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What’s On TV?

With the emergence of high-speed Internet connections, more and more of your favorite TV shows and movies are now available on the Web

By Barry Myers

Finding your favorite TV shows online can be a little confusing. There are literally hundreds of websites offering TV programming. Many of the sites are both partners and competitors, serving up each other’s programming and hoping their site becomes your go-to destination for online viewing.

But over the last year or two, some great resources for “anytime, anywhere” TV viewing have sprung up, responding to an increasingly demanding TV-watching public – and to the networks and advertisers scrambling to hang on to a share of the audience.  
Where to find your favorites

Currently, any discussion of where to go on the Web to find free TV programming has to start with Hulu.com. Hulu is a joint venture of NBC Universal and News Corp., but is operated completely independent of those two companies.

Hulu offers full episodes and clips from current primetime favorites like Family Guy, 30 Rock, The Office, House, The Simpsons, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Friday Night Lights – as well as a massive selection of TV classics, from Arrested Development and Firefly to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Miami Vice, Roswell and many more.

Hulu’s movie library also includes full-length movies, from The Usual Suspects, Ice Age, and Point Break to Some Like It Hot, In Her Shoes, and Me, Myself and Irene, as well as hundreds of clips from classic movies such as Aliens, Die Hard, Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Vertigo.

Hulu users can browse the site’s huge library of content based on popularity, title, genre, studio, even by when it was added to the site.

Hulu also pulls content together into Collections, providing users a convenient way to enjoy related video content. For SNL fans, for instance, users can find collections on themes like Tina Fey skits, Pilot Episodes, Holiday Episodes, plus a lot more.

Shows generally appear on Hulu a few hours after their network appearance, although the 30 Rock season premiere a few weeks back was available online ahead of its Thursday night's timeslot on NBC.

Other sources

Hulu’s main competition comes from Comcast-owned Fancast, Yahoo! TV, and Joost.

Most of the programs served up on Fancast and Yahoo! TV are actually powered by Hulu, so it’s not immediately clear what additional benefits they offer. Then again, each site has a different feel to it and different ways to organize, search, and preview content. So, like so much on the Web, you have to find the site that feels right for you.

Joost, which is the brainchild of the team that brought the world the Internet telephone service Skype, was launched well ahead of the other services and was thought by many to be the site that would inspire the masses to watch their favorite TV shows online.

But Joost suffered early on from making users register before viewing, requiring a plug-in download, and, more importantly, from a limited catalog. Many of those early problems have been remedied and some cool new social tools for sharing have been added, so it’s probably worth another look.

If you are the adventurous type who likes discovering both professional content and user-generated content in one place, then I highly recommend checking out Veoh.

Don’t forget the networks

From ABC.com to The CW, the websites of the networks themselves are also a great place to look for TV shows online. ABC.com, in particular, has been offering up full episodes of its most popular shows for some time.

The network sites are also able to provide cool, web-only behind-the-scenes segments that are not available on sites like Hulu.

If you’re a news junkie like me, then you’re probably already aware of all the video content available on cable network sites like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News.

The neat thing is that most of this content is available both in full episodes as well as in segments, which makes it even easier to find that must-see Sarah Palin interview!

Getting it onto your TV

For the tech-savvy among us, there are dozens of ways to view online video on your TV, including simply hooking up your PC or laptop to your plasma or LCD TV set.

But for the rest of us, there are currently just a couple of really workable solutions to mention here.

Netflix, the service that brought us DVDs through the mail, has gained considerable traction with their download service. Currently, Netflix subscribers have a choice of five devices that will enable them to download movies and TV shows directly to their TV.

For as little as $99, there’s the Netflix-branded player from Roku Labs. New Blu-ray players from Samsung and LG will also do the trick, and recently, Netflix signed deals with TiVo and Xbox allowing owners of these devices to stream Netflix content to their TVs as well. For these last two, however, you will need a separate subscription for TiVo or Xbox Live services in addition to your Netflix subscription.

In each case, set up is as easy (or as hard!) as setting up any DVD player and then hooking up an Internet connection.

Until recently, the Netflix download selection was mostly limited to documentaries and independent and foreign films, since the rights to the electronic delivery of the major studio films were locked up by the premium programmers, then by broadcast and basic cable networks.

However, thanks to a recent deal with Starz, Netflix's streaming line-up now includes over 2,500 movies, TV shows and concerts offered by the “Starz Play” broadband subscription service.

Netflix does not currently offer a separate download subscription. Rather, access to the downloadable content comes with your DVD rental package. Subscription packages at $8.99, $13.99, and $16.99 per month come with unlimited downloads.

More options

Amazon’s Video on Demand service utilizes a pay-per-download model rather than requiring a subscription. TV show downloads generally cost $1.99 per episode and movies $3.99.

Amazon’s service also works with broadband-enabled TiVo players, the Xbox Live service, as well as Sony’s BRAVIA Internet Video Link and a host of compatible portable media players.

VUDU is a new brand that entered the download fray a little under a year ago. The VUDU player is about the size of a big soft cover book and hooks to your TV and the Internet through a standard Ethernet connection.

Among its available 10,000 on-demand movies and TV shows, VUDU offers 1,100 HD titles, giving VUDU subscribers the largest library of HD content in the category.

The initial investment in the VUDU box will cost around $299 and VUDU requires you to set up an account once you get the device hooked up. After that, TV shows and movies range from $.99 to $3.99 and are automatically charged to your account when you click play.

And then there’s iTunes

No discussion of downloadable TV shows and movies would be complete without mentioning Apple’s amazing iTunes, which it rightfully refers to as an entertainment superstore.

And when paired with Apple TV, all the content available through iTunes can be viewed on your living room TV.

iTunes is not just a website of course. It’s a media player like Windows Media Player, combined with an online store that encompasses music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audio books, and a whole lot more.

With titles from every major Hollywood studio and over a 1,000 TV shows available, iTunes has a massive library to choose from. Standard-definition movie rentals are $2.99 for library titles and $3.99 for new releases. TV show downloads cost $1.99 for the standard definition and $2.99 for the HD version

Of course, anything you rent or buy from the iTunes Store can be transferred to your iPod or iPhone to watch on-the-go. Your iPod or iPhone even remembers where you stopped watching on your computer and picks up where you left off.  Whether you’re a fan of Apple or not, it really is hard not to be impressed by iTunes!

One to watch for

One new competitor to watch for here is Sling Media, the company that created the Slingbox device that lets you access your home TV from any broadband-connected PC or laptop anywhere in the world.

Their download service, Sling.com, will be similar to Hulu except that it will be built to work with the different versions of the Slingbox, making it even easier to shift content to TVs, PCs or laptops. Sling.com is scheduled to launch later this month.

Finally, I highly recommend checking out OVGuide.com. It’s an invaluable resource when it comes to exploring the availability of video content on the Web. It’s the Internet's most comprehensive and up-to-date guide to TV shows, movies, user-generated content and even video games.

Barry Myers has been helping consumer technology brands communicate with consumers for over 12 years. Most recently he was a co-founder of DigitalLife, the country’s biggest consumer-facing technology conference and exposition. He’s currently hard at a work on his own niche social network. Barry lives in Manhattan with his wife, two-year old son, and twin cats Al and G.

Comment by Mark, posted 11/18/2008, 2:45 PM:

I've been to Hulu, great site!
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