The good news: Major U.S. television networks continue to embrace Internet technology and are putting their shows on the Web for online viewing, just like they did last year.
The bad news: Their online offerings remain sporadic; their Internet strategies feel like “we have to” rather than “we want to”; and — worst of all — they still haven’t embraced the idea that we are living in a new digital world, with different rules, participants, and expectations all around.
We’ve looked at the online offerings of the five major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and The CW — and sadly no one is blowing the game wide open, although they’re trying. To their credit, the networks are offering some of their top-rated shows online, viewable on their own websites.
But to their discredit, the networks don’t provide streaming for all of their shows, prime time or not, and streaming schedules vary widely. While video quality continues to improve, many networks have crowded and difficult to use interfaces, which detracts from the fun of watching a favorite TV show. Sometimes it’s just not worth the effort.
Here’s our journey through the land of network streaming.
The Bigger the Better
Streaming should be integral to the networks’ new digital strategies, but the networks might be slow to coming around because of technology. For the best streaming experience it helps if you have the latest and greatest everything.
While standard definition programs will stream fine over regular broadband connections like DSL and cable, high definition programs require more bandwidth, so it’s best to use upper-end DSL, cable, or fiber optic options.
I tested streams from the networks using a last generation Mac Powerbook and a Dell laptop. In each scenario, the video was choppy and the audio track was sometimes off. When I closed out of programs I was not using, the video performance improved but I couldn’t work or surf while watching.
Like everything with computers, the more processor, the more RAM, the better video capabilities, the more you will enjoy your streaming experience.
Streaming is handy because if I miss a show, or I fail to record it, I can still view the program the following day on the network’s website. I may have to endure a few embedded ads, but it’s a small price to pay to keep up to date. And it’s cheaper than buying the show from iTunes or Amazon and a heck of a lot more convenient than illegally downloading it over BitTorrent, which the average viewer doesn’t mess with anyway, no matter what Hollywood and TV Land say.
So what’s available? The best way to find out is to poke around each network’s website because streaming schedules vary, just like like season premiers. To get a quick at-a-glance view of the networks’ upcoming season and which programs are available for streaming, check out our handy guide (.pdf).
What’s most frustrating about the networks’ streaming schedules is inconsistency and a lack of a TV guide-like index. Some networks leave programs up indefinitely. Others take shows down after a few weeks or once the season is completed. If you plan to follow a show on the Internet, it’s best to find out the program’s streaming schedule in advance so you know when it will first appear and when it will disappear. My wife is still frustrated that episodes of CBS’ “New Adventures of Old Christine” are no longer available, even though the show is scheduled to return this season.
With that in mind, what is available from each network?
ABC offers five of its top shows for streaming — “Ugly Betty”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Men in Trees”, “Desperate Housewives”, and “Brothers & Sisters”. Other, older shows are also available, including “According to Jim”, “The Bronx is Burning”, “Day Break”, “Fashionista Diaries”, “Fat March”, “Knights of Prosperity”, “The Nine”, “GH Nightshift”, “October Road”, “Six Degrees”, “Voicemail”, and “What About Brian”.
ABC’s player (powered by technology from Move Networks), is slick and by far the best of any network. It’s video quality, for full screen, big, normal and mini-mode, is very good to excellent. ABC also offers high definition streaming.
ABC, which is owned by Disney, who happens to have a board member from Apple named Steve Jobs, extends its digital presence beyond streaming by offering a fair mixture of new and older shows for purchase through the iTunes Store, a relationship that’s expected to continue.
ABC seems to be on path of traditional distribution mixed with a strong ABC.com streaming portal mixed with making certain shows available through the iTunes.
CBS’ chief Internet strategist, Quincy Smith, said the network’s video presence on the Web should be “CBS.com/nobodycomeshere.” Its player, known as Innertube, is available through the Website and is based on RealPlayer’s RealVideo technology.
CBS offers more of its top programs than any other network, including “Big Brother”, “CSI”, “CSI: Miami”, “CSI: NY”, “How I Met Your Mother”, “Jericho”, “NCIS”, “Numb3rs”, the “Power of 10”, “Rules of Engagement”, “Shark”, “Survivor”, and “The Unit”. Other shows are available, particularly soap operas such as “As the World Turns”, “The Guiding Light”, and “The Young and the Restless”.
