In the past year, the Big Four broadcast networks have taken aggressive steps to make content available online. According to a Nielsen Company study released in June, 87 percent of survey participants who watched a TV program online did so on a TV network site; 82 percent of those users sought out a show they missed on TV. Typically, you can find at least 80 percent of each network's prime-time broadcast schedule online.
That's good news for viewers and networks. Viewers are flocking to network sites because they associate Grey's Anatomy and Lost with ABC, or 30 Rock and Heroes with NBC. Nonetheless, the networks are using a two-pronged approach to distribute content online. They're beefing up the offerings on their own Web sites, and they're also setting up distribution deals with other sites so their video reaches audiences throughout the Web.
NBC and Fox, for example, cofounded Hulu. Both networks mirror the content they make available on their own sites with what they offer on Hulu. ABC and CBS have brokered deals with multiple sites. In ABC's case, viewers must view the episode within ABC's player; in CBS's case, most partner sites direct viewers to the page within CBS.com (one exception to this rule is Veoh Networks, which lets you watch CBS content within the Veoh environment).
ABC and Fox use Move Networks' player in the background, so you'll need to install this browser plug-in to open and play episodes. CBS uses its own player, while NBC uses Move's technology for its browser-based player.
ABC is at the forefront of streaming high-definition video: Select episodes, including all four seasons of Lost, are available in 720p high definition. The image quality falls far short of what you'd get on Blu-ray Disc, but it's still impressive — assuming that you have the hardware and the bandwidth to handle playback. I saw more detail, greater clarity, better contrast, and superior depth in the images — along with some pixelation and artifacting.
The ABC player launches into its own pop-up Window. The site's design makes finding complete episodes easy, though the home page is way too busy. Regrettably, video clips are intermingled with full episodes. ABC had episodes of 19 shows available in their entirety, including hits like Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Lost (seasons one through four in high-definition, and season four in standard-definition streaming video as well).
The player has four size options — mini, normal, big, and full screen. Each size serves up a different combination of resolution and bit rate, and the bit rate adjusts in the background depending on your bandwidth. Unfortunately, audio and video occasionally got out-of-sync in my playback tests.
Five commercials — featuring a mix of video and still content, and in some instances a degree of interactivity — intruded on my viewing of each 60-minute episode of Lost and Grey's Anatomy. My biggest gripe, though, was that I had to click manually to continue playing the show after a commercial finished — in case I wanted to stare at the end screen of an ad indefinitely, I guess. At least the advertisements give you a countdown of how much time remains before the show will resume.
CBS maintains a collection of full episodes of both current and classic series — including episodes that you may not associate with the CBS television network but that CBS now owns — cult and quasi-cult favorites such as the original Star Trek series, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Perry Mason, MacGyver, Melrose Place, The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-O, Family Ties, and Beverly Hills 90210.
The centrally positioned video player runs inside the browser, dominating the screen (it's bigger than the player on Veoh). You can view videos at full-screen size, but the video quality degraded noticeably when I did so; and pixelation in the on-screen images was bad enough that I won't rush to repeat the experience. Despite having limited controls, you can skip ahead within the video. The player uses a 4:3 aspect ratio; episodes captured in wide-screen format are shown letterboxed.