Just How Good are the Legal TV Sites Compared to BitTorrent?

Now that the fall TV season is upon us with new shows and fresh episodes, the networks are pushing their own legal alternatives to torrent sites. I’ll be honest, I tried the ABC.com viewer two years ago and it sucked. Big time. Let’s see if the networks got their act together since then…

The Criteria:
First of all, the sites must offer the following three features to even think about competing with the torrents.

1. They must be free. (Sorry iTunes).
2. They must work on OS X.
3. They must offer decent quality full-screen video.

All viewing was done in Firefox 3.0.1 on OS X 10.5.5.

The NBC Network:

NBC offers instant on demand streaming of a decent amount of its shows. Fullscreen mode worked and the overall experience was alright.

Video quality is fair except during action scenes, the quality drops significantly. Slight stuttering noticed at times and the sound quality noticeably poor, like a bad .mp3 off of Limewire.

The fullsceen viewer is not really fullscreen, leaving a bar at the bottom with a banner ad and the show’s name and airtime – very annoying. The same ad repeats throughout the entire show, at least it lasts only 30 seconds. During the ad, the viewer comes out of full screen. Its kind of a shock because the ad’s video quality is significantly better.

The worst part is that the episodes only are available for a certain time, after which the show isn’t streamed anymore. For example, last season’s episodes of 30 Rock will all be gone before Halloween. You can’t even watch the beginning episodes of last season as of right now.

They do offer an option to download the shows at a higher quality but alas, its Windows only.

To compete with torrents, NBC should:

1. Lose the annoying ad banner bar during full screen. We see the same ad for the same product at least 3-4 times per episode, the banner is way too redundant. Would they do that during a televised broadcast?

2. Bump up the quality. I’d wait 30-90 seconds at the beginning of the show (watching ads) while it buffers the transfer.

3. Ad Format. Its annoying that the show stops, comes out of full screen and shows an ad in a reloaded window. Just show the ad inline with the show, like when its televised.

4. Keep the older shows around longer.

Overall, it feels like NBC is discouraging the viewing of their shows online, making the experience significantly reduced compared to watching the televised version. That said, I’ve seen worse attempts at streaming.

On a scale of 1-5, NBC.com deserves a 3.

Hulu:

I wasn’t expecting HULU to be that great, however I was surprised while watching the videos. Selection is quite good, with material from the major networks as well as smaller, cable networks. Hulu’s shows are the same availability as the individual network’s sites except they are all in one place. That’s a nice feature.

For quality comparison, I watched the same video as I watched for NBC.com – In this case, the Knight Rider premiere. The quality was slightly better than NBCs but still grainy especially during action scenes. I was blown away by two things. The full screen feature was actually full screen and the ads were quick 15 second interruptions, shown in line with the video. It really was like watching low quality TV.

The down sides of Hulu, aside from quality is that the shows are only available as the networks want. For example, NBC is only allowing the Knight Rider premiere to be streamed via Hulu for another 3 days. The 30 Rock episodes will also similarly expire. This is no fault of Hulu, as they are a legal site which means they are bound to the network’s wishes.

I also noticed the absence of any shows from CBS and ABC. Of the other networks represented, the shows available on a few were pretty sparse compared to their offerings.

To compete with the torrents, Hulu should:

1. Increase the video and audio quality.

2. Keep the videos around for longer. (This most likely isn’t up to them)

3. Increase both their selection of full episodes and the networks represented.

Overall, the videos that were available on Hulu were of fair quality and delivered the way they should be. Bonus points for the selection of full length films.

On a scale of 1-5, Hulu gets a solid 4.

The ABC Network:

The first thing that you see when watching an episode on ABC.com is their flagrant flaunting of how they were “The first network to offer full length shows online”. Thinking back to my experience with them two years ago, this is nothing to be proud of.

The second thing that happens is they hit you with a EULA. Then a plugin to download.

God only knows what this plug-in will do (index your computer, phone home, open security holes, disable downloaded content after a day or two..)

Big points for the following dumbed down explanation of their plugin: (which is a sure sign of shady behavior)

“ABC uses a plug-in you don’t currently have. It will give you stunning video quality including full-screen.
We could go on, but it gets technical and boring from here.”

