October 9, 2008

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TV on the Web
The boob tube goes online
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

There was a time when the personal computer was that newfangled contraption, a dastardly machine that aimed to worm its way into your life. If you were afraid of them there computers, but still curious about the World Wide Web, you could get WebTV, a box that hooked up to your television and let you check e-mail, visit your more nerdy cousin’s Web site or just surf around. WebTV is still in business in the form of MSN TV, but these days you’re much more likely to go the other way around.

What I mean is instead of using your TV to access the Web, you use the Web to access TV. It might seem silly in the age of TiVo, High Definition and theater-quality surround sound systems, but no matter how many channels cable and satellite operators sell to their subscribers, there’s still more choice on the Web. Most of the nation now has broadband access, so streaming video over the Internet can be a profitable model.

The major networks have gotten onto this train, often making new episodes of their flagship programs available on their own Web sites the day after they’re broadcast. While that’s great for catching the odd episode you missed, it’s not so great for catching up on an entire season or re-experiencing a classic show. There are DVDs for that, sure, but they’re not free. And YouTube, well, shows posted there are often not quite legal.

The combination of free, legal and convenient in professional online video used to be difficult to find. Now there are several sites offering just that.

• Hulu.com: My personal favorite, and the first to really break through as a serious provider of television and movie content online. The site was started by NBC Universal and News Corp in 2007. They first posted content just by themselves, but quickly convinced FOX, Warner Brothers and other production companies to allow their content as well. There are a few brief ads during every TV episode or movie you watch, but far fewer than you’d see on television. I just finished the whole of the original Battlestar Galactica and am now working my way through its disastrous sequel, Galactica 1980. Aside from the occasional stutter while the streaming video buffers, playback is pretty smooth.

• Fancast.com: If NBC can do it, why can’t Comcast do it? If you’re a cable subscriber, you’ve probably seen ads for this Web site run by the cable giant. It looks pretty much identical to Hulu, with a slew of quality movies from Dunston Checks In to Weird Science and both old and new TV episodes listed. Even the available content is just about the same, probably because the content providers are hedging their bets.

• Veoh.com: Taking a slightly — but not very — different tack is Veoh. There are TV series here, too, but no movies. Instead, episodes from CBS, FOX, NBC and Comedy Central are combined with video made for the Internet in the first place. That’s YouTube clips, Web series and other channels of content.

There’s also Joost.com, but that site requires you to sign up and download a plugin. The other sites use the de facto standard of Flash video, so any modern PC and browser can play it with no problem. And for free, what more could you want?