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Networks Are Streaming Into Prime Time Online
NBC also splits each show into DVD-style chapters, which helps when skipping ahead to part of an episode. And though most of the 14 shows offered online feature only this year's episodes -- as is the case at other networks -- NBC provides every episode of "Friday Night Lights," from last year's pilot to this week's season premiere.
NBC, however, replicates the worst of traditional TV ads: Over an hour-long episode, I was treated to six commercial breaks, all featuring the same two sponsors and most repeating the same ads.
Fox presents 15 shows online and requires installing a "Move Media Player" plug-in. Fox's site had glitches, stalling on an old Windows laptop and sometimes failing to get back to the show after commercials.
Both Fox and NBC will also offer their shows on a new site called Hulu later this year.
The CW offers 10 shows online.
ABC had the first good streaming video of its shows last year. It now offers high-definition versions of some of the 16 series offered online -- if you have the required 2 megabit-per-second connection.
But although ABC uses the same Move plug-in as Fox, its site required me to reinstall that software to watch anything.
ABC has the least intrusive, most effective advertising. Here, an hour-long show can come with only four commercials from the same sponsor. These aren't 30-second spots copied from TV; they're interactive, Web-only presentations. You might even remember who bought these ads -- which, as much as you might hate being a tool of corporate America, is necessary for free online TV to stick around.
CBS provides Web copies of 21 of its shows online with a minimum of commercial interruption. Its site, however, exhibited playback hiccups like Fox's, and its video quality was a little suspect at times.
CBS is also providing full-length copies of its shows on a new service called Joost, which launched in a test version on Monday. Cable shows from CBS's corporate cousin, Viacom, such as MTV's "The Hills," can also be seen on Joost.
Joost, run by developers of the Skype Internet-phone service, requires you to download and run a separate program. Like Skype, it uses a bit of your bandwidth to improve service for other users.
Joost presents a flashy but simple on-screen grid of video sources, including CBS shows, but also such other seemingly random content as Nicaraguan baseball games and Indian music videos.
The interesting part about Joost is not its interface, however, but the fact that a major American network is willing to experiment with such a new distribution mechanism.
That's quite a contrast with the movie studios, which continue to offer some of the least attractive, least flexible online viewing options imaginable. It's hard to believe that the networks and the studios are in the same business.