Couch Surfing the Web

Fed up with the cable experience, The Grouse aims his remote Webward

With the new fall TV season currently kicking into warp speed, there's no time like the present to finally take the networks up on all those offers to "Check Out Full Episodes Online!" In fact, I'm willing to bet that there's enough network and cable TV available online for free (or just about) that with a little hard work, I could completely replace the traditional $50+ per month TV viewing paradigm with a 100-percent Internet (for which I pay next to nothing) experience.

So, I set out to do just that and the criteria of the experiment were as follows: I needed to find all of the programming I normally watch or record and it had to be full screen. I'd connect my laptop to my 32-inch LCD to replicate the 10-foot experience and I'd swear off of illegal downloading. I'd score freebies wherever possible, but allow myself to tap iTunes for stuff I couldn't find free.

The highs and lows of my experiment are here, but in short:
• The majors are light years ahead of cable networks in terms of online offerings.
• Hulu is the future—but the future hasn't quite arrived.
• This week's CBS/YouTube joint venture was an exercise in publicity and nothing more.
• Live news and sporting events are a no-go.
• The 10-foot experience is good but not great.

Launch the full overview, here.

Hulu
My experience: Hulu is worth mentioning first because it has almost all of the shows I was able to find on the individual network sites. If you haven't tried Hulu, do so immediately after reading this article because it could change your life. The site makes it a snap to find new episodes of your favorite shows and lays claim to a wealth of small shows you've never heard of as well as classics you'll burn hours reminiscing with. Hulu also has a decent selection of free movies too, including a personal favorite of mine, Weird Science. Everything is full screen with an ad at the beginning and a few ads in between. Hulu also lets you subscribe to shows, a feature that essentially turns the site into the world's biggest DVR. This went a long way helping replicate my traditional TV viewing experience (and yes, I'm now calling DVR a€œtraditionala€). But here's my problem with Hulu: Almost without exception, the quality is better on network sites. Watch the same episode of Family Guy on Hulu and then again on Fox's own site and there's no disputing the fact that Fox is bogarting the good stuff for itself. Hulu looks pretty decent blown up to full screen, but you'll always get better reception at the source.
FX
My shows: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Shield
My probationary prospect: Sons of Anarchy
My experience: FX shows aren't HD, but at full screen they easily match SD broadcast quality. The network makes Sunny and Sons available, but on a weeklong delay. I can live with that since both shows are always backlogged on my DVR anyway. What I can't forgive, however, is the glaring absence of The Shield episodesa€"a felony in my book. Thankfully, they're available on iTunes for two bucks a pop.
NBC
My shows: Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Heroes, The Office, Law & Order (any flavor), Dateline (only those murder mystery ones)
My experience: NBC scores high marks for keeping its available episodes fresh up to the most recent ones that have aired. Many are available in HD and look surprisingly crisp blown up to full screen. Unfortunately, NBC falls short of perfection with its lack of love for full _ Law & Order_ and_ Dateline_ episodes. New_ Law & Order SVU_ episodes and some assorted (read: random) Dateline shows are available on iTunes, but neither is important enough for me to bother.
FOX
My shows: Family Guy, Fringe, Kitchen Nightmares
My probationary prospect: Hell's Kitchen
My experience: Fox uses the same exact online video site as its little bro FX, but with two important distinctions: Fox episodes are current up to the last one that aired, and many are HD. Fox and FX are also the only two stations to offer RSS feeds of their shows, which provides a very DVR-like experience similar to Hulu.
ABC
My show: Lost
My probationary prospect: Life on Mars
My experience: ABC's site proudly brags that it was first to offer full-length episodes online. The problem is, the video player is a crime against common sense. Once the pre-roll ad wraps up, your program doesn't auto-playa€"you have to click the play button to get things started. What's worse, each of the mid-program advertisements frustratingly kicks you out of full-screen mode so that you can enjoy viewing a branded Web page alongside the video ad. When that ad ends, you're required to once again click play to return to your program. It's apparent that ABC spent a lot of money developing this player, unfortunately the experience is built to please advertisers rather than viewers.
Cartoon Network, A&E;, History Channel, Bravo
My shows: Robot Chicken, Paranormal State, Modern Marvels, Top Chef
