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The Portals

AOL, MSN, and Yahoo offer a vast array of content in their role as gateways to the Web. Full-episode video is but a small piece of their empires, and all three lean heavily on repackaging Hulu's content.

MSN Video depends on MSN's syndication deal with Hulu for much of its full-episode video. But the experience is nothing like watching video on Hulu.com: The interface is busier, and the video quality is inferior to what you get on Hulu proper (as is the case with all Hulu-syndicated video) Nor is the content all the same: Babylon 5, for example, was nowhere to be found under MSN Video, though readily available at Hulu).

Click on the TV tab at MSN's Video Guide, and you'll jump to a page dedicated to all things television, including TV listings and coverage of what's new on TV. The site's Watch Full Episodes module is the most expeditious and friendly way to find full episodes of TV shows; alternatively you can select 'Browse TV Shows' on the menu up top, and then select 'Shows with Free Episodes'. But finding episodes may require 10 clicks or more. For example, with an older show like Remington Steele, which ran for five seasons, you click the name of the show, then click on 'episodes', and then click through to at least page 6 of 7 to view available episodes (the episodes are listed in inverse order, with newer episodes first; and only the first two seasons are available online — hence the lengthy and annoying search process).

MSN Video's presentation of video from Hulu is far busier and more annoying than Hulu's own. For The Simpsons and for A.L.F., for example, MSN Video displays the four episodes and thumbnails at left, with the player midscreen, and episode information at right. The in-browser video player is smaller, and the resolution is noticeably lower than on Hulu.com; I observed pixelation in both in-browser and full-screen modes.

The in-browser and full-screen players carry a Hulu logo overlay in the lower right corner, but neither carries the same time-line marks for commercial breaks that Hulu does. The same Simpsons episode had longer commercial breaks at MSN (30 seconds each) than it did at Hulu (15 seconds each).

MSN Video is frustratingly inconsistent, too: When I searched for Remington Steele in the search function, and returned a bunch of episode thumbnails. I clicked one, and additional episode thumbnails populated the left frame — and the Hulu-branded page appeared within a frame at the right (with a link to launch the full Hulu site). MSN would be better off killing this convoluted mess than subjecting users to it.

AOL has put together a far more manageable structure for full-episode video than MSN's. Here, the videos are presented by episode titles, top shows, most recent, most viewed, and highest rated. The entry page has a lot of components, but it's neither confusing nor intimidating. AOL has partnered with Hulu. ABC, and CBS. Some content, such as the soap opera The Edge of Night, comes from AOL Television's In2TV.

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Melissa J. Perenson

PC World (US online)
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