaming service until that year, and likewise, Hulu also didn’t start until that March, two months after preorders for the Apple TV started. Instead, the Apple TV came with a hard drive to store media and synced with your iTunes account, meaning you needed a Mac or PC to stream content (this later changed with a major update in 2008. It’s also worth noting this product was pretty expensive, starting at $229 and reaching $329 pretty quickly.

The thing most people think about when discussing the Apple TV didn’t come until nearly four years after the original announcement of the “iTV.” The second-gen Apple TV was a decidedly-different model. It ran a fork of iOS, came with a completely different remote, and was redesigned to look like a small, black puck. Instead of an internal hard drive, the second-gen Apple TV had a limited amount of flash storage for buffering content and not much else. The device still synced with iTunes, but added support for Netflix streaming and other video services that were quickly growing in popularity. The third-generation model didn’t do much beyond increasing the processing power and lowering the price down to an increasingly-affordable $69.

That brings us to the current-gen models, both of which represent the newest reinvention of what the Apple TV means for consumers. When the fourth-generation model was launched in September of 2015, the device received a small design change (increasing in size but remaining relatively the same) and introduced all new software, running a new fork of iOS called “tvOS.” This new operating system took inspiration from the second-gen model’s interface, but combined it with the most obvious missing piece of the puzzle: a fully-supported app store, just like on the iPhone and iPad. With a huge library of apps, games, and more, the Apple TV finally became smarter than ever. Both the fourth-gen model and the fifth-gen model released a year later (with support for 4K televisions) continue to see support from Apple, with new apps and games launching regularly.

With the launch of tvOS, the Apple TV went from a solid streaming platform with closed-off walls to an entire new platform for anyone to invest into. That library of apps means users can unlock nearly unlimited potential in their Apple TV with very little effort. Whether you’re trying to play Crossy Road on the big screen, view workout instructions on the big screen right in your living room, order food through the Papa John’s or Grubhub apps, or just watch some great television, the Apple TV is an excellent choice for those already in the Apple ecosystem.

One of the most important aspects of television is watching TV live. Though plenty of younger users have moved towards an on-demand only future, watching television live is still an important option to have around. Appointment television still exists—after all, how else are you going to keep up with the week-to-week twists on Riverdale or The Good Place—and both live events like the Oscars or the Tonys and sporting events like March Madness or the Superbowl make it more important than ever to have an easy way to watch television live. If you have an Apple TV, you have an abundance of options for watching television on your device. We’ll take a look at the options for live television on both tvOS-based devices and older Apple TV models without the App Store, in this guide to watching live television on the Apple TV.

tvOS Devices (Fourth and Fifth-Gen Models)

So, you have a newer Apple TV device, complete with the touch-based remote, built-in Siri functionality, and of course, the App Store. Perhaps you’re running an older 1080p model, not having upgraded to a 4K television quite yet. Or maybe you’re on the cutting edge of technology, using the 4K Apple TV underneath your brand new 4K television from Samsung, LG, or Vizio. Whatever model you’re using, your Apple TV has plenty of app selections and choices available to use. Whether you’re a cord-cutter, or you’re looking to add live television to a second bedroom without having to purchase or rent another cable box, we have the guide for you.

If you’re using an older model, complete with it sleek design and remote, you might want to check out our guide for your model below.

Service-Based Apps

The easiest way to access live television on your Apple TV is by using a service-based application to access the content you wanna watch. Though watching live TV is still not as easy—or as cheap—as we’d prefer in 2018, it’s actually improved a surprising amount thanks to cheaper online television that acts like cable but for a fraction of the price. This means you can actually pick up a television plan for much cheaper than it would cost you through a cable or satellite company, all while accessing your television streaming on any mobile or streaming device in your house. While this might not work for everyone, if you’re in the market for a cheap, affordable cable plan that doesn’t run you $100+ per month, and you’re fine with putting up with a few qualifications and limitations, you might end up very happy with what is offered through these providers. Let’s take a look:

