How To
Complete Guide to Watching Your Favorite Shows Online
All four major networks offer most of their programming online. We compare the viewing experience on each network web site.
November 11, 2008 by Phil Lozen

It’s finally here. After a strike that all but ended the 2007-08 TV season in December, all your favorite shows are back, and the networks are excited to get you back watching them.

Never before have more shows been freely (and legally) available online, so there’s no excuse not to be caught up on your favorite shows. Forget to set your DVR? Cancel your DVR service to save money? Cancel cable entirely to save money? No problem. The networks have you covered.

All four major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) offer full episode replays of most of their shows online, and all four offer some form of HD content. In an effort to keep your TV watching list full, I present to you the Fall 2008 Field Guide to Watching Your Favorite Shows Online.

Some notes before we get going: First, this list examines the four major networks sites (i.e. We’ll note partnerships those networks have (Hulu, etc.), but there’s too many sites that aggregate video to list here (For more check out - Exploring Your Video On Demand Options). If there’s one you really like, let us know in the comments. Second, I’ll be examining the HD content mostly. Standard definition content from all four sites was pretty comparable and we’re all interested in the good stuff anyhow. Finally, the show counts are for shows currently airing on broadcast TV, not classic shows that might be available.

Full Episodes: 16 (of 26 shows)
HD: 9
Plugin: Yes
Extras: Yes

ABC was the first network to offer full episodes online, and their experience shows. They have the most polished presentation in my opinion, with their Emmy-winning “Full Episode Player” living in a self-contained window. I know a lot of people dislike pop-ups, but I liked being able to move the window around my monitor while I was doing other things. They’ve served up more than 441 million episodes since launching the player in 2006.

Browsing available episodes is simple, and there’s several ways to find a show. ABC uses the Move Networks player, which requires a plug-in. It’s a painless install, but may require a browser restart.

ABC encodes its content in 12 different profiles ranging from 164 kbps at 240 x 136 resolution up to 2000 kbps at 1280 x 720 and 24 frames-per-second for their HD offering. Standard definition caps out at 1600 kbps and 960 x 540.

“As the users’ resources fluctuate - network congestion, CPU load, etc. - the player will adjust the bitrate to maintain optimal viewing experience,”says Karen Hobson, VP of corporate communications at ABC.

The social web is on ABC’s mind too. Along sharing episodes from the player, Hobson told me that they launched their “Open ABC” initiative in September. It gives interested third party developers access to ABC’s MRSS feed and catalog, so they can generate new applications that can live on fan sites, individual blogs, and open platforms like Facebook and Yahoo.

HD - When it comes to HD, your Internet pipes better be robust. A 2Mbs Internet connection is required and after several attempts at different times, I wasn’t able to get to the HD level. (A bandwidth meter at the bottom of the player shows your level. When you hit HD, it lights up.) That being said, watching on both a computer monitor and on my 32-inch Sony LCD via RGB connection produced very pleasing results. I saw very little banding in the dark scenes and virtually none of the pixeling that too often plagues Internet video. Stuttering wasn’t an issue either. Even if it wasn’t HD, watching a full episode here would be a treat.

Extras – Several shows have video extras available in the full episode player. The network also has an “ABC Starter Kit” for nine of its shows available on the main ABC site.

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