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Adventures in TV VOD

13 May, 2006 By: Jessica Wolf

Wednesday night is the most daunting TV night for me. At least UPN moved “Veronica Mars” to Tuesday nights, but I haven't quite gotten used to the time shift and keep forgetting it's on.

Luckily, UPN and its soon to be other half, the WB, replay most of their shows' new episodes later in the week they first air. I can almost always catch the pixie-like P.I. just a couple of days later.

Other networks however, the big ones, don't have that “Easy View” strategy so, until offerings like iTunes came along, I would simply be out of luck if I missed an episode of a favorite show. (And no, I can't set my VCR and don't own a TiVO, so I am pretty much at the mercy of network programming schedules.)

This past Wednesday night found me at an event, missing out on episodes of “The Amazing Race,' “Alias” and “Lost,” (ok, all right, fine, I confess, throw “America's Next Top Model” into the list too).

I wasn't too depressed about it, knowing there were options for me to catch up on nearly all of these shows the very next day via the Internet. So Thursday night, I tucked in to get updated on my faves (for “American Idol” results, I just read on the Internet, a necessary sacrifice to the chock-full Wednesday night slate).

Ordinarily, I use iTunes to get my fix of shows I missed, but having listened to Disney's Bob Iger tout the company's new, free, commercially supported ABC.com just the day before, I thought I'd try it out. After all, free is the perfect price, right?

I started with “Lost” and clicked through the various steps in order to stream the episode from this week — titled “?”.

I was interested to see how intrusive the Web-based ads were going to be, though the front page of the site assured me these are truncated versions of the time spent on ads during the TV airing.

Soon enough, I was informed that my episode of “Lost” was being brought to me by AT&T.

“Why thank you AT&T,” I thought as I happily chose the “Lost” window from the fellow latest-episode offerings of “Desperate Housewives,” “Alias” and “Commander in Chief.”

I settled back with a glass of wine as “Previously on ‘Lost’ played, reconciled to the fact that I wouldn't be able to view the action in full screen because, as the site so kindly informed me, my bandwith would not support the 840KB per second needed for that. (Wow).

Still, a small, free stream is better than nothing right?

Well, nothing is about what I got. The stream shut down on me right as “Previously” ended and the new action was about to commence.

Undaunted, I started the process all over again, after making sure every other application was shut down and my computer free to concentrate wholly on getting me that “Lost” episode I so sorely needed.

This time it worked, and interestingly enough, I found I had a new sponsor — Suave. (Hi Suave, I love your lotion).

Well good old Suave delivered for me, and sure enough only interrupted the episode three times, with a catchy, jazzy soundtrack playing as a few brief lines of text and cute little animated teal and purple butterflies flitted across the window. That was actually more my speed when it comes to advertising, how did ABC.com know? Spooky.

Tricky little thing about these ads though, every time an one comes up, a small window at the bottom of the ad ticks away the seconds left until you get back to the show (30 seconds, max). But, once the clicker ticks down to zero, the ad remains until you manually hit play to restart your program. Not a big deal, but kind of sneaky, I think.

Anyway, I then moved on to “Alias” for the episode titled “I See Dead People.” This time, my advertiser was Disney itself, telling me this episode was brought to me by the movies Cars, Apocolypto and Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest.

Once again, I experienced operational failure, though this time I got a little bit further. Shortly after the first “commercial” launched — this one a trailer for Cars — the stream froze up on me again,

I actually thought this was a great idea for an ad … I definitely didn't mind the trailer; it was clever and I still felt like I was being entertained. But, it was too much for my computer apparently.

So, I tried again, this time garnering Oil of Olay as a sponsor and made it through the whole episode with little or no problems.

The ads were the same as before, remaining on the screen until I clicked away. I have to admit, though, on the last go around, I actually clicked through to the Oil of Olay Web site to read more about the product being touted, instead of heading back to the show as soon as possible. Why not, I thought, it's right there, and only a few minutes.

Tricky, again, ABC.com You got me. And I know you KNOW you've got me, for sure you datamine those clickthroughs.

But I've got to hand it to Disney, they've built a fairly user-friendly site with some very attractive content and pricing.

One thing I learned very quickly though, was to be careful with the cursor, it's easy to swing past the bar at the bottom of the screen and inadvertently fast forward or rewind the stream.

ABC.com is not quite as satisfying as iTunes, with all the clicking to set up and the ads. With iTunes, it's all just “there” and uninterrupted.

But the ABC option doesn't eat up space on your hard drive or cost anything. Hard to really knock that.

Interested, I cruised over to iTunes to see what might be going on with these free ABC offerings on the pay service. Were downloads of these episodes suffering comparatively?

Didn't look like it.

The “Lost” episode “?” was the No. 1 seller for Thursday, the “Desperate Housewives” episode available for free viewing at ABC.com, “I Know Things Now,” was No. 3 for the day, and “Alias’ “I See Dead People” was No. 45. (I suspect, this being the last season for the show, people are making it destination viewing.)

The thing is, any of these services, for TV product at least, in my mind, are fill-ins, a stop-gap if you will, something I can use to catch up on what I missed, or revisit a favorite episode until the DVDs come out.

I don't want all those downloads cluttering up my disk space forever. I want the DVDs.

I wonder how sales of the “Lost” season two DVD will compare to the first season when there was no digital download offering for the show. Are people like me and view the DVD as the permanent option, using every other method of viewing as a kind of instant gratification?

I guess we'll see.

What ABC.com and iTunes have going for them are great, well-designed services that are easy to navigate.

I can't bring myself to say the same thing about Google Video. Sure there's some good stuff on there, but there's a lot of crap too, and it's organized strangely. It's not an enjoyable experience. I feel no sense of accomplishment when I view video on that site.

And I was extremely disappointed to find Thursday night, as I decided I would treat myself to a $1.99 download of the “Amazing Race” episode I had missed the night before, that the show is no longer offered at Google.

What's up with that? What happened? It was just there a few weeks ago. Still that site is in Beta phase so anything can happen I suppose.

At any rate, this is a new world that is still in the throes of its earliest growing pains.

But if it can capture me, capture my attention, find some way to be relevant in my very non technophile life, I say it looks like this VOD thing is going to grow into a very beautiful thing.

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