Notes from the Online Video Underground

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The Best TV on the Web

The Aggregators

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Aggregator sites showcase streaming television, drawing their content from multiple sources. Since aggregators focus on entertainment, their goal is to build a comprehensive entertainment experience.

Hulu--ranked by PC World staff as the number one product of 2008 (see "The 100 Best Products of 2008")--remains the gold standard among aggregator sites for finding and viewing free television on the Web.

Hulu's clean interface makes viewing online TV a pleasure. And thumbnails make selecting additional episodes easy.
Hulu's clean interface makes viewing online TV a pleasure. And thumbnails make selecting additional episodes easy.
Hulu makes locating and watching high-quality video extremely easy, and it has one of the best collections of current content and reruns around (its growing catalog numbers 3000-plus TV episodes). Only CBS and ABC content is missing here; and to counter that deficiency Hulu indexes video content from other sites, so you can find episodes of Lost, Star Trek, or How I Met Your Mother with a single click of an external link on Hulu.

Browse through shows by genre, title, or network, or plug a title or actor into the search engine. If full episodes are available, a TV icon will appear next to each such entry.

The video player, which dominates the Hulu experience, makes Hulu feel closer to a true television experience--especially in full-screen video mode. The player is neatly organized, with none of the clutter that abounds at countless other sites. Run your mouse over the video screen, and various controls become visible to the sides and at the bottom of the video screen. By default, the site shows video at 700 kbps (for 700p video, better than DVD), but it automatically reduces the transfer rate to 480 kbps (for 480p video), and may dip as low as 360 kbps (360p), if your bandwidth connection warrants it.

You can watch video full-screen or in a pop-out player (which puts the video player into its own self-contained window); the raise/lower lights function conveniently darkens the screen around the video you're watching within the browser. Social networking options let you embed, e-mail, or share a video.

Little touches such as predictive text search and the ability to create a viewing queue increase Hulu's comprehensiveness. Even the commercials are tolerable: Most of the ones I encountered lasted for about 15 seconds each, and the player dynamically tracked how much time remained until playback would resume. A Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode from season two, for example, had four commercial breaks plus one introductory "sponsored by" message (an unobtrusive banner ad from the chief sponsor appeared within the browser window throughout the playback). An episode of The Simpsons had just three commercial breaks, plus the intro sponsorship notice. Though I couldn't fast forward through the commercial breaks, I could skip past a break point to jump to the last third of the episode, for example.

Fancast, from Cable giant Comcast, debuted earlier this year. It admirably combines a bargeload of information about television shows with an enjoyable online video experience. Fancast, still in beta, seems to be dedicated to broadening on-demand video and helping site visitors find the shows they want, whether on the Web or delivered via TV (through Comcast's cable box-based on-demand service or through a cable channel).

Fancast, like Hulu, provides a clean user interface; find your next video with the handy search bar.
Fancast, like Hulu, provides a clean user interface; find your next video with the handy search bar.
Though the full-episode playback experience was pleasant--Fancast's layout and visual design make it fairly simple to navigate--finding full episodes of shows could be easier. The site has so much going on, with multiple paths to the same endpoints, and some of those paths are clearer than others.

Here, too, the browser-based player is central to the presentation, though you can opt for a full-size player or for a tiny pop-out player that you can position anywhere on your desktop. Unfortunately, video (even Hulu video) looked unduly pixelated at full-screen resolution. Many of the episodes come from Comcast's distribution deal with Hulu; others, from Comcast's separate deals with CBS and ABC. Video dimensions and resolutions vary from one provider to another.

One noteworthy convenience is the ability to resume where you left off--no other site I examined offers this feature. On the horizon is a Fancast store, for buying digital content for download.

TV Guide, not content with its status as king of the programming grid, now offers a compelling Online Video Guide. TV Guide's new owner, Macrovision (yes, the same company responsible for copy protection), aims to expand the role of video on the site. For the moment, however, video is just one component of the TV Guide site's offerings.

