"Can I finally get rid of my cable (or satellite) TV and watch everything online?" It's a question I get asked often, and the answer is a definite "maybe."
TV programing on the Internet is a muddled mess, mostly because every network seems to have its own online strategy. Even so, it's here to stay as evidenced by local Internet providers finally pitching higher download speeds to make video easier to access (and to minimize the damage to their profits if you decide to ditch the cable TV). So if you'll indulge me, I'll try to make some sense of it all.
First, if you're a big sports fan, you can stop reading -- the answer is no. Only Major League Baseball and the NHL offer a paid service to watch their games online (MLB.TV was a great way to keep up with my beloved Rockies this past season, but I did have to shell out $120 for the privilege). Football, in particular, remains difficult to watch online. With the exception of NBC's Sunday night game, the NFL's live streaming presence is limited to DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscribers. ESPN3.com (available locally to Hargray customers) shows only certain college games and none broadcast by the other networks.
As for network television, Hulu.com offers most of the currently airing TV shows from NBC, ABC, FOX, USA Network, FX and many others. In exchange for the service being free, you have to sit through 30-second ads and they only offer the five most recent episodes at a time. Hulu Plus is a paid service ($7.99 a month) that offers all past episodes, high definition, and is available on other devices besides a computer, such as the iPad and Playstation 3. Unfortunately, ads still are included even for the paid version. You might notice one notable exception from Hulu -- CBS. The Eye Network only has the last episode that aired of many of their popular shows available on CBS.com (it's ironic that "The Big Bang Theory" -- by far the geekiest show on TV -- isn't available online).
If you're a Netflix subscriber, included in your plan is the ability to stream the entire online catalog. While it does not offer current episodes of popular TV shows, it does have an extensive catalog of previous seasons of such hits as "24," "30 Rock" and "Lost," as well as thousands of movies. If you do not wish to receive DVDs in the mail, they also have a streaming-only plan for $7.99 a month, and like Hulu.com, Netflix also is available on many devices and set-top boxes including the AppleTV. CBS just this week signed an agreement with Netflix to offer older shows, such as "Star Trek," "Frasier" and "Cheers."
Speaking of Apple, there also is the iTunes store, which takes a different approach than the ad-supported streaming services -- you can rent or purchase individual shows for 99 cents and $1.99, respectively (high definition shows are $2.99), and watch commerical-free. Each network has different agreements with Apple, so some shows are not available to rent. For those that are, you have 30 days from the time you rent the episode to start watching it and once you do you have 48 hours to finish it before it expires. If you choose to buy, the episodes are yours to keep (however the disk space required for keeping them on your computer can become an issue after a while -- this is especially true with high definition content). In many cases, Apple also offers a season pass that will automatically download new episodes for you when they become available -- these typically cost around as much as purchasing a season on DVD.
As you can see, you don't lack for choices of how to get your TV fix online -- and that's the problem. As long as there are so many different players in the game there won't be a single way to access content. However, if you are willing to sacrifice some sports and do a little research, it is possible to achieve the holy grail -- a la carte television, where you only pay for the TV you actually want to watch.
Morgan Bonner is Pre-Press Manager and a systems administrator for the Packet and Gazette.