Rather than rely solely on its website like ABC and the other networks, CBS — to its credit — is drastically revising its digital strategy through a new initiative called CBS Interactive. Its goal is to syndicate as much of its content as possible through through iTunes and sites such as AOL and Yahoo and new media venues such as YouTube, Joost, Veoh, and Brightcove.
“We can’t expect consumers to come to us,” Smith told the Wall Street Journal in May. “It’s arrogant for any media company to assume that.”
CBS seems to be mixing its traditional distribution with a strong presence on the Internet, through Innertube and the web syndication network. It’s nice to see at least one network exploring options beyond the usual distribution means and a web video portal.
NBC offers a pitiful lineup of top shows — “30 Rock” and “Friday Night Lights” — to go with an offering of mostly fringe shows or programs in need of an audience like “Andy Barker, P.I.” and “Raines”.
NBC’s Flash-based player wasn’t bad. It offers normal, large, and full screen viewing and the ability to navigate by chapter, which no other network has.
Despite its paltry streaming offerings, NBC was still considered an influential network player because of its involvement with the iTunes Store. NBC made available to iTunes some of its best shows, including “Heroes”, “My Name is Earl”, “The Office”, “Scrubs,” and the “Law & Order” franchise.
But this past month NBC and Apple got into a public spat during contract negotiations and the two split. NBC is now offering its shows through Amazon’s Unbox, which is designed to run on PCs and not Macs. The iTunes Store will no longer carry any new NBC programs.
Another part of NBC’s digital strategy is to team up with News Corp., owner of Fox, to form what they hope is a YouTube killer. The new site, known as Hulu, is in private beta and will be online in October. Hulu will partner with other destination sites including AOL, Comcast, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo.
NBC’s strategy beyond its traditional network appears to be greed oriented: You like our shows, pay us to download them or buy them on DVD. It also appears that NBC is holding back streaming content so you will go to Hula.com.
The quality of Fox’s video player, also powered by Move Networks technology, is good, although the interface is crowded. Its Fox on Demand website, where the player can be found, is wretched because of its clunky usability and weird graphic design.
Even so, Fox offers a fair amount of its top shows, including “24”, “Prison Break”, “The Loop”, “K-Ville”, “Bones”, “American Dad” for streaming and/or purchasing from the iTunes Store. Since Fox is a part of Hulu, it’s unknown whether the network and its shows will remain for sale on iTunes.
Like CBS, Fox seems to be moving toward an improved Internet presence for its shows through a web portal and through making some of them available on Hulu.
“It is critical that we embrace the Internet as a distributed medium that promotes engagement with users, wherever they are on the Web,” said Fox’s William Bradford, senior vice president, content strategy. “This approach reinforces the importance of involving fans to assist with marketing the show through word of mouth and discussion forums across the Internet.”
The CW doesn’t have as many programs to offer as the other networks. Yet it understands the importance of availability and building an audience. It’s streaming experience isn’t bad but isn’t great, either, although video quality is good (The CW also uses a Move Networks-based player).
Nearly every show is available for streaming, including “Everybody Hates Chris”, “Girlfriends”, “All of Us”, “The Game”, “Pussycat Dolls Research Next Doll”, “America’s Next Top Model”, “Beauty and the Geek”, “Supernatural”, and “One Tree Hill”. The CW also makes some current and older programs available on iTunes.
Watching TV shows through a network’s web site, for me, is good in a pinch, but overall the experience is flat. Maybe it’s that the technology hasn’t fully evolved for a pleasant viewing experience.
Or maybe it’s that the networks continue to tip-toe. They’re dabbling in online streaming but not pushing the envelope as far as they can. They’re toying with selling their shows through the iTunes Store and Unbox. In addition, mobile operators like Verizon are offering some television content through services such as V-Cast.
But it’s not enough. I expect more from the networks. They’re the all powerful ones. They own the content. They order it. They pay for it. They distribute it. They could be out front, yet they’re not using their power to reshape an industry.