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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 aWatch & 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 aWatch & Chata app fun, but hope CBS finds a way to make it work full-screenaas is, you’re locked into a small video box if you want to play around with these interactive features.
News and Sports
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.