Let's say you missed Thursday's episode of "Ugly Betty" because you were too busy watching "Survivor." (Dumb move, but who are we to judge?) In the olden days--i.e., last year--your best shot, after TiVo, would have been to buy the episode for $1.99 on iTunes. But now you can get it online, legally, free. Networks spent all summer revamping their Web sites, rolling out full streaming episodes of their hit shows. You'd think this might chip at the number of people who watch their TV on actual sets. But Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC's digital content, says the reverse is true: "Streaming our shows online absolutely promotes back to the original series and increases viewership."
A few caveats, though, before you jump on your computer to look for Teri Hatcher. Since nothing is really free in TV land, the streaming episodes come with mandatory commercials. Still, they're much shorter than regular TV commercials: usually less than two minutes per 40 minutes of content. The episodes don't go online until the day after they've aired and stay up temporarily. You can't play them on portable devices, like video iPods (which is why iTunes still comes in handy). But the players load quickly and are easy enough to use, if you have high-speed Internet. Since not all shows stream yet, here's a rundown of who offers what:
ABC.com , probably the best site, landed 2.5 million epi-sode requests in its first two weeks this season. The alphabet network deserves kudos for streaming its most popular series: "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost," "Desperate Housewives," "Betty" and a few others. You can watch up to four of the most recent episodes of each show, which is generous. The downsides: the site's player never goes to full screen, and while you're required to watch only 30-second commercial spots, they keep going unless you click out of them, which is annoying.
CBS.com streams all "CSI"s, "NCIS," "Numb3rs," "Jericho" and "Survivor." The site prides itself on original content, including a Web dating series, "Hook Me Up," and a cartoon short "Animate This!" (with stories from actors like Jennifer Love Hewitt). The second offering is an amusing diversion, but not so entertaining that you'd want to tune in every week. The network's comedies were streaming as part of a trial run, but now you have to watch them on your TV.
NBC.com is streaming only new series, like "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Heroes," "Friday Night Lights" and "30 Rock." Unfortunately, each episode stays up for only one week, which discourages binge viewing. The site also offers two-minute recaps of other shows, so you can stay up-to-date if you miss an episode.
Fox's streaming videos, at MySpace.com/Fox , are an odd assortment of new shows with few fans--like "Vanished" and "Standoff"--and the cult series "Prison Break." (Doh! Why isn't "The Simpsons" on that list yet?) Still, the site's picture quality is tops, streaming at more than 1.5 mega-bits per second.
Two more examples worth mentioning: The Disney Channel ( disneychannel.com ) streams the majority of its shows, from "That's So Raven" to "Hannah Montana," with a staggering 42.5 million episode requests since June. The CW, on the other hand, doesn't stream any full episodes at this time, though the network is exploring the possibility. Given its young viewers, it should get with the program.