Networks Start to Offer TV on the Web

Music and TV were lazily paddling their canoes down Prosperity Creek when Music suddenly heard a deafening roar ahead. “Help! What’s happening?” cried Music — but it was too late. The canoe tumbled over the Internet Falls, knocking Music upside-down into the churning vortex.

TV, following at a short distance, was determined to avoid Music’s fate. “I shall go with the current and not fight it,” vowed TV. And with only seconds to spare, TV threw every shred of brainpower and muscle into avoiding its doom.

End of Chapter 1.

Now, nobody knows how that story will turn out. But everybody knows that fewer people are watching network TV with every passing year. This year, the networks have mounted their first counterattack. In addition to short mini-videos for the short-attention-span generation, they’re putting full-length free on-demand episodes online. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CW are all in the game, with surprisingly pleasant results.

In general, you can catch the four or five most recent episodes of a show online, starting the morning after broadcast.

Techies, of course, have something much better. Using free BitTorrent technology, they can find and illegally download almost any episode of any recent TV show to their computers. (Just don’t get caught. Some Internet providers are starting to shut off the service of BitTorrent fans.)

You can also buy TV shows at Apple’s iTunes store, for $2 an episode without ads. But this approach, too, sticks in the craw of some networks; NBC, for example, has chafed at Apple’s terms, and its shows may disappear from iTunes in December. So what’s it like to watch TV on the networks’ Web sites?

If you have the required fast Internet connection, the picture and sound quality are excellent. It’s all on-demand, too; you can start playing the shows whenever you feel like it. (According to ABC’s research, 77 percent of online viewers are catching an episode that they missed on TV.)

There are some ads, and you can’t skip over them. Fortunately, compared with regular TV, the online ads are scarce indeed. At each break, you generally have to watch only one 30-second commercial — and there’s nothing to stop you from checking your e-mail messages or Dilbert.com while it plays.

And then there’s Joost.

Joost (“juiced,” get it?) is the latest brainchild of the two Scandinavian entrepreneurs who first rocked the record industry with Kazaa (free music for all!) and then the phone industry with Skype (free phone calls for all!). Joost gives your Mac or PC on-demand access to more than 150,000 episodes of TV shows and Web videos (free TV for all!). And last week, Joost threw open its doors; you no longer need a private invitation to download its player software from www.joost.com.

Here it is, then: your Fall 2007 Guide to Online TV, starring Joost, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

JOOST 1.0 BETA Joost is a great concept. The social-networking aspects are especially promising: you can type-chat with other viewers, send links to good shows, and so on.

In some shows, ads play before or during an episode (maximum length: 60 seconds); in others, small ads pop up in the corner of the screen something like those transparent network logos.

Joost’s video quality ranges from O.K. to blotchy. The software is beautiful, but its unlabeled controls are confusing. And Joost’s central organizing concept, “channels,” is also bewildering; although the shows play on demand, they’re also part of a lineup, and you’re often told that certain shows are “Coming Up”—although you can make your own channels, too.

Finally, there’s an awful lot of junk on Joost. Some of the shows are recognizable series from CBS, MTV, VH1, Paramount Pictures, CNN and Comedy Central, like “CSI” variations, “Kid Nation” and a lot of cartoons. But there’s also a lot of Web-video filler. The channels include Audi TV, Australian Food TV and the Circus Channel.

And then there are ones you’ve never heard of.

ABC ABC offers 17 of its most popular series online: “Dancing With the Stars,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Ugly Betty” and so on. If you have a high-powered computer, you can even watch six of them in high definition, which looks sensational.

Each show has about four ad breaks, indicated by a tick mark on the show’s scroll bar. You must watch one ad before viewing any other segment of the show. Once you’ve paid those dues, you can freely jump around in the new segment, rewind and so on. Each show is sponsored by a single national advertiser, and the ads are often interactive. (ABC shows are also available at video.aol.com.) Over all, ABC really has its online act together.

CBS This network’s offerings include a generous 22 series, including “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” some episodes of “CSI,” “How I Met Your Mother” and a couple of soaps. There’s no whole-show scroll bar, so you can’t skip to the last section without slogging through the first, second and third.

CBS is also the most liberal distributor of shows on the Internet. You can find much the same stuff on iTunes, Joost, AOL and so on.

NBC An ad or two appears at the beginning of each episode, at the end and at the regular commercial breaks in the middle.

Unfortunately, the selection isn’t great. Only 13 series await, including “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Heroes,” although NBC says that more are coming. And you can’t shrink the NBC player’s window down and park it in a corner of your screen so you can watch while you crunch numbers, as you can with its rivals.

FOX Fox’s effort is labeled “beta,” and it shows; I ran into glitches on both Mac and Windows computers. Still, everything plays fine: the most recent three episodes each of “The Simpsons,” “24” and 13 other shows are here. Fox uses the same tick-mark scroll bar as ABC. But an ad also appears before the show, and ads appear in the browser window beside the “TV screen.”

Speaking of NBC and Fox: stay tuned for Hulu.com. When it opens later this month, it will offer full episodes from these networks and others.

Over all, it’s great to see the arrival of online TV episodes that are crisp, clear, current, legal and free. But there are three reasons this development may not make much difference in the big picture.

First, the selection is puny. Each network offers only a fraction of its list, and for a window of only a few weeks. As long as the networks refuse to offer a better-stocked catalog — and a more permanent one — the world will flock to any service that does, like BitTorrent.

Second, you can’t download shows; you can only watch them streamed in real time. You can’t save them, put them on your iPod or burn them to DVD. (There’s hope on this point, however: this month, NBC will begin testing free episodes that you can download to your laptop to watch within a week.)

Finally — and this is the big one — almost nobody wants to watch TV on a computer screen.

Oh, sure, there are various wired and wireless ways to get the computer’s image onto your TV in the living room. But they’re clumsy, expensive and, for most people, not worth the bother. After all these years of pundits assuring us that the TV and the Internet would one day merge, it still hasn’t happened.

In other words, free online episodes are a reasonable attempt by the TV networks to avoid being swamped by the Internet. But will it be enough to keep TV’s head above water? That chapter has yet to be written.

Source: New York Times

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5 Responses to Networks Start to Offer TV on the Web

  1. […] iPodã¢ã¯ã»ãµãªã¼&a… wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptNetworks Start to Offer TV on the Web October 22nd, 2007 By DAVID POGUE Music and TV were lazily paddling their canoes down Prosperity Creek when Music suddenly heard a deafening roar ahead. “Help! What’s happening?” cried Music — but it was too late. The canoe tumbled over the Internet Falls, knocking Music upside-down into the churning […]

  2. […] here to read This entry was posted on Monday, October 22nd, 2007 at 12:41 am and is filed under […]

  3. […] Admin wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThe software is beautiful, but its unlabeled controls are confusing. And Joost’s central organizing concept, “channels,” is also bewildering; although the shows play on demand, they’re also part of a lineup, and you’re often told that … […]

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