Wednesday, November 07, 2007

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A test drive of two online TV services

You know the feeling. You forgot to program your TiVo to record this week's episode of CSI: Miami. Or your friend is excited about Friday Night Lights and you want to get in on the game.

Networks have been experimenting with online offerings for nearly two years. USA TODAY takes an early look at a service being tested from News Corp. and NBC Universal called Hulu and a competing service, Joost, allied with CBS and Viacom.

The siteThe specifics

Description: This new Web site, created by NBC Universal and News Corp., is stocked with episodes and clips from more than 90 TV series. You'll find recent and past episodes of Friday Night Lights, Family Guy, 24, The Simpsons, House, Bones, Prison Break, K-Ville and King of the Hill. Older series include Arrested Development, Hill Street Blues, Lost in Space, American Dad, WKRP in Cincinnati, St. Elsewhere, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doogie Howser and The Bob Newhart Show. There also are collections of clips from TV series including The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live.

Experience: Once you've signed into the beta trial (you must be invited), Hulu's widescreen video player comes up quickly and plays smoothly. Before an episode of The Office begins, you see a note that the episode is brought to you by Royal Caribbean International. One third of the way through, there's a 30-second cruise ad. Controls let you increase the video to full-screen or create a separate video player window that you can move around for easier multitasking. Sharing tools allowed the easy posting of a clip from Bones onto a MySpace page, and a clip sent to an e-mail account opened and played. Video quality is very good, but less than that of a DVD, evidenced by the lack of detail when the PC was connected to a large TV.

Expert says: "It is a brilliant strategy," says James McQuivey of Forrester Research. "It doesn't take a lot of research to show that people like to share media with their friends, and this preempts the copyright troubles they have had with YouTube. They are willing to try to open up more content, at least for now. As a launch strategy, they are trying to make sure you're not encountering any dead ends."

Description: Created by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, who founded Internet phone service Skype, Joost has more than 15,000 shows from CBS, MTV Networks (VH1, CMT), Turner Broadcasting (CNN, Cartoon Network) and Comedy Central, and movies from Paramount and Sony. After a five-month beta test period, it opened to all in October. TV series available include all three CSI series, Punk'd, Larry King Live, Adult Swim cartoons such as Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and The Late Show With David Letterman.

Experience: Joost requires the download of a 26-megabyte software program before you can watch. Once you install that and create a Joost username, you can begin viewing content. At start-up, you can click "Explore" on the left of the screen and scroll through shows by type (Cartoons, Drama, Film, News). Dramas bring up a grid of current CBS shows such as CSI: Miami and The Unit and older ABC series Fantasy Island and Charlie's Angels. Choose CSI: Miami and you'll find four recent episodes and five clips; for Charlie's Angels, there are more than 50 episodes. A full-screen ad for the sponsoring product appears before the episode starts, and once it does, a small see-through clickable product promo sits in the lower-right corner of the screen for a few seconds.

The video was of slightly lesser quality than on Hulu. Ads for antiperspirant and other products remained visible to the side of the video window. Joost lets you share videos and clips, but only with other Joost members. Each channel has a chat room, and you can also send instant messages using your Google or Jabber mail accounts.

Expert says: Says McQuivey: "If anything, the dawn of Hulu means the end of Joost. They could make a set-top box that would bypass the computer altogether. If they really want to stay viable, Joost has to get to the TV."

What's playing on network websites? This site is stocked with full episodes from The Bachelor to Ugly Betty, along with a dozen Dancing With the Stars episodes and the last four of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice. An HD player offers higher-resolution versions of the latest episodes of Grey's, Pushing Daisies, Practice, Betty, Dirty Sexy Money and Desperate Housewives. Commercials play before each segment. You can also catch up with Lost (19 episodes from last season). Here you will find full episodes of more than a dozen shows, including As the World Turns, Cane, Survivor: China and The Unit. The innertube player divides hour shows into four segments; commercials play before each. Other series, such as Cold Case, Criminal Minds and Two and a Half Men, only have clips. Most series, such as Aliens in America, Everybody Hates Chris and Reaper, have four full episodes you can watch after viewing a 30-second advertisement. Fans of Smallville and One Tree Hill must make do with clips. Full episodes of shows such as 30 Rock, Chuck, Bionic Woman, Heroes, Journeyman, My Name Is Earl, The Office and Scrubs. But other series such as Law & Order have only clips and episode guides. Catch up on the previous night's episode of My Name Is Earl with a wrap-up clip. Some episodes run ads before playing, others do not; still others may have a billboard above the video. From the network home site, you can start the Fox On Demand beta-testing service that has full episodes of series including Bones, House, Family Guy, Prison Break and 'Til Death; 15- to 25-second ads divide the episodes into five segments. Can also launch Video Central to see clips and content from 24, American Idol, Family Guy and So You Think You Can Dance.