Primetime downloads are plentiful, but quality’s spotty

<I>Variety</I> looks at nets' online offerings

Eager to follow eyeballs to the Web, four of the five networks have begun streaming their shows online for free. But how easy are these sites to use?

Variety tested them at home and at the office, comparing their offerings to iTunes for quality and ease of use. Bottom line: There’s still much to improve.

Fox won the honors for best video quality of network sites. The network offers eight shows, including “Prison Break,” on myspace.com/Fox, but doesn’t yet support viewing on Macs. Navigation is easy. Though superior to rival sites, video quality still doesn’t match broadcast, and playback suffers occasional pauses for buffering. Each segment of an episode is preceded by a very short commercial with a countdown timer — a smart touch that discourages surfing away.

CBS.com‘s site had the most awkward navigation; it’s often easier to simply go directly to cbs.com/innertube than to try to find a link to the Innertube site. Site offers 13 shows, including “Survivor” and “CSI,” via Windows Media Player or RealPlayer; only RealPlayer worked on the test Macbook. Video is very fuzzy at full-screen, and although each viewing is supposed to be preceded by a commercial, sometimes the shows play without it.

ABC.com has the most attractive site of the bunch, though it has its quirks. A link takes you to a page of eight shows, including “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” that lists the time and date a new episode will be available, but this page doesn’t take you directly to the show selection.

Once you finally get your episode of choice, sponsor information appears. Each segment is followed by a 30-second commercial, with the option to click over to the sponsor’s site or get a special offer. The viewing window never gets that big, but the video quality is good.

NBC.com has a clearly marked section for “NBC 24/7” video with five shows displayed. However, when we visited, only “Friday Night Lights” and “Studio 60” offered full episodes. Site offers one nifty feature: each episode gets a DVD-style scene-selection menu, with each of the six segments as a separate link. Video is VHS-quality even in a small window. The site interrupts segments with short blurbs.

Apple’s iTunes store takes an entirely different approach. First, it’s not free; users pay either $1.99 per episode or a larger amount for a season pass for a show. Second, episodes are downloaded, not streamed. Third, they play on an iPod, not just a PC, so with the right cable, you can play them on a TV set. Fourth, it only works with Apple’s iTunes software on a computer or with an iPod. At least the software is free.

iTunes boasts the biggest selection, with shows from many cable nets as well as the broadcast webs, plus the simplest navigation. You have to wait for the show to download, which can be no small thing on a slow connection, but once the show is on your hard disk, there are no hiccups for buffering — or commercials. Video quality is also better — crisp even at full screen.