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TV on a PC or Phone Has Some Drawbacks

Paul Boutin|The New York Times
Thursday, 8 Jul 2010 | 2:12 PM ET

Trying to watch TV on the Internet is frustrating.

Sure, cutting off cable service sounds promising, if only for the money you’ll save. But online TV is so fragmented and incomplete that finding a favorite show can be difficult. Watching a compete season of shows, particularly if you want those shows without paying for them, is even harder.

Nevertheless, I was able to find seven of last week’s 20 top-rated shows online and I did not pay a dime. If I were willing to pay a small amount, I could have seen a lot more. But it helps to know the tricks.

Hulu Plus on an iPad
Source: hulu.com/plus
Hulu Plus on an iPad

Without Hulu.com, watching TV online would really be a trying exercise of hopping from one network site to another searching for a favorite show.

The NBC and Fox networks opened Hulu as a free online television hub for their shows in 2007. It was popular enough that last year, ABC joined the experiment and put many of its shows there, too. There are hundreds of programs available that run the gamut from morning shows to sitcoms, dramas and talk shows, most of them appearing online the morning after broadcast.

Popular shows like Fox’s “Glee” and NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” are there, too. Many of the most-watched cable shows like “Pawn Stars,” the History channel surprise hit about a Las Vegas pawn shop, “Burn Notice” from USA channel and FX’s comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” are accessible, too.

Hulu also has some sports clips and Korean soap operas, which, believe it or not, are popular in Asia and Latin America. There is also a quirky collection of movies.

Here is what Hulu does not have. There are no live broadcasts and no sporting events. Fox keeps “American Idol,” the nation’s top-rated show, off Hulu. Only about a half-dozen recent episodes of most shows are available, though last month Hulu added a $9.99-a-month service, Hulu Plus, that unlocks a larger back catalogue.

Comedy Central shows used to be on Hulu, but earlier this year, the network pulled up stakes. But all of its popular shows — “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “South Park” and “Tosh.0” — are free on its own site, comedycentral.com.

Hulu also has no programs from CBS, which is not a partner. So you will not find six of last week’s 10 most popular shows. No “NCIS,” no “Two and a Half Men” and no “Big Bang Theory.” Go to CBS’s own site and you discover you can watch only 90-second clips of “Big Bang Theory,” the popular sitcom about four Caltech geniuses, which would seem perfect for an Internet audience with its many references to pop culture and science.

Different networks have varying attitudes and strategies about sharing their shows online. Within each network, there are also inconsistencies. Some shows are fully archived, some only briefly or in snippets, and many are not available at all. The highest-rated shows are often kept off the Internet so cheap online ad rates do not lure sponsors away from costlier broadcast TV advertising.

But even that does not explain the mishmash that is online television. Years after the music industry figured out the Internet, TV networks still use a logic that only a Hollywood insider could grasp. Network execs will disclose — if you promise not to quote them by name — that many of the most popular shows are built and sold according to contracts signed in 2007 or earlier, when Hollywood wheeler-dealers associated the Internet with piracy. Those deals would need to be renegotiated, often with individual actors and actresses, before a show could be put online.

With every network alternately serving or denying its own finicky menu of shows and episodes, what is really needed is a Google for TV, but it is not available from Google. Head over to Clicker.com, a site financed with several million dollars of venture capital, which indexes what’s available in a searchable database.

Clicker.com does not host the shows. Instead, it links directly to each episode’s location, whether on Hulu, network or pay sites. It clearly marks each result as free or paid, and includes a screen shot and quick summary of the episode. Clicker also indexes additional video content, like ABC’s “Lost Untangled,” which explains the complexities of the recently ended show’s puzzle-within-a-puzzle plot.

Clicker takes a while to figure out, but it has filters that let you dig into, for example, only episodes from the second season of a particular show. Using Clicker, I immediately found 112 episodes of “Babylon 5” at thewb.com, and 202 free episodes of “South Park” at southparkstudios.com. Once you figure out the interface, it’s impressive.

And when Hollywood puts a show online, it does a good job. Official uploads are usually better quality than pirate torrents. They are easier to play than the bootlegs, too.

To get the broadest range of shows, you are inevitably faced with the option of paying for your entertainment. The best thing about many of the pay services is that the TV shows can be watched on smartphones or PCs.

Last month, Fox introduced BitBop.com, a service that streams live TV to BlackBerry smartphones, or lets users download shows for later play, for $9.99 a month. NBC also offers a smartphone streaming service, NBC2Go, through Flo TV. For $14.99 a month, owners of several smartphone models serviced by AT&T and Verizon can stream NBC shows on demand.

Apple’s iTunes, which brings together most of the music biz in one searchable library, lacks a comprehensive television inventory. What is there usually costs about $2.99 an episode. Amazon has shows, too, for $1.99 an episode. Netflix, the movie-in-the-mail service, has a growing library of TV shows that you can stream to your PC or to your TV through a Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game consoles, or newer Blu-ray disc players. It has old TV shows like “Mannix” and “Maverick” as well as newer series like “30 Rock” and “Weeds,” but not the current seasons of those shows.

Sports fans are the luckiest of TV watchers when it comes to Internet and smartphone options. Univision, the Spanish-language network, is making every single World Cup soccer game available free at futbol.univision.com. NBC streamed the Wimbledon championships and United States Open golf tournament through NBCSports.com.

Major League Baseball’s MLB.tv is the standout offering. The video quality is far better than YouTube’s. You can clearly see the ball when Daniel Nava slams it out of Fenway Park. But it’ll cost you: $19.95 to $24.95 a month or $59.95 to $79.95 a year, depending on whether you opt for extra playback controls and home or away broadcasts.

Eventually, though, if you try to watch enough TV on the Internet, you’ll be thwarted by Hollywood’s incomplete online archive. There’s no way to watch the latest season of “Californication,” even if you’re willing to pay, for example. That’s when law-abiding videophiles go rogue and hunt down bootleg versions of shows at sites like NinjaVideo.net. Pirate sites often offer exactly what the Internet audience wants, like all three seasons of “Californication.” But this week, federal law enforcement officials shut down nine of the most popular pirate TV sites. They even got NinjaVideo, whose servers are located in the Netherlands.

Once again, “Big Bang Theory” has been thrown into TV’s great black hole.

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