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Must-See Net TV

The Flash-based Google Video Player provides pop-up thumbnails to ease navigation in downloaded videos.
The Flash-based Google Video Player provides pop-up thumbnails to ease navigation in downloaded videos.
Most major networks and producers make some recent and archival TV shows available through their own Web sites, as well as on iTunes, AOL's In2TV, Google Video, and others. Each site may offer only a few shows from one or two studios.

For example, CinemaNow carries just two series, one season each of Babylon 5 and The Dukes of Hazzard. iTunes carries about 150 series from Disney/ABC, NBC, and MTV, including current shows like Law & Order and The Office. Network shows typically cost $2 to $4 per episode.

A growing body of content is viewable for free, with the revenue coming from commercials. As a trial, ABC released free downloads of a few popular shows such as Desperate Housewives and Lost the day after they aired, with ads. Google Video, too, is experimenting a bit with ad-supported video. AOL's ad-supported In2TV presents many old Warner Brothers shows, such as Max Headroom and The People's Court, with new ads.

Increasingly, you see well-produced, original Web content, as well. For example, both CBS's Innertube and MTV Overdrive offer clips from broadcast shows along with online-only reality, talk, and magazine shows., NBC, and others present free nightly newscasts along with single-story videos. Some local stations have good content, too: Check out southwest Florida's Studio 55, which has a high-quality, daily news video podcast.

However, most free programs play as Flash Video (.flv) files on the provider's site--no easy downloads for offline viewing. And you can't subscribe to or watch content from all sites with one viewer. Although and Yahoo both offer improving Web-wide video search, no one has the equivalent of a comprehensive program guide that makes both commercial and sharing sites searchable in one place. Also, with today's broadband, high-def video takes too long to download, and content is scarce. (If you want to try HD, CinemaNow does have 80 titles.)

Moreover, unless your PC is connected to your TV, you have few ways to easily bring Web content to your living room. TiVo's TiVoCast and Akimbo offer two of the few alternatives: Each service downloads videos from partner sites to its set-top box for TV viewing. TiVoCast has launched with ten partners, such as iVillage and the New York Times, while Akimbo has 100 partners, with video ranging from A&E's biography and history shows to short movies from iFilm to clips from the Karaoke Channel.

Most commercial content providers currently avoid distributing their libraries via RSS feeds and peer-to-peer, presumably due to concerns about file trading. However, Warner Brothers' agreement with P-to-P developer BitTorrent to use its technology to sell and distribute movies and shows suggests that Hollywood's hesitancy may be lessening.

Commercial Video Sources: iTunes Stands Out

iTunes' selection, video quality, and ease of use distinguish it from the rest of the pack, though it lacks feature films.

Video servicePrice range1Number of commercial titles2Stream or downloadViewable onComments
AOL In2TVFree400StreamPCCurrently has up to ten episodes of about 40 Warner Brothers TV series, including The Ben Stiller Show, Kung Fu, and Welcome Back, Kotter. No downloads or feature films.
Apple iTunes$26000DownloadPC, Mac, iPodHas approximately 150 television series, 60 short films, and 3000 music videos. Provides decent searching, consistent pricing, and good video quality. Must access through iTunes. No rentals, feature films, or burning to DVD for TV.
CinemaNow $3-$4 to rent,3 $10-$20 to buy5000BothPC, select Windows portablesProvides about 600 Hollywood films, 3300 minor films and videos, and 80 HD titles. Lots of music videos, some adult material. Some films are downloadable on the DVD release day. Requires Internet Explorer. Downloads can take 1 to 3 hours. Allows limited burning of DVDs for living-room players; most burned DVDs play only on a PC.
Google Video$0.50-$15; most $1-$56000BothPC4Offers a dozen CBS TV series. Has NBA games 24 hours post-game ($4). Some files available for only a 24-hour rental. Most downloads require its player; some play only while the PC is Web connected. Good search, but poor browsing. Good and goofy paid content. No burning to DVD for TV.
Movielink$1-$5 to rent,3 $9-$20 to buy1500DownloadPCHas about 650 Hollywood titles, plus over 800 independent and foreign films, cartoons, and TV shows, to rent; has about 800 titles to buy. Some films are downloadable on the DVD release day. Requires Internet Explorer. Downloads can take 1 to 3 hours. Burned DVDs play only on a PC.
Vongo$10/month, $4 for pay-per-view titles31600DownloadPC, Microsoft's PlaysForSure portablesIncludes a live stream of Starz TV. Supports a few portable players, such as the Toshiba Gigabeat S. Requires Internet Explorer. Files average 0.5GB to 1.5GB, and take 1 to 3 hours to download. You must download and view files within Vongo's application.
CHART NOTE: Features listed are as of June 2006. FOOTNOTES: 1Price ranges are per download, unless otherwise stated, and reflect the majority of the service's options. Deals or special content may be priced lower or higher. 2As of June 2006. 3Unlimited viewing during a 24-hour period. 4Free video content is also available for iPod and PSP.
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