A Brief Review of Online T.V. and The Problem with (and Solution to) the Commercials

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Watching T.V. on a ComputerRounding out my week-long series of posts about television is a review of the each network’s online television viewing applications, the common problem they share, and how to fix that problem. I admit that I’ve shown my hand; in case you couldn’t tell from the title, the common problem in each is commercials. We’ll get there, but first, a quick review of each network’s online viewing experience.

All of the networks require some sort of download “for optimum viewing experience” (I installed these upgrades a while back, so there’s a chance some networks no longer require them. I kind of doubt that’s the case, though). It’s not a big deal, and the upgrades are fairly quick to download and install.

CBS — I had planned to start with CBS because I’ve never watched a CBS show on their website. Why not? Because they used to require RealPlayer. Why, oh why do people still use RealPlayer? I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about my distaste for RealPlayer and its parent company RealNetworks, and this post won’t turn into a rant against them. Just know that I have despised RealPlayer and RealNetworks for a long time and refuse to install their software on any computer I use.

CBS used to require RealPlayer to view their content, but in writing this post, I checked their site to see if that was still the case, and it isn’t. So good news there, but it also means I won’t be able to write much of a review, having not actually used it yet.

I did verify that their player falls prey to the same problem with commercials that the others do.

NBC — Arguably the worst player is NBC’s. It’s clunky to use and they manage to break even a 30-minute episode into 4 chunks. But the problems begin all the way back on the homepage. If you select a show from the “Video” menu, it doesn’t automatically take you to the full episodes of the show, but random little clips. You then have to click on “Full Episodes” before you can select which episode to watch.

Although they suffer from the same commercial problem that the others do, I think NBC handles commercial interaction the best. If the user does nothing during the commercial, then after 30 seconds, the show starts again. If the user clicks anywhere on the ad, the video doesn’t automatically start again (handy for bathroom breaks). Remember this when you’re reading about ABC.

ABC — I have always disliked that ABC’s player opens in a popup window, especially because the video on the homepage keeps playing. With sound. Although I think ABC provides one of the best viewing experiences in both ease of use and viewing quality, their biggest failing is in requiring users to “click to continue” after every commercial. If Morah and I are watching in the living room (which we usually are), one of us has to get up off the couch, walk over to the computer, and click on the button.

FOX/Hulu — FOX wins points for how pretty its player is, but loses points for making it so difficult to control the show in full screen mode. Is it even possible? Sometimes I see a little controller pop up over the video, but I can never seem to make it come up when I actually want it to.

I paired Hulu up with FOX because they both use the same player. Hulu’s crowning glory is its surprisingly wide selection of media. If CBS and ABC got in on that action, Hulu would quickly become more popular than the rest of the Internet.

So what about that pesky commercial problem I mentioned? No, it’s not that they have commercials at all. In fact, there could probably be up to 60 seconds of commercials in each/some breaks and we’d still tune in. The big problem occurs when a viewer tries to skip forward or backward in the show.

You see, browsers (hell, computers) are imperfect devices and can freeze up, thereby interrupting my viewing experience. Sometimes it’s not even the fault of the computer; sometimes I just run out of time and have to wait until later to watch the rest of an episode.

Most of the networks show a commercial before the video begins. That’s fine, no problems there. But once the video is over, if I want to jump ahead in the episode, I’ll be forced to watch another commercial (usually the same one) if I move into a different segment. Go forward past a commercial break? Watch an ad. Oops, you went too far. Go back to the previous segment? Watch an ad. I have had instances where I had to watch 4 or 5 ads in order to find the segment I wanted and queue it up properly. And every time another commercial plays, I get more irritated and my reservoir of goodwill goes down a little more.

In the title I promised a solution to this problem, and I have one. In fact, it’s an incredibly simple solution that would be easy to implement, and one that would go a long way to improving user experience.

Whenever an ad finishes a 60 second countdown timer starts. If the user fast-forwards or rewinds past a commercial break before the timer reaches zero, then no commercial is played. However, if the user crosses a break point and counter has reached zero, then the user will be shown another ad and the timer starts again.

Addressing the issues I mentioned about each station would all contribute significantly to an improved user experience, but it’s this small fix to the way commercials are shown that would, in my opinion, have the greatest and most immediate positive affect.

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  1. All of NBC’s shows should be on Hulu as well, since they own them.

  2. Are they not all on there?

    I was actually having an e-mail conversation yesterday with Rick Andrycha, the Director of Operations at Fox 28. I asked him why House appears online 8 days after it appears on the air. He looked into and said, “Each studio establishes their own repurposing rights. In the case of HOUSE, since it is an NBC/Universal show, the rights are 8 days after original air date. For 20th Television, programs are available the next day. In some cases, like American Idol (Fremantle), there are no repurposing rights for internet use.”

    So that could explain why certain shows aren’t on Hulu, or even online at all.

  3. No, I meant, since you don’t like NBC’s player, all of those same show are also on Hulu, so you can use that player instead.

    Speaking of Hulu’s player, they are apparently playing around with the commercial algorithm. I watched The Daily Show last night, and there was a 2+ minute trailer before the video. LAME, right? But then there were NO COMMERCIALS. Every place on the timeline that had a commercial dot just kept playing the show, as if I had done my commercial time already.

    I played around with Hulu after reading your post, and it seems that they do have a similar system in place, except the timer is only 10 seconds or so. Or at least, that’s what it was on Dollhouse, the one show I experimented on.

  4. Just a quick update about CBS’s player: full episodes of the shows I want to watch are not available on their website. So either CBS or the distributor isn’t offering them for online viewing.

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