Yeah, that makes me comfortable. Sorry folks, but I refuse to download and use this one. Let’s go back to the EULA and see what the plugin really does:

“Disney may configure The Software with certain tags that identify the version of The Software being used which permit Disney to update this version without further notice to you. Disney shall have the right to poll your user account (if any) for the purpose of adding updated versions of The Software or to delete such versions automatically.”

“Use of any information gathered during, or by, your use of The Software shall be governed by Disney’s privacy policy currently located at:
http://disney.go.com/corporate/legal/wdig_privacy.html “.

Without going into great detail, this plugin records information about you and transmits it back to Disney through direct phoning home, tracking cookies and most likely a registration form. Disney also shares this information with third parties.

So unless you are willing to let ABC/Disney’s plugin onto your computer, track your IP and other information and then share this information with third parties, you’re out of luck. Since they aren’t on Hulu, looks like you need BitTorrent for ABC’s shows.

I should have figured as much after the ridiculously poor experience I went through 2 years ago with ABC online.

To compete with the torrents, ABC should:

1. Drop the mandatory invasive plugin. (I’d actually settle for a large embedded player instead of full-screen)

2. Follow NBC and FOX’s lead and put the episodes on Hulu.

Since ABC’s shows were unwatchable unless you agree to their terms and conditions, On a scale of 1-5 they deserve a 1.

The CBS Network:

While absent from Hulu, CBS offers full episode streaming from it’s website. Finding a full episode is a little difficult as there are loads of clips as well. Most notably missing are full episodes from last season of many of their shows. Probably, like NBC, they expire after a certain amount of time. It’s annoying to find a watchable show. Since the season hasn’t fully begun for a majority of shows, this may change as the shows begin.

That said, when you do find a show, CBS does it right. Quality is noticeably better than NBC and Hulu’s for both video and audio. Its not perfect, but its better than the others. Full screen works and is truly full screen. When the ads begin, they are short and shown inline with the video. I enjoyed the CBS streaming experience.

To compete with the torrents, CBS should:

1. Increase their selection of shows available as full episodes.

2. Make it easier to find full episodes amidst the loads of clips.

3. Keep their episodes around longer.

While not perfect, I was actually impressed with CBS’s online streaming. On a scale of 1-5, I wanted to give them a 4. However, due to the limited availability of shows, and difficulty finding them, CBS could do much better. CBS rates a 3.

The FOX Network:

I was expecting more from FOX than a repeat of my experience with ABC but I was quite disappointed to learn that FOX uses the exact same plugin as ABC to stream full episodes. At least they don’t try to dumb down any explanations or force you to agree to a EULA.

Just like ABC, this plugin will track what you watch, phone home with information and share it with third parties. So, unless you agree to this nonsense, its unwatchable.

That said, at least FOX has the intelligence to allow their shows to be viewed via Hulu. For this, they receive a 2 out of 5. I’d rate them higher except you are watching their shows via Hulu and they are the ones deserving of the higher rating.

To compete with the torrents, FOX should:

1. Drop the stupid plugin. Hulu doesn’t require one and FOX’s shows are heavily represented there.

I do understand that the argument for this plugin is to stream the show in HD by downloading it first, but think about it – You can download the torrent in HD without any of this tracking plugin nonsense. Its no wonder that Prison Break has more torrent downloads than legal views.

In Conclusion:

After visiting each of the major network’s websites to stream full episodes, I am left both disappointed and not surprised. I am disappointed by the restrictions placed by the networks on viewing – invasive plugins, shows not being represented and episodes expiring after a short period of time. I am not disappointed by the inclusion of ads nor the video quality – although it could be better.

I am also not surprised that the networks would make online viewing “second-class” compared to broadcast episodes, they don’t want online viewing to replace broadcast. I really believe that only because of BitTorrent, they even offer full episode streaming.

That said, if the networks really wanted to compete with BitTorrent, they should do something worthwhile. By creating HD torrents of their episodes with embedded ads just like broadcast television and distributing it globally, they have the ability to surpass the current torrent system.

If they used the download counts as ratings for ad revenue, they could command decent global revenues – perhaps distributing trackers and torrents for different regions to further target ads. If they really want, they can also embed a non obstructive watermark on the screen (like they do for soccer broadcasts).

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