Cory "Mecca" Anotado (pacdude) wrote,
Cory "Mecca" Anotado
pacdude

Battle of the Online TV Watching Websites: Network Edition

Originally published at The Fast Money Round. You can comment here or there.

homer-loves-bufferingI’m an avid TV watcher. Yes, I like game shows, but my love of game shows is only a subsection of the half-hour joys of bite-size narrative digested weekly or daily.

As an aside, I once had a theory that movies and TV used to go through cycles: TV shows would generally be terrible while movies would be great, then once movies as a whole started to suck, those writers would move to TV and TV would get better, and on and on. I can’t prove that and I don’t have data to start, but it’s an interesting theory nonetheless.

My viewing habits, however, are piss-poor for such a TV fan. The cable I have is about to bite the dust (the cable box works when it feels like it) and I don’t want to have to go all the way upstairs just to watch some TV.

So, I’m investing my time in watching TV online. Everyone’s talking about how watching shows online is the wave of the future or what have you, and I’m more than happy to surf that crest. However, what’s the best place to watch shows online? I put different network’s offerings to the test to see where I can get my fix easiest. For the sake of full disclosure, I’m running a MacBook with Mac OS 10.5.7, with 1 GB memory and a 2.16 GHz processor, and I’m piping all this through a Verizon DSL line that isn’t very fast.

cbs66CBS.com/video is the Columbia Broadcasting System’s foray into online video. My experience with CBS wasn’t bad. Video won’t work with AdBlock Plus activated, and there’s no idea how loaded the video is (no indication on the play bar, no “buffering” indicator… nothing). Generally, starting the video and pausing it allows the video to load enough that, after a few minutes or so, the video starts to play. The commercials are unobtrusive and video quality is good, but no options exist for better (or worse) quality. They even have a 1080p HD channel, but neither my processor nor my connection could handle it. Their selection includes recent episodes from the entire CBS primetime lineup (I can watch the last full episode of How I Met Your Mother, the entirety of the 9th season of CSI, and episodes of 60 Minutes ranging as far back as January), recent episodes from the CBS daytime lineup (which is why I can watch The Price is Right and my girlfriend can catch up with the last two weeks of the Young and the Restless), episodes and clips from CBS’s late night shows and even classic full classic shows such as the Twilight Zone, the Love Boat and Family Ties. Overall, a pleasant experience.

nbc56NBC.com/video/library has a wide variety of videos available, and their video site is very well organized. No wonder NBC.com won the Webby Award for Broadband website. Full episodes include full runs of Miami Vice, Quantom Leap, and the most of the current seasons of shows like Kath & Kim, Southland and The Office, as well as recent episodes of Leno (soon to be Conan, fortunately) and Fallon. Their player is solidly built with some flaws. Just like CBS, there’s no way to know how much of the video is loaded at any given time. Also like CBS, there’s no quality settings. A fun feature of the NBC player was the almost instant access to any other show or episode via their ribbon-like interface at the bottom of each player page. By default, it gives you the option of different DVD-like “chapters” (which are portions between commercial breaks), but you can also browse other full episodes or other shows all together. When an episode ends, it’ll play another video or give you suggested options of what to watch next. That’s a handy feature for the bored viewer. On the thumbs down side, the way the advertisements work is a kind of a dealbreaker for me; I don’t like my advertisements to obtrude so much. The advertisements sometimes are larger than the video, a large pet peeve for me.

abc89ABC.com has only one feature going for it: automatic quality scaling. If your internet’s bandwidth starts to lag, the sound and video quality degrades so the stream can continue downloading. If your bandwidth picks up, the quality gets better. How does it do that? Well, in order to watch shows from ABC.com, you have to install a plug-in in order to watch it, which is annoying since everyone else allows you to watch shows via Flash. The fullscreen viewer is ugly, and the advertisements are intrusive and don’t automatically advance. Just to watch videos from ABC.com is a pain in the ass: video automatically plays when you login, and to watch full episodes, you have to open a pop-up window. To watch Scrubs online, ABC.com opens about 3 different pop-up windows just to get to the episode selection screen. Easily, the most annoying of the Big Three networks. As a matter of fact, instead of watching the Scrubs finale on ABC.com, I shelled out the $3.98 to download the shows from iTunes. Took longer to watch, but so very hassle-free, it was completely worth it. I’d rather watch Oprah eat a bushel of lobster in a bikini than have to watch TV on ABC.com ever again.

What’s my final verdict? Obviously, it’ll depend on what show you want to watch. In terms of user experience, you’ll get the most bang for your bandwidth at NBC’s website. CBS’s comes in a close second (and those HD videos, if you can get them to stream, are jaw-droppingly gorgeous), while ABC’s a distant 5th, behind not watching TV and gouging my eyes with soup spoons.

Tags: entertainment, featured, game shows, internets
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