  • YouTube TV: Priced at $40 per month, Google and YouTube’s online television offering is pretty great by most measures. That price provides you with more than 60+ channels live streaming right on over the web, complete with nearly every channel you could ask for (with the exception of Viacom’s own offerings, like Nick and Comedy Central). The service even includes a full cloud DVR so you can save your shows for later viewing, and allows for six accounts per household so you, your significant other, and your children can all watch their own shows on their own time. While it is unfortunate that Viacom is unable to be streamed through YouTube TV, the app on Apple TV is quite good, and the price is pretty decent for what you’re offered. Even better: YouTube TV offers local channels in your area, meaning you still manage to get local news and other events that require having access to basic channels.
  • Hulu Live: Another service priced at just $40 per month, Hulu Live is built right into the standard Hulu app, and doesn’t just grant you access to streaming TV—you also manage to get the entire Hulu package included in your deal. Channel lineups are pretty similar to what YouTube offers, which means a mix of local channels and premium cable channels, but unfortunately, no proper support for Viacom channels here. Hulu Live is built right into the standard Hulu app on both the fourth and fifth-gen Apple TV devices, which means you won’t even need to access a second application to watch live TV. And just like with YouTube TV, you get access to both sports coverage and a cloud-based DVR. It’s a pretty solid experience.
  • PlayStation Vue: One of the earlier IP-based television offerings, PlayStation Vue comes straight from Sony for a live TV experience you should definitely consider. With plans starting at $40 per month and ranging up to $75 per month depending on which channels and packages you’re looking for, Vue is probably the closest to traditional cable television on the market today. Most people will want to consider the $44.99 per month Core plan, which includes live television and sports offerings, along with additional cable offerings like the Hallmark channel and IFC. If there’s one major downside to Vue, it’s local channels: though some of the local stations in our area were on Vue, the local ABC affiliate was replaced with ABC On Demand, which means you might lose access to specific events (like the Oscars). Still, the app for Apple TV is pretty solid, and Vue is available on additional platforms as well.
  • DirecTV Now: Yes, the IP-based television game has gotten so intense that more-traditional outlets for TV are starting to get involved now, too. DirecTV Now is AT&T and DirecTV’s current online TV offering, based around watching live television and streaming TV online. Like most of the other services on this list, it’s charged month-to-month without a contract and offers a cloud DVR so you can record your own shows on the web. Local channels are a mixed bag; in our area, the NBC, Fox, and ABC affiliates were carried, but the CBS and CW affiliates were not (CBS and the CW are owned by the same company). That said, Viacom channels like Nick and Comedy Central are included here, even at the $35 entry-level price. And depending on how much you’re willing to pay, you can get up to 120 different channels of content. The DirecTV Now app for Apple TV is solid (and in fact, as of writing, you can get a free 1080p Apple TV if you prepay for three months of service), but the cloud DVR is limited to only 20 hours of content.
  • Sling TV: Sling is Dish TV’s internet-based television offering, and it too offers live TV for an affordable monthly price with some caveats attached. The good news: it’s the cheapest product on this list, starting at only $20 per month. Here’s the bad news: in our area, local channels were basically non-existent. Fox and NBC were both available on demand, with ABC, CBS, and the CW all unavailable in any form. Likewise, the Viacom channels are sort of here, but at the same time, are somewhat lacking. Sling also, somewhat confusingly, offers certain channels from providers like Viacom, but not all of them. Nick Jr. and TeenNick, for example, can all be added to your cable plan; however, the standard Nick channel is nowhere to be seen. Finally, Sling also has more add-ons and bundles than any other provider on this list. That might work for some, but it also makes Sling feel the most like a traditional cable outlet of the bunch.

All of these have apps built into Apple TV, which you can use to access your content from the comfort of your living room. In our experience. both YouTube TV and Hulu Live seem to have the best bunch of cable channels and local offerings, which are important for watching certain sporting events and other content. All five offerings have their perks, of course, and overall, subscribing to any of these plans are by far the easiest pathway to streaming live TV right on your Apple TV.

If you already have a pre-existing cable subscription, you might be able to use it to stream content. However, in our experience, the biggest cable providers in the United States, including Comcast, Spectrum, DirecTV, U-Verse, and Verizon Fios have all basically ignored the Apple TV, despite each of those companies offering a streaming application for iPhone and iPad. Those apps also lack the ability to Airplay directly from your iOS device to your iPhone, leaving plenty of users without an option to watch TV on their Apple TV using the service they pay for. It’s ridiculous and anti-consumer, especially considering DirecTV has an Apple TV app for their IP-based TV service in DirecTV now, but that’s what users should currently expect from the cable providers.

