Notes from the Online Video Underground

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The Best TV on the Web

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Illustration: Hadley Hooper
Watching the boob tube once meant having to consume your entertainment in front of an actual television. But these days, if you miss an episode of Grey's Anatomy or Heroes and forgot to set the DVR, no problem: You can catch up online for free with streaming video supplied by the Hollywood networks and studios themselves.

Television entertainment has busted out of the television and onto computer screens everywhere. Think of it as the rebirth of television, delivered via a new, interactive medium that gives viewers more choice over what they watch--and when, where, and how they watch it.

Thanks to the explosive growth of YouTube and social networking sites like MySpace, video permeates all aspects of Web life. And though short-form user-generated and professional video has a fairly lengthy history on the Web, a perfect storm of conditions has driven the growth of the Internet's emergence as a means of distributing high-quality television entertainment.

The proportion of U.S. households with broadband continues to grow, according to research firm NPD Group. Web 2.0 technologies have contributed to advances in how sites can present video. Meanwhile, most computer configurations of the past couple of years have sufficient processing power and large enough displays to make watching high-bit-rate video a viable, not torturous, experience.

All of these factors have encouraged television audiences to turn to the Web to fill in their viewing blanks. A Nielsen Company study conducted for the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing and released in June noted that 35 percent of adult broadband users in its survey group had used the Internet to watch at least one program originally shown on TV.

Many of today's video experiences more closely approximate the TV experience than the networks' PC-centric, postage-stamp-size efforts of yore. The new programming is also more interactive, with greater viewer control over player size (including options such as 720p HD, full-screen, mini-player screen, pop-up trivia, or audio tracks) and with social networking capabilities such as embedding full episodes or episodes clips, forum discussions, and hooks into Facebook and MySpace. The streamed video's resolution may vary dramatically, and sites rarely report the actual figure to viewers at home--largely because most sites employ adaptive streaming techniques to adjust bit rate and resolution in the background depending on individual users' system capabilities and bandwidth.

Hollywood's rush to the Web makes sense: Networks and content producers are simply following the migration of their audience online by making television--defined here as professionally produced full-length episodic or sports content--available on the Internet. The peculiarities of online distribution or syndication deals mean that you can find multiple sites that offer the same content. And many of those sites link to a third-party site that hosts the video itself. The end result resembles a linkfest at the sausage factory. We looked at a large cross-section of sites to determine the state of television on the Web today, and we found that even when content offerings appear to be identical, the viewing experience depends to a large extent on where you get your video. The sites we considered fall into three categories: aggregators, portals, and networks (we examined the big four networks, not individual cable networks; and we skipped pay-to-dowload TV options as well).

In many ways, the mish-mosh of overlapping content online transforms finding the content you want into a confusing treasure hunt. There's no single stop on the Net where you can find everything you want without being referred somewhere else.

Ultimately, I found plenty of TV to stream via the Web, and I enjoyed the convenience and the opportunity to rediscover favorite series from the past. I preferred the in-browser experiences to those that involved installing a separate player or browser plug-in--though I did what I had to do to catch the episode of Grey's Anatomy that I'd missed.

In the end, Hulu remained my favorite site to use; but I wish that its catalog were growing faster (where are the third seasons of Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer?). Also, despite finding much to like about streaming television via the Web, I don't plan to ditch my DVD and Blu-ray collection anytime soon.

The Aggregators

The Portals

The Networks

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