Networks Are Streaming Into Prime Time Online

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, October 4, 2007

For years, the Internet has been cutting into my television consumption. Now, though, it's made me halfway literate about the new TV season.

That's not because I've been plucking video downloads from BitTorrent or some other file-sharing system. I haven't spent $50 on a batch of shows from Apple's iTunes store, either.

Instead, the credit goes to the networks themselves, which have put copies of many of the current season's shows on their Web sites.

A click on the "full episodes" or "on demand" links there lets you check out this season's fare -- see if "Dirty Sexy Money" lives up to the hype and find out if "Family Guy" still has it -- as long as you don't mind a few short, unskippable, ads along the way.

That's almost the same bargain that the networks have offered television viewers for decades. But none tried to replicate it online until last year.

Now ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the CW -- but not PBS -- provide free Web streaming of most of their shows. You just need a broadband connection, a new Web browser (Firefox or Internet Explorer on a PC, Firefox or Safari on a Mac) and the patience, in a few cases, to install a new browser plug-in, with easy-to-follow steps.

They also share some fairly mediocre video quality. Few of these Web copies will be mistaken for high-definition television.

Nor do these sites provide downloads to view on an iPod or another computer. You can take your TV with you only if your laptop has a wireless data card.

But in this context, crummy-to-adequate, online-only video is fine. We're talking TV sitcoms and dramas, most of which aren't entertainment for the ages.

Consider the alternatives if you miss a show: You can pay $1.99 at iTunes for a download you probably won't watch twice, ask your co-workers whether they have a tape or DVD to lend, or put concerns about legality on pause while you look up the show on a file-sharing site.

But although the networks "air" their shows online in similar ways, they don't succeed equally.

NBC makes it as painless as possible to watch a show. Its site did not require any extra software, since it relies on the Flash plug-in installed on most computers. (CBS and the CW also refrain from requiring extra programs.)

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