Watching TV on the laptop--and on the cheap

reporter's notebook Don't want to pay for cable or even own a TV, but still want to watch shows like Meerkat Manor? Here's how I do it.

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reporter's notebookI know this may sound crazy, but I don't have a television.

This isn't a problem, except when I get glimpses of what I might be missing, like when the New York Mets choked and it was all anybody could talk about in the office that day.

I also happened to catch some episodes of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor on a public hospital TV recently. I was captivated by the story of matriarch meerkat "Flower" and her tragic death from a cobra bite while saving her pups in the Kalahari desert. I just had to watch the next episode to see which of her daughters would win the power struggle to succeed her. But how could I do that without cable or even a TV?

I went on a search for some of my old--and new--favorite TV shows on the Internet. The one caveat: it had to be free, because this TV dilettante wasn't paying for anything other than my phone and DSL broadband service.

While I pay about $30 a month for phone and DSL, my neighbors spend anywhere from $70 to $140 for cable and Internet access, depending on the number of channels and level of service. That cost difference, plus the desire to avoid having a boob tube around, means the laptop is the only screen in my home.

I may be odd, but I'm not alone. A whole 2 percent of U.S. households are TV-less, according to Nielsen. (OK, so I'm almost alone). And nearly 16 percent of American households with Internet access watch television broadcasts online, a report released this week by The Conference Board and TNS Media Intelligence found.

Networks and studios are recognizing this trend. While paid downloads make more money for content producers, ad-supported video streaming is growing--it's expected to bring in $117 million in revenues this year for producers of prime time and daytime TV programming alone, up from $43 million last year, according to Adams Media Research.

My first step to becoming an Internet couch potato was to search for Meerkat Manor online. I found a link at the top of the search engine's sponsored results section that led to the Discovery Channel site, where I could watch the last four episodes after installing a video player.

The video quality was poor and the transmission was glitchy. It really ruins the timing of jokes when (Jon) Stewart's mouth is saying one thing and you are hearing something else.

There was a 10-second ad for Oust air freshener that ran before the show started, and then the Meerkats were on, in all their anthropomorphic glory. I could watch them for hours, but unfortunately, a commercial break came. I was subjected to a 30-second ad this time, from the same air freshener company. Time to check e-mail.

As soon as I heard the commercial end I was back to the screen for more Meerkat adventures. The video quality, while it didn't seem quite as clear as on a TV, was beautiful. And then, before you knew it, the exact same commercial as before came up. This same ad was shown three times during the show. I somehow thought I would be spared the commercials by watching TV on the Internet. I was wrong.

One of the great laments I've had about not having a TV the past few years is that I miss my daily dose of humor--The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. So, I quickly found myself on the Comedy Central site, where Stewart's monologue from the day before started right up in a very small window. There are also sections called "Most Recent Videos" and "Last Week's Highlights." I watched Stewart poking fun at the Republican presidential debate and then conducting an awkward interview with Vice President Cheney's wife, Lynne.

But what if I don't just want highlights? What if I want to watch the entire show? While watching a show in segments like this might make for more efficient TV viewing, I missed watching the flow of an entire show, where Stewart and his cohorts often make references to things that happened before the commercial break.

In addition to the fact that the site seemed to be showing the same ad for each of the highlights I viewed, I was squinting to see the screen because the video window was so small. The video quality was poor and the transmission was glitchy. It really ruins the timing of jokes when Stewart's mouth is saying one thing and you're hearing something else.

Next, I went straight to TV network Web sites. On ABC, I launched the full episode player, which offered a full screen and mini mode. I had heard that tech entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was on Dancing with the Stars, so I thought I'd check that show out.

I was very pleased to see that I could click a button to skip the ad that kept repeating (in this case for Garnier Nutritioniste) shortly after it began. I was disappointed when I thought I could only watch a condensed version of the program for the Web audience, but later learned that you can get to full episodes via a button on the home page of ABC.

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