Even as their supply of new programs dwindles during the months-long writers' strike, major TV networks continue to try to capture online viewers.
Streaming free full-length episodes on their own websites was just the beginning. Episodes from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are showing up on an assortment of sites, from big destinations such as AOL to newcomers Veoh and MeeVee.
Signs are that time spent watching video — not just snacks à la YouTube, but full episodes — is increasing. The number of broadband users who watched full shows online weekly doubled in 2007 from 8% to 16%, says market research firm Horowitz Associates.
Embracing the Web is "an acknowledgement that this is real (and networks) have a business model and can monetize it and make it part of their growth," Howard Horowitz says.
By giving consumers online access, networks have learned they can reinforce viewer devotion. "This is mostly driven by TV audiences who missed (an episode) and want to watch it on their computer," says Shelly Palmer, author of Television Disrupted: The Transition From Network to Networked TV. "I don't think NBC or ABC is caring where you watch as long as they can count on you."
Traffic on Veoh.com, which recently sealed a deal to add MTV to an array of CBS, Fox and NBC series, rose 24% during the last three months of 2007; 40% comes during traditional TV prime-time hours, says Veoh's Dmitry Shapiro. "That is a very telling and important statistic. It's the same content they can find on TV, but they feel they have more control."
Traffic tracking firm ComScore found online viewers watched an average 3¼ hours in November, 29% more than January 2007, though YouTube and MySpace dominate, says analyst Andrew Lipsman.
A growing number of sites, including MeeVee, seek to not only connect viewers with full episodes but also offer TiVo-style recommendations and direct them to offline diversions.
"There is a lot of content out there," says Amy Banse of Comcast, which just started Fancast.com with CBS, NBC and Fox shows, among others. "Some of it lives in movie theaters, some on television, some in video on demand and some on the Internet, but it's hard to find. We wanted to create a tool (for) people to find what they are looking for regardless of platform or screen."
Any traffic caused by strike-dissatisfied viewers accelerates the long-term move to online, says Alex Patriquin of Web analysis firm Compete. "The race to become the destination for TV episodes online is very much an emerging market."
•A look at some of the top sites on the Web
Description:Online since last summer but formally announced last week by cable giant Comcast, Fancast has more than 3,000 hours of shows, including Jericho (CBS), Bones (Fox) and 30 Rock (NBC), as well as Bravo and Sci Fi programs. Can be personalized for your cable or satellite networks.
Experience:TV series have their own home pages with episode guides; the CBS Jericho page, for example, tells you there are 22 episodes on Fancast and several will air on Universal HD next week, and it links to areas on Amazon Unbox, iTunes and NetFlix. A short ad runs before the episode begins. Enlarged to full-screen, the video gets slightly fuzzier. A neat "Six Degrees" function suggests other shows that Jericho actors appeared in and that have similar themes.
Expert says: "It really looks good," says Alex Patriquin of Web analysis firm Compete. "It's got all the cool shows Hulu has to offer and a few extras, and it's doing quite well. They had almost 450,000 visitors in December, so it's off to a very strong start."
Description: More than a video-rich website, Hulu is the online distribution service launched three months ago by NBC Universal and News Corp. (Fox). Its content can be found as well on AOL, Fancast, MSN, MySpace and Yahoo. Episodes range from recent Fox and NBC shows to older series including Firefly, Kojak and Miami Vice. Videos can be sent via e-mail or embedded into personal websites.
Experience:You request to join the beta trial, and once invited, you create a profile and start browsing episodes organized by genre or studio/network. An episode of The Office begins after a message from a sponsor. Two additional ads run during the widescreen episode. Afterward, a link to buy the episode connects you to Amazon Unbox, which sells $1.99 downloads. Hulu offers five other Office episodes and numerous clips.
Expert says:"It remains to be seen if it will end up as a destination among the broader online audience," Patriquin says. "They certainly have a wealth of content that is probably unmatched in terms of high production-value content."
Description:Since opening to all users in beta test form last fall, Joost (from the creators of Net phone service Skype) has added nearly every episode of the original Star Trek along with programs from PBS and the NBA to its 20,000-plus shows, from CBS (including the recent Comanche Moon), Cartoon Network, Comedy Central and MTV. Each show has a chat room; send links to clips and episodes to friends.
Experience:Install software (a 26-megabyte download) and set up a profile. Then explore shows by type, alphabetically or search word. Click to play, or a "+" icon adds it to a channel you program. A short commercial plays and a small opaque ad appears in the lower-right corner of the screen for a few seconds. Video quality is good, a bit better than CBS.com's own video. A widget menu brings up a news ticker and lets you enter chat rooms.
