Kill Your TV: 15 Internet Video Sites to Beat the Writers' StrikeHas the writers' strike got you down on TV? We pick 15 video sites that will help you get through the winter months while the geniuses in Hollywood figure out how to pay their writers for digital content.
What better time than during the writers' strike to (re)discover Internet TV and video? The quantity, quality, and diversity of online video grows by the day; and though it's far from perfect, it is at least interesting enough to make you forget that you're watching it on a PC monitor.
So sit back and tune in to some of the richest caches of high-quality video--TV shows, movies, viral video, and Webisodic video--on the Net today. (And as the universe of Internet TV and video expands rapidly, we invite you to share your picks of the best sites, services, and software in the comments area below.)
TV Shows and Movies
A multitude of Web sites offer video clips--or entire episodes--from TV shows and movies. Here are some of the best ones we've found.
AOL Television assembles many kinds of online video--including music videos, news clips, movie trailers, viral videos, and full-length TV shows--in one place. You can find full episodes of prime-time shows like Desperate Housewives, Survivor, and Lost from the Big Three networks (AOL has distribution deals with all of them), along with lots of additional titles from the likes of CW and Bravo. Many of the prime-time episodes are free, and the video quality is...good enough. But what I like best about AOL Video is its In2TV, a wide-ranging (and free) collection of old TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter, Alice, and Gilligan's Island. These videos open on your browser immediately, and the viewing experience--complete with new ads--is just like watching a small color TV.
Hulu, a joint venture (now in private beta, open to people in the United States) of NBC/Universal and Fox, is one of the best-looking and best-organized video sites on the Web today. The site's biggest draw is its lineup of current, prime-time TV shows like Heroes, House, Scrubs, and The Simpsons; all of its new shows come from NBC or Fox. Hulu also features some episodes of old TV series (Kojak, Night Gallery) and a few old movies (The Blues Brothers, The Breakfast Club), as well as some shorter clips (bits from Saturday Night Live, for example), an array of movie trailers, and a few viral videos. The video quality is surprisingly good, and the interface's navigation and social networking features are simple, well placed, and easy to use.
Unlike NBC, ABC didn't launch a separate portal for its online content, choosing instead to make much of it available at its own site. There, you can catch up on past episodes of Lost, Grey's Anatomy, and Ugly Betty for free. You can also watch daytime programming like The View and All My Children. Hulu.com may enjoy a higher hype quotient, but ABC's site matches it on the viewing essentials: video quality and presentation. In fact, ABC's interface looks an awful lot like Hulu's, though you do have to install a media player on your browser to make it play, as you do with Fox.com.
Though studios depend less on large aggregators to distribute their video online these days, iTunes remains one of the largest and best portals for prime-time TV and A-list movies. Steve Jobs and company lost their NBC/Universal shows because of a pricing dispute that prompted the formation of Hulu.com, but Apple continues to sells TV shows from Paramount, Disney, ABC, A&E, and numerous smaller networks. The selection at iTunes includes some cool oldies like the Mary Tyler Moore Show circa 1970 and, of course, more-recent stuff like ABC's Kyle XY and Army Wives and Showtime's The Tudors. You can also find a respectable menu of sports shows at iTunes--mainly NFL and Major League Baseball reruns. Most of the TV shows cost $2 each, a few cost more, and some are free. And finally, iTunes now has more than 600 movies on hand, from studios like Walt Disney, Pixar, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Films; Most of the titles sell for $10 each.
The latest creation of Kazaa and Skype inventors Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, Joost offers you a "TV-like" streaming experience. Now in beta for Windows and Mac, Joost is fast and free, but the quality of the video it delivers is far from stunning--you'll notice a fair amount of pixelation and stuttering. Joost's content resembles what you'd get if a cable service moved onto the Web. It features indie movie channels, news, some sports, and a fair amount of "special interest" content like nature shows and even a silent-movie channel. Joost isn't one of my favorites, because I've already watched the nature shows and Ren & Stimpy there, and I can't find any other compelling reason to go back. But you'll probably find something in Joost's vast video vault that you'll enjoy watching. Did I mention it's all free?
Of the online movie rental sites I've seen, Netflix's Watch Instantly is the fastest and most reliable. When Netflix members pick a movie, a media player launches instantly, and they can start watching--no questions asked and no waiting for the stream to buffer (take note, Movielink and Amazon Unbox). Less than 10 percent of the movies and documentaries available through Netflix's DVD-by-mail service are available for free online viewing, but the number of titles in that subset is growing quickly. Though I have just about exhausted the feature films on the Watch Instantly service, the service's broad selection of documentaries keeps me coming back. You can also choose from a modest number of TV series (including both the British and the U.S. versions of The Office) using the Watch Instantly service. Netflix recently announced that subscribers on one of its "unlimited" plans ($8.99 and up per month) can stream as many movies and TV episodes as they want.
PBS and BBC
Both PBS in the United States and the BBC in England have huge video content catalogs, and clear ambitions toward online distribution. And both networks have a lot of news and entertainment content sprinkled about their various Web sites. But finding it takes some searching because neither broadcaster has organized its video holdings in a way that makes them easily accessible. The BBC is moving in that direction with its iPlayer online video service--and I would love to watch all the great BBC stuff--but the service isn't available to U.S. viewers. The network says that its BBC International arm is working on something similar to iPLayer that will be available in the United States, but when it will be ready to go is anyone's guess. Still, PBS should take a hint from the BBC's iPlayer initiative and arrange to make its content available to the rest of the world as well.