Not all hope is lost, however. If you have a MacOS device, you can use Airplay to stream live television directly from your Mac’s browser to your television using screen mirroring. Mirroring is a solid way to watch TV while avoiding the restrictions placed on Apple TV owners, and even if it isn’t a perfect solution to the mind-boggling lack of cable apps on tvOS’ App Store, it’s a solution of sorts that keeps you watching television. Finally, there’s also a way to use your cable provider with your Apple TV by buying another hardware box, something we’ll discuss more at the bottom of this guide for the fourth-gen Apple TV, under the Over-The-Air section below.

Channel-Specific Apps

Depending on the channel you’re looking to stream, you might be able to stream live television straight from within the app itself. This is a great solution for users still paying for a traditional cable plan, because most large cable networks have apps available for streaming on the Apple TV. These apps typically require a cable login to use, but once you’re in, you can watch television on those respective apps. We won’t list every channel here, because frankly, that list would make this article infinitely long, but if you have a standard cable subscription and you’re looking to watch the new season of Atlanta on FX or The Americans on AMC, check out the app for each network on your Apple TV. They don’t always have live television streams built in, but a good chunk of them do.

The same goes for premium cable channels, like HBO or Showtime. Each of these have their own select apps for previously-existing subscribers (through cable, typically) and for users who don’t have cable but want to watch Game of Thrones or Billions. Likewise, each of these have their own live streams built-in, along with the on-demand offerings, that allow you to watch whatever’s streaming at any given time. Unsurprisingly, premium companies like HBO happen to have some of the best, most flexible plans for watching their content, but unfortunately, it can get pretty costly if you’re looking to subscribe to several of these premium channels.

Watching Live TV Over-the-Air Through Your Apple TV

One final option you could consider, especially if you live in a metro or suburban area, you can easily gain access to the local channels that broadcast in your city for free, just by purchasing an antenna. For readers in more rural areas, you’ll want to check your coverage map to see if you can pick up a feed from your closest broadcasters. As more and more people, especially younger 20 and 30-somethings, cut the cord, users have discovered that going back to using an antenna can actually be a great way to pick up some television on the cheap for watching the big annual events, like live musicals, awards shows, and the football games in your area. Over the air antennas offer full HD support, and depending on where you live, may actually be able to receive clearer, higher fidelity signals than cable or satellite from your broadcasters.

You can plug your antenna right into the back of your television, but if you want to use it with your Apple TV’s interface so that you’re only ever living within Apple’s own ecosystem (and saving some ports on the back of your TV in the process) you have an option to do just that. You’ll need a fourth or fifth-gen Apple TV in order to use it with an antenna, thanks to the need for a special app to pick up the signal from the box you need. Oh, that’s right: it isn’t enough to do this with just an antenna. Although that might seem like enough to plug into the back of your television, the back of the fourth-gen Apple TV is limited on ports—and the 4K model even lacks the USB-C port we saw on the fourth-gen model. That means you’ll need a way to transmit the signal from an antenna wirelessly to your Apple TV.

Enter HDHomeRun, a line of digital TV tuners from SiliconDust that make it easy to watch over-the-air broadcasting on any device in your house. One of the benefits to having cable is the wide ecosystem of apps you can receive on your mobile devices that help to make it easier to watch television in places you might not have a TV or cable box, like the kitchen or in the basement when you’re folding laundry. For the most part, an antenna hooks up to one device—your television—unless you specifically buy hardware to split the signal (and amplify it if necessary) to deliver it to multiple televisions in your apartment or house. The lineup of products offered from SiliconDust here make it easy to reproduce your antenna single over the internet, which means you can connect to it on a multitude of devices without much effort.

To start, you’ll want to choose the correct HDHomeRun unit for you. In the United States, there are five different models available for sale, each one with its own function and utility. The right one for you depends on your own platform and setup at your house, but for most people, either the HDHomeRun Connect Duo or Connect Quatro will work well for antenna users. The units are identical, albeit with one major difference. The Duo offers two TV tuners, which allows you to watch your antenna on up to two devices at once, while the Quatro offers four tuners and support for up to four devices at once. It’s an easy choice if you live alone or with one other user; the Duo can be picked up for $99, while the Quatro costs an additional $50. As of writing, the Duo is actually on sale at Amazon for just $79.99, making it an easy purchase at half the price of the bigger model. Of course, which you buy is really up to what you want to use it for.

