Notes from the Online Video Underground

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The Best TV on the Web

The Networks

In the past year, the Big Four broadcast networks have taken aggressive steps to make content available online. According to a Nielsen Company study released in June, 87 percent of survey participants who watched a TV program online did so on a TV network site; 82 percent of those users sought out a show they missed on TV. Typically, you can find at least 80 percent of each network's prime-time broadcast schedule online.

That's good news for viewers and networks. Viewers are flocking to network sites because they associate Grey's Anatomy and Lost with ABC, or 30 Rock and Heroes with NBC. Nonetheless, the networks are using a two-pronged approach to distribute content online. They're beefing up the offerings on their own Web sites, and they're also setting up distribution deals with other sites so their video reaches audiences throughout the Web.

NBC and Fox, for example, cofounded Hulu. Both networks mirror the content they make available on their own sites with what they offer on Hulu. ABC and CBS have brokered deals with multiple sites. In ABC's case, viewers must view the episode within ABC's player; in CBS's case, most partner sites direct viewers to the page within CBS.com (one exception to this rule is Veoh Networks, which lets you watch CBS content within the Veoh environment).

ABC and Fox use Move Networks' player in the background, so you'll need to install this browser plug-in to open and play episodes. CBS uses its own player, while NBC uses Move's technology for its browser-based player.

ABC is at the forefront of streaming high-definition video: Select episodes, including all four seasons of Lost, are available in 720p high definition. The image quality falls far short of what you'd get on Blu-ray Disc, but it's still impressive--assuming that you have the hardware and the bandwidth to handle playback (see "The Gear You Need to Watch TV on the Web?"). I saw more detail, greater clarity, better contrast, and superior depth in the images--along with some pixelation and artifacting.

The ABC player launches into its own pop-up Window. The site's design makes finding complete episodes easy, though the home page is way too busy. Regrettably, video clips are intermingled with full episodes. ABC had episodes of 19 shows available in their entirety, including hits like Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Lost (seasons one through four in high-definition, and season four in standard-definition streaming video as well).

The player has four size options--mini, normal, big, and full screen. Each size serves up a different combination of resolution and bit rate, and the bit rate adjusts in the background depending on your bandwidth. Unfortunately, audio and video occasionally got out-of-sync in my playback tests.

Five commercials--featuring a mix of video and still content, and in some instances a degree of interactivity--intruded on my viewing of each 60-minute episode of Lost and Grey's Anatomy. My biggest gripe, though, was that I had to click manually to continue playing the show after a commercial finished--in case I wanted to stare at the end screen of an ad indefinitely, I guess. At least the advertisements give you a countdown of how much time remains before the show will resume.

CBS maintains a collection of full episodes of both current and classic series--including episodes that you may not associate with the CBS television network but that CBS now owns--cult and quasi-cult favorites such as the original Star Trek series, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Perry Mason, MacGyver, Melrose Place, The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-O, Family Ties, and Beverly Hills 90210.

The centrally positioned video player runs inside the browser, dominating the screen (it's bigger than the player on Veoh). You can view vdeos at full-screen size, but the video quality degraded noticeably when I did so; and pixelation in the on-screen images was bad enough that I won't rush to repeat the experience. Despite having limited controls, you can skip ahead within the video. The player uses a 4:3 aspect ratio; episodes captured in wide-screen format are shown letterboxed.

The videos I watched had five 30-second commercials each, including one at the outset. You can share and embed video, with direct hooks into Facebook and Google Bookmarks; but regardless of what options show, you may not be able to do more than share a link to a particular video (in some videos, the embed option is grayed out due to rights issues).

Of CBS's current prime-time slate, some shows, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and How I Met Your Mother, had four current full-length episodes available for viewing when I visited the site. Others--including Big Brother and the already-canceled CBS series Jericho--had even more episodes; and still others, such as Two and a Half Men, Without a Trace, and Cold Case, had only clips.

The episodes are accessible via a video tab or through the home screen for each show. This approach makes sense for current programming--the video becomes part of the network's online treatment of that show (along with community, blogs, episode recaps, and cast information).

Fox makes it really easy to find full episodes: The network prominently displays this option at the top of its home page, and its site fosters navigation thanks to its clean, attractive, and uncluttered design. Fox on Demand, the full episode player, featured 20 shows--pretty much all but three of Fox's shows (missing are reality fests American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and Don't Forget the Lyrics).

Among the player's niceties are 'lights out' (to dim the text around the side of the player) and a nifty 'share episode' feature (as with NBC's player, you can share a full episode or a clip from a specific time code). Thumbnails, episode numbers, and episode titles for other available episodes appear at the bottom of the player screen; you can browse through these by scrolling from left to right. You choose either in-browser or full-screen video; both were of acceptable quality.

Fox fosters its own community by allowing registered users to rate and review shows.

NBC has aggressively pursued its NBCOlympics.com strategy (which includes more than 2600 hours of live streaming video and approximately 3500 hours of on-demand video). The busy home page makes video its centerpiece, but it provides too many ways of getting to the same place. Click on 'Shows' or on 'Watch Video' to see at a glance which programs are available as full episodes on NBC Video Rewind and which are available through NBC Direct, the network's beta service for digital downloads.

When I visited the site, the Shows tab accurately identified which series had episodes for viewing, but the Watch Video tab did not: There, 19 of the shows listed had full episodes, but 24 other listings (excluding movies and specials) did not. In some instances, full episodes were available--as in the case of Battlestar Galactica (the original 1970s version)--but I found them only after navigating to the particular show's landing page. Episodes are displayed in a row beneath the player, with thumbnails and episode descriptions that elegantly pop up as you mouse over them. A more accurate listing of shows appears at NBC.com\shows, which lists all of the shows and resources available online, including full episodes (in this view, 27 of the 42 shows listed had full episodes).

NBC's Video Rewind service has playback controls surrounding the player; but if you like, you can choose to hide those side panels.
NBC's Video Rewind service has playback controls surrounding the player; but if you like, you can choose to hide those side panels.
The video files play inside the browser, with extra features and download options visible briefly before they tuck away; the dark screen that surrounds the player thereafter makes for a very pleasant viewing experience. The player gives you three viewing options: Normal, Large, and Full Screen (letterboxed for wide-screen content); video quality in the Full Screen mode resembled that of an analog television image, free of the pixelation that I encountered with CBS's playback).

The series that I tried had closed captioning (pop-up text that ran to the right of the player in normal or large mode, or on top of the player in full-screen mode). Heroes had quick-bits interactive pop-up trivia, too. An extremely annoying flashing banner ad ran below the player on one Heroes episode. I endured five commercial breaks on Heroes; but they ran for a shorter time and were less annoying than the other commercials I saw on NBC.com.

An episode of The Office had three 30-second-plus commercial breaks. The ads here are a mixture of interactive media, stills, and video--in other words, they're much more intrusive new media than you get at other sites.

The Aggregators

The Portals

The Networks

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