Expert says:Patriquin wonders whether people want "a higher picture quality, which you have to jump through a hoop to get (having to download the software) or do you want to depend on Internet connectivity?"
Description:Launched more than two years ago as a TV listings and search engine, MeeVee has evolved into a full-scale video hub for shows from ABC, CBS, Fox and CW. Its customizable guide tracks favorites (actors, directors and hobbies) and creates a printable schedule and widget that can be posted on your blog. MeeVee blogs address TV issues and let users comment on topics and episodes.
Experience:Great-looking, but not everything worked smoothly: A link to NBC's Friday Night Lights actually led to NBC.com's page for Black Donnellys. Hit the "Watch Other Shows" option and eventually find 34 episodes to choose from. A movie trailer played before the episode, which has sharp video but loses some clarity at full-screen. Connections to ABC, CBS, CW and Fox shows worked smoothly.
Expert says:"They have this discovery and organization that a lot of the other sites lack. They are trying to be the online television guide," Patriquin says. "MeeVee's strategy of enabling a community of people to communicate on bulletin boards could be very effective."
Description:Originally a YouTube competitor, Veoh has expanded its ambitions into becoming an aggregator of network programming (CBS, Fox, NBC), as well as other professionally produced material such as Prom Queen, made for the Net by Michael Eisner's company, Vuguru. A recent deal with Viacom will lead to the addition of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Hills. Veoh also has a download video recorder that lets you save shows on your laptop or PC.
Experience:A TV Shows folder on the site opens up to show a menu of your favorites. About 100 series offer three to 20 episodes each; for 24, Veoh offers five episodes each from Seasons 1 and 6. Episodes start after a short ad and can be expanded to full-screen, fine for PC watching. You can fast-forward but must watch additional ads for each episode. Viewers can comment on the episodes and post them on Facebook or e-mail to friends.
Expert says:"Veoh has grown a niche for itself to be an online, always-on destination to watch episodes," Patriquin says. "Their traffic is up about 2,000% since 2006."
Description:Last month, MySpace launched this hub with full-length shows from NBC and Fox, plus classics such as Buck Rogers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Kojak ("powered by Hulu") and exclusive series such as Roommates.
Experience:Playing episodes is not quite intuitive. A long list of available series resides below several shows and movies promoted at the top of the page; click on a show name such as Kojak, and a new page with a video window pops up. But you must click the episode title to open yet another page to start playing. And this is a no-frills viewer: You cannot resize the video or move it from the page. Ten-second ads play every 10 minutes or so. Video is watchable but grainy. Social networking features allow you to approve ("Booyah!") or disapprove ("No way!"), add comments, send bulletins to MySpace friends and post to your blog.
Expert says:"MySpace probably has the strongest platform of any of the video sites," Patriquin says. "I don't believe it's become known as a destination for episodes yet, but it has the most potential because of its user base."
Description:AOL remains one of the largest content portals online, and in addition to its IN2TV library of classic TV shows, the site helps direct users to full episodes, too. The page at television.aol.com/video highlights full episodes from all major networks — ABC (Ugly Betty), CBS (CSI) Fox (The Simpsons), NBC (The Office) — and displays a list of offered shows.
Experience:Intuitive? Not so much. Even though Heroes is spotlighted as having full episodes, none are to be found. To reach some series episodes, you must click and scroll through pages. After clicking on a full episode of American Gladiators, the show launched, after a short ad, in a small window that couldn't be resized. The same thing happened with an episode of Bones found through the video search engine. (For each, a link offers to send you to Hulu.) But CBS' CSI: New York could be expanded, and with ABC shows, you're sent to dynamic.abc.com to see a fully resizable window to watch, say, Big Shots, probably the best video experience of all.
Expert says:"It's bringing in content from a lot of different sites," Patriquin says. "By and large they have been able to retain their brand name and their users' loyalty through improvements, and video is certainly one of the leading ones."
Description:Along with TV listings and news and features, the portal's TV beta service has a list of 40 shows including 30 Rock, Battlestar Galactica, Chuck, Heroes, House, Prison Break and The Simpsons.
Experience:Each show has several full episodes and preview clips. Once you find a show, it begins playing quickly. However, you cannot resize the no-frills player and its video even looks jagged with low-fi Simpsons episodes. Two short ads play during the episode, and Nissan ads play during a Heroes episode. Yahoo TV also notes when episodes play on TV.
Expert says:"Yahoo has huge traffic volume. It really needs to prove itself because it's under so much pressure," Patriquin says. "It does not have a lot of programs now. It's more of a television-guide site."