My experience: With the exception of FX, which piggybacks on Fox's online video service, all of my favorite cable networks get a failing grade for their sites. Adult Swim has its own separate site apart from Cartoon Network, and it's the only one out of the lot that offers full episodes of my show of choice. Unfortunately, the Robot Chicken episodes are fairly sloppy-looking at full-screen and the site is so poorly organized that it's near impossible to find out if I'm watching the most recent one or not. A&E and History Channel are almost the exact same experience: Full episodes are scarce, out of date and for some reason broken apart into separate clips. Bravo's site seems to offer online episodes of certain shows, but the site is barely functional and I was unable get any of them to play. Fortunately, all of my favorites from these networks are available on iTunes if I find can't live without them.
CBS
My shows: MacGyver
My probationary prospect: Twin Peaks
My experience: Yup, you read those show names correctly. As someone who never really embraced the CSI phenomenon, CBS's current fall primetime lineup is pretty bleak. Still, the network's video site manages to shine in some really interesting places. First is the glut of classic shows that are available, including MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Beverly Hills 90210, The Love Boat and the original _Star Trek_a€"just to name a fewa€"all of them free and full screen. The vast quantity and (relatively) high quality of these classics makes one thing apparent: This week's announcement of the CBS/YouTube partnership is merely a bogus marketing scheme. The CBS-branded YouTube channel offers far fewer classic shows to choose from and even fewer episodes of each show to watch. The quality is abysmal, and at full screen you've got the hideous YouTube control bar mucking up the bottom of your screen. CBS also impressed me with its a€œWatch & Chata€ app [left], which lets you view episodes of both classic and current shows in a kind of virtual theater populated with other TV addicts. Don't like the character that just walked on screen? You can throw cartoon darts or tomatoes at him. Or, blow kisses instead. You can chat with fellow viewers and even write text on top of the video, which is definitely a feature that's begging for rampant misuse. There are also contextual quizzes that pop up every few minutes and a leaderboard that keeps score. I found the a€œWatch & Chata€ app fun, but hope CBS finds a way to make it work full-screena€”as is, you're locked into a small video box if you want to play around with these interactive features.
News and Sports
My needs: CNN, WNBC (local New York news),_ Sportscenter_, football, baseball
My experience: This is where my little experiment starts doing its Hindenburg impersonation. CNN has a live online video feed, but it's not the same as what's on TV and it can't be blown up to full screen. My local New York news station seems to stream something live every weekday at 7 P.M., but I just can't remember to log on at that exact time and so I can't tell you what it is. ESPN.com makes Sportscenter clips (not full episodes) available online, but not at full screen. Live sports telecasts are even more closely guarded and not really made available online at all. NFL.com has something called Game Pass, which lets you watch a live game online, but only if you happen to be outside of any market that shows the NFL on TV (and that's all of the NFLa€"not just that specific game you're looking for). I tried accessing Game Pass by disguising my IP address, but was stonewalled. Major League Baseball is a little less stingy and offers a few variations on the same theme depending on which station has broadcast rights to a particular game. They're all essentially a four-way split-screen of live field views, but with no commentary or helpful onscreen graphicsa€"you know, like the score.
The Verdict
In the end, replacing my pay cable with online TV is feasible, but not without a lot of work and sacrifice. Between network sites and iTunes, I was able to find high-quality, full screen episodes of everything I enjoy watching, with a few exceptions for things I like to think I could live without. Even the pain of no local news or live sports could be lessened by going terrestrial. Yes, I realize that doesn’t fit within the experiment’s parameters, but hey, the endgame here is a way around cable. The biggest hurdle here isn’t the programming, but the viewing experience. It was a pain in the butt to crouch over my laptop and click around a site until I found my show. It was an even bigger pain to get up off of the couch every time I wanted to pause, rewind or change the “channel.” To make online TV widely acceptable, someone needs to create a universal 10-foot experience interface similar to Microsoft’s Media Center or Apple’s Front Row. This interface should be able to access all of the video content on all of these sites (no matter how it’s organized or disorganized on their end) and be controllable by third-party universal remotes that could be purchased anywhere. Microsoft and Apple would kill off their own products with such a feature, so if there’s any one company poised to take this mantle, I think it’s Hulu. As I said earlier: I believe Hulu is the future, but we’re just not there yet.