Late Addition: Comcast's Fancast
Another contender among Web video players comes from the cable world. The cable giant Comcast recently launched Fancast, a service that offers more than 3000 hours of movies and TV shows. Fancast pulls video content from Comcast's cable and video-on-demand services, from iTunes and Netflix, and from other rich sources. You can watch the video on your computer or on your TV in the living room via an IP-ready cable set-top box. The site also provides voluminous information about TV shows, movies, and the actors in them; and it offers you viewing suggestions based on your interests and on the content you've already watched. Pretty cool. For movies still in theaters, you can buy and print tickets at Fancast. The service grew out of the Comcast.net customer portal, and its information and ticket-buying aspects originated in the old Fandango service, which Comcast acquired last April. Fancast also lets you enter your zip code to find local content, including local news and events; that's something most other Net video outposts don't provide. For its sheer volume of content and for some of its interactive extras, Fancast is worth checking out.
Made for the Internet
The vast majority of shows and movies available on the Internet today were originally intended for broadcast TV or for theaters (and later for reproduction on DVD). But a growing number of video creators (studios and production houses) and distributors have their roots in the online world, and produce video designed from the outset for Web viewing. The resulting Webisodes may be good (see Prom Queen from Vuguru) or bad (see Roommates on MySpaceTV), but the point is that they're Webisodes, not episodes. Much of the today's made-for-the-Internet content isn't great, but its quantity and quality are improving.
One promising new TV platform is Revision3, which produces its own shows and distributes them at its own Web site as well as at others such as iTunes and YouTube. Revision3 is hardly rolling in dough, but it does provide production money to producers who come up with promising Web TV show ideas. Currently, production budgets are thin, so Revision3's shows aren't glossy looking and lack star power. Indeed, the most famous face you're likely to see there is Digg founder Kevin Rose, who stars in his own show, Diggnation. Nevertheless, some of the content is pretty good--and it has a totally different vibe than the stuff you see on traditional TV. Think of Revision3 as a sort of cable-access channel for the digital age.
The biggest selection of made-for-online programming that I've found in one place is at MySpaceTV.com. These shows, while clearly intended to run as shorter and more-frequent Webisodes, not as traditional episodes, seem to come from well-funded Hollywood production houses and feature paid actors. The content I watched at MySpaceTV ranged from Gen-X soap opera (for example, Quarterlife) to over-the-top "reality TV/T&A" stuff (Roommates); frankly, I found most of it mind-numbingly stupid. But ultimately my tastes are beside the point. The shows' production values are equivalent to those of mainstream TV, and the quality of the video stream is reasonably good. Sites like MySpaceTV are set up to make the viewer's interaction with the show and with other viewers a central part of the experience: The "social networking" part of the viewing interface is as important as the video window. This idea could catch on with kids--in fact, it probably already has. And the content might miraculously improve...
Among the most popular of videocentric sites are ones that focus on user-generated content. A number of sites have adopted this approach and are going strong.
Current is an edgy, user-fueled online powerhouse. Carried by AT&T U-Verse, Comcast, DirectTV, Dish, and Time Warner, it also serves up video on demand at its site. Use its interactive dial to check out what's on tap. The offerings of this grassroots, people's TV include plenty of hard-hitting documentaries and news features, such as a vox-populi news story in which a user-correspondent interviews "young people in Iran about their thoughts on Iran's nuclear ambitions." You'll also find InfoMania: Talking Points and various culture and "scene" shows.
Google Video and YouTube
Google Video and YouTube merit inclusion here based on the sheer quantity of video they host. Think of an old movie clip or music video from the past, and chances are you can find it on Google Video or YouTube--and often nowhere else. Slowly but irresistibly, everything recorded on a VHS tape anywhere is making its way onto YouTube. What a fascinating and accurate document of life on Earth that will eventually be.
You'll need a fast broadband connection to watch it, but the video housed at Stage6 (and powered by the DivX player) is among the best-looking on the Internet. The site contains video of all kinds and all lengths, but the site's strength is its selection of full-length movies from around the world. I recommend clicking the Movie link, sorting by length, and then just rummaging through the offerings. If you're looking for something in particular, you can search for it.
The Ever-Expanding Internet Dial
To get a handle on the vast array of online video content available, you need a reliable compendium site--a role that the British link aggregator TV-links.co.uk used to play.
Find Internet TV
Since the unfortunate takedown of TV-links.co.uk in late 2007, I've been searching for a new site to take its place. I think I've found it. Find Internet TV is an expansive, well-organized collection of links to all kinds of video from all over the world. The site hosts no content itself, but points to online video caches such as ABC, ESPN360, and the Associated Press in the United States, and to various BBC channels in the U.K. You can search for video by key word, content type, language, or country. And whereas TV-links highlighted longer (and legally suspect) stuff like full-length movies and documentaries, Find Internet TV tends to focus on shorter fare like news segments and episodes from TV shows. Warning: This site can be a real time-guzzler.
Stay Tuned to the Net
The traditional TV and movie platforms that we know and love today (production houses, broadcast TV, movie theaters, DVD rental shops) are beginning to move online. Writers certainly know that, and they want their share of the pie--hence the strike (in a nutshell).
In the comments area below, please share your picks of the best sites, services, and software for beating the writers' strike.