Notes from the Online Video Underground

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Illustration: Hadley Hooper
AOL, MSN, and Yahoo offer a vast array of content in their role as gateways to the Web. Full-episode video is but a small piece of their empires, and all three lean heavily on repackaging Hulu's content.

MSN Video depends on MSN's syndication deal with Hulu for much of its full-episode video. But the experience is nothing like watching video on Hulu.com: The interface is busier, and the video quality is inferior to what you get on Hulu proper (as is the case with all Hulu-syndicated video) Nor is the content all the same: Babylon 5, for example, was nowhere to be found under MSN Video, though readily available at Hulu).

Click on the TV tab at MSN's Video Guide, and you'll jump to a page dedicated to all things television, including TV listings and coverage of what's new on TV. The site's Watch Full Episodes module is the most expeditious and friendly way to find full episodes of TV shows; alternatively you can select 'Browse TV Shows' on the menu up top, and then select 'Shows with Free Episodes'. But finding episodes may require 10 clicks or more. For example, with an older show like Remington Steele, which ran for five seasons, you click the name of the show, then click on 'episodes', and then click through to at least page 6 of 7 to view available episodes (the episodes are listed in inverse order, with newer episodes first; and only the first two seasons are available online--hence the lengthy and annoying search process).

MSN Video's presentation of video from Hulu is far busier and more annoying than Hulu's own. For The Simpsons and for A.L.F., for example, MSN Video displays the four episodes and thumbnails at left, with the player midscreen, and episode information at right. The in-browser video player is smaller, and the resolution is noticeably lower than on Hulu.com; I observed pixelation in both in-browser and full-screen modes.

The in-browser and full-screen players carry a Hulu logo overlay in the lower right corner, but neither carries the same time-line marks for commercial breaks that Hulu does. The same Simpsons episode had longer commercial breaks at MSN (30 seconds each) than it did at Hulu (15 seconds each).

MSN Video is frustratingly inconsistent, too: When I searched for Remington Steele in the search function, and returned a bunch of episode thumbnails. I clicked one, and additional episode thumbnails populated the left frame--and the Hulu-branded page appeared within a frame at the right (with a link to launch the full Hulu site). MSN would be better off killing this convoluted mess than subjecting users to it.

AOL has put together a far more manageable structure for full-episode video than MSN's. Here, the videos are presented by episode titles, top shows, most recent, most viewed, and highest rated. The entry page has a lot of components, but it's neither confusing nor intimidating. AOL has partnered with Hulu. ABC, and CBS. Some content, such as the soap opera The Edge of Night, comes from AOL Television's In2TV.

AOL plays up the fact that you can get full episodes from all four major networks through its site.
AOL plays up the fact that you can get full episodes from all four major networks through its site.
Unlike at other sites, CBS videos play in-line within AOL's browser. Nevertheless, the experience at AOL can be frustrating. For example, I clicked on How I Met Your Mother, and got 11 clips--with no designation of which were simply clips, and which were full episodes. In the player screen, the same thumbnails appeared at right, this time with their running times, indicating that 9 of the 11 were actual episodes. Unfortunately, some of the options appeared to be duplicates (to judge from the episode names), and none of them actually worked. One of the clips I picked was no longer available, and the AOL page simply referred me to CBS's own site. Episodes of CSI had similar issues, with clips--originating from "CBS on AOL"--no longer available. And the thumbnails were identical, anyway. Talk about a waste of clicks. (In AOL's defense, I later had a similar experience with expired CBS content at other sites; still, AOL's layout makes the extra clicks all the more annoying.)

Babylon 5 was here, but it was part of AOL Television's In2TV not an import from Hulu. Because all of the thumbnails showed the same still image, I couldn't use them to help identify the episode (nor could I rely onthe running time--all episodes were listed as being 26 minutes long, unlikely given that the original broadcasts ran for an hour each, with commercials). Many other Warner Brothers--produced shows appear on In2TV (Time Warner is the corporate parent to both), including numerous shows, such as The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, That I didn't find elsewhere on Hulu.

At the highest quality setting (for broadband, greater than 700 kbps), images looked blocky and pixelated. The smallish in-browser player was passable, but the full-screen Babylon 5 experience was not. Remington Steele, whose video originated from Hulu, came closer to matching the Hulu experience than not; but even here, the Hulu.com version seemed to possess a little more detail than the Hulu-by-way-of-AOL version.

Yahoo offers full episodes, too, but the experience remains rudimentary at best. Yahoo's partnership with Hulu is source of available episodes. The player occupies more of the page than do the players on AOL or MSN, and like other Hulu syndication sites it carries the Hulu bug; but the mediocre images made me wonder why anyone would go here for video rather than going directly to Hulu.

At least Yahoo has a wide-screen player; AOL and MSN have only a 4:3 aspect-ratio player, which means that shows filmed in 16:9 high-definition format, like 30 Rock, end up displaying in letterbox format.

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