TV Guide lets you browse videos based on top shows, top celebrities, genres, or networks. Its comprehensive video search integrates everything from the paid world of iTunes, CinemaNow, and Amazon Unbox to the free streaming world of Hulu and CBS. The advanced search lets you narrow searches to only free or only paid videos, and to only full episodes or only clips. Results are shown in two columns, one with links to full episodes, the other with links to clips; if you like, you can sort within the clip or full episode category by free or paid.

Like Hulu, TV Guide's search puts you one click away from full video hosted on other sites. Video offerings from Hulu and other sources pop up within TV Guide's own pop-up player, which launches on top of the browser screen; you must then choose to enlarge the video to full screen or minimize your browser window--a minor annoyance. A larger annoyance is TV Guide's distractingly busy interface, which impedes your efforts to find what you want and to enjoy the video once you've found it.

Veoh Networks differs from the other aggregators in that it focuses on both user-generated and professional video, offering the best of both the community and pro worlds.

The site has worked out distribution deals with Hulu, ABC, CBS, ESPN (for short-form content), NCAA Football, Viacom, and Warner Brothers, making it one of the more comprehensive aggregators around.

Veoh's hectic screen reflects both the diversity of the service's offerings and its active ties into online community.
Veoh's hectic screen reflects both the diversity of the service's offerings and its active ties into online community.
The in-browser player is large and changes from 4:3 aspect ratio to wide screen, depending upon the video. The page is better designed than most--not overwhelmingly busy despite being filled with links to content related to a given episode. The source of each video is clearly identified. Most of the syndicated content plays within Hulu's player on Hulu's site, but video from ABC will work only in the ABC player (when you click on ABC content, Hulu launches a separate window and prompts you to install the player separately if you don't already have it). Interestingly, though CBS content plays in-browser here, Star Trek episodes wouldn't properly display full-screen as they do at CBS. Another quirk: The same How I Met Your Mother episodes that seemingly had expired and wouldn't play on AOL played fine on Veoh.

Social features at Veoh include the tools for uploading videos or publishing them to other sites, including Facebook and MySpace.

Joost was one of the earliest aggregators, and today the site boasts roughly 28,000 TV shows and more than 480 channels. Mind you, many of those shows and channels aren't top-of-the-charts programming, and not all are long-form content (meaning, the equivalent of a 30-minute or 1-hour TV episode).

Now in beta 1.7, Joost remains in transition. The company had to shut down its discussion forums (which were linked to content) because it is developing a Web-browser based version of the software. Before watching any content, you have to install the Joost player--which can be annoying given its need for outgoing ports (it conflicted with my installation of BitDefender, for example).

Because Joost runs in the background and uses peer-to-peer networking to facilitate downloads, you can exhaust your available bandwidth quickly. Joost says that its application will gauge your available bandwidth and dial-down usage accordingly, but its site also still cautions against bandwidth overuse (see "The Gear You Need to Watch TV on the Web?").

Channels are sorted by show or network or production company (for example. Beverly Hills, 90210 or Comedy Central or Warner Brothers). The channels mix up full episodes and short clips--annoying if you're looking for one over the other.

The site's presentation of video choices is highly graphical and visual, thanks to thumbnails and large fonts that stand out from the page. But the interface needs help: It's not always clear which episode you're clicking or what else is available for a given show.

Browsing by channel quickly gets wearisome, as you have to page through 40-something pages of thumbnails, with no clear indication of whether full episodes or clips lie beneath the thumbnail for a given content channel. Original Star Trek episodes (again, supplied by CBS), for example, simply state "Star Trek: The Original Series - Errand of M" (the "ercy" gets cut off from the screen).

MySpace TV feels more like McTV, rife with snippets and short doses of content rather than full episodes of TV shows. Hulu supplies the full episodes, with language skewed to the teen set ("booyah" and "no way" substitute something else for the 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' icons provided for rating videos). MySpace deserves notice for publishing some original-content Webisodes, but beyond that it has nothing you can't get elsewhere.

The Aggregators

The Portals

The Networks

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