Once you have the unit, setup is relatively easy. First, setup your antenna if you haven’t already and make sure it’s functional and pointed the proper direction for your area’s station. Second, ensure that you have enough of the proper cables to make sure the HDHomeRun unit can attach to both your antenna and your modem. For this, you may have to run some wires around your house, or move your equipment around so that it properly fits the necessary unit. Once that’s done, you’re basically good to go—just plug in the proper cables into the correct spaces on the back of the box (plug your antenna coaxial cable into the coaxial port and a wire from your modem into the ethernet port) and give the unit a power source.

This may seem obvious, but without the proper tech, you won’t be able to just watch your antenna from your television. If you want to have a stream running to the back of your TV and a stream running into the HDHomeRun, you’ll need to purchase a splitter and additional coaxial cables to divide the stream into your television and your HDHomeRun. The final step in this setup is to scan for channels, as you normally have to with an antenna. To do that, head over to this website and follow the directions once the green light on your unit has powered on, indicating a connection and power.

After you’ve setup the unit, you’ll need to get an app that can stream onto your Apple TV. If you already pay for a Plex Pass, you won’t need an independent app. Plex has an app for Apple TV and basically every other platform you can imagine, and at $4.99 per month, Plex is a solid offering for a multitude of media uses. It’s not perfect for everyone, but a lot of users will find it to be just what they need. Your other choice for Apple TV costs more upfront, but doesn’t require a subscription. At $24.99, Channels is a relatively expensive application for your Apple TV. Once you have it, however, you’ll likely find it’s impossible to live without it. Channels is built for HDHomeRun, and it gives you every control you could want under the sun, including:

  • Support for pausing, rewinding, and fast-forwarding
  • A full visual guide for finding content
  • Full HD streaming with surround sound
  • Closed captioning support
  • Channel favorites and the ability to jump between recent channels

Ultimately, despite the price, it’s a great one-time purchase with an excellent user interface and an ease of use unseen from the other options on the App Store.

Finally, as mentioned, a quick guide for users with cable who want to watch live television on their Apple TV. While your cable company may be missing a lineup of apps that allows you to watch live TV through your Apple TV, SiliconDust actually offers a device that allows cable users to gain the same functionality. Called the HDHomeRun Prime, it works identically to the antenna-based HDHomeRun units we discussed above, but with two major differences. First, the unit has three tuners built in, splitting the difference between the Duo and Quatro. Second, instead of working with an antenna, it allows users to plug a cable box into the unit to rebroadcast their cable channels through the app, just as described above. It’s a solid offering, one that should have cable users looking to upgrade their streaming service. It’s also priced right between the Duo and the Quatro, at $129.

Older Devices (Second and Third-Gen Models)

Older Apple TV devices don’t have the same flexibility as the newer tvOS devices discussed above. They have older processors (the Apple A4 and A5 respectively, both of which made appearances in the first iPad and the iPad 2, as well as the iPhone 4 and 4S), less storage, and run a modified version of iOS that can run Apple’s own designed apps for certain systems and offerings, but not much else. In some ways, your best bet if you really want to watch live TV is to upgrade your Apple TV to a new model. That isn’t an option for everyone, of course, so if you can’t afford the $150 upgrade to the fourth-gen Apple TV, you can always make do with what’s already on your Apple TV unit.

Some apps on the older Apple TV models, like CBS News and Sky News, have some live offerings that allow you to tune into whatever is being streamed at a given time. Other apps, like FXNOW, offer certain live streaming options on devices, though live television options may be discontinued due to the age of the processors and devices below your television set. Both devices have also stopped receiving new apps, so your best bet is to just try out each app you want to stream through (ABC, FX, NBC, etc.) to see if each app offers the ability to live stream. In most cases, you’ll either be presented with either on-demand options only, or a paywall that asks you to enter a cable provider before you can watch live television. And unfortunately, even apps like Hulu that are on these older devices don’t have support for the live television streaming options that have come out over the last two years.

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Watching live television on the Apple TV shouldn’t be as hard as cable providers make it out to be, especially when competitors like the Roku Express have app support from companies like Spectrum. No matter how difficult those companies make it however, there’s always a workaround that makes it easy to figure out how to stream your favorite shows and events live while they air. Whether that involves to one of the many popular IP-based services in your area, buying an antenna to use with HDHomeRun in your house, or just using your favorite channels’ Apple TV apps to access live streams, there’s several options for watching live TV on your Apple TV.

So the next time you want to add a new TV feed to a room in your house, don’t split your antenna, add another account on your Netflix, or rent a new cable box. Instead, just stick with your Apple TV and stream TV wirelessly.

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