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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.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

reporter's notebook I 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.

But after watching the highlights from Mark Cuban's performance I felt a little better. The judges were right--he needs work. And doesn't Jane Seymour look great and dance well, despite the recent death of her mother?

For NBC, there was a link to the video player right on the search engine I used. I was able to choose between full episodes, two-minute replays and Web exclusives. After viewing a short ad in a small window, up came a full-screen showing of The Office, the U.S. version. I've got to say, I didn't think anyone could play the Rick Gervais character well, but Steve Carell did a great job.

Heading over to check out CBS TV shows on the Web, I was underwhelmed. I mean, aren't people sick of Survivor already? They did have Late Show with David Letterman, but I could only watch segments with highlights, interviews and the monologue. Again, where was the continuity? The notion of a "show" is removed when you watch it in chunks.

Not that it matters to me, but you'll still need a TV to watch Major League Baseball or National Football League games for free.

I had pretty much exhausted my list of must-see TV, so I went to TVGuide online. The site has a handy search box at the top, as well as sections on tonight's and this week's TV, and music videos.

There's a combination of free and paid programming. For instance, most of the full episodes of Brothers and Sisters were free, but many of the America's Top Model episodes cost $1.99 to watch. Then, when I started watching one of the free shows, it took a long time to start playing. Free, but sloooow.

So I switched to a juicy-sounding show called Gossip Girl. It started out with a Verizon wireless ad and then a preview, with a voice over that said: "It takes two to tangle, and girls like these don't go down without a fight." Oh boy!

Ignoring my better judgment, I took a peak at Beauty and the Geek and again didn't make it past the intro. Wow! I had forgotten how much crap was on TV. And the constant commercials are annoying.

I decided to go for something more highbrow, the BBC for news, but found that it doesn't let you watch the programming online.

Next I checked out a local San Francisco news station, KRON 4. There I watched a segment on the city canceling the annual Halloween party in the Castro district. And I watched a feature on an elderly woman whose home was auctioned off to pay off some of a $1.4 million hospital bill. I viewed the footage in a 3x3-inch window. There was no full-screen option.

Pretty much the only sport I'm interested in watching is tennis, so I headed over to ESPN to see if I could see some matches there. Nope. I typed in "tennis matches video" on a Web search engine and saw links to old Women's Tennis Association matches and a video on Metacafe of Andre Agassi and Roger Federer putzing around.

Not that it matters to me, but you'll still need a TV to watch Major League Baseball or National Football League games for free.

There were some sites that offer vintage TV programs, such as Like Television Only Better, where I watched part of a grainy black and white 1957 Jonathan Winters TV show in a small window.

Another site was a real find, wwiTV. It had a long list of countries and categories to choose from to watch live TV Webcasts.

I went to a Portuguese TV station from a town called Guimaraes, but every time I tried to open the player the audio echoed. When I closed the player I ended up on the Guimaraes TV Web site where there was no echo, but the accent was hard to understand despite my having lived in Portugal for a year.

I skipped over to the movie section of wwiTV and saw there were at least 25 channels offering films in English. I clicked on one link and was sent to America Free.TV, where I landed in the middle of a 1969 biker movie with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern called The Rebel Rousers.

"We don't need your type of people in this town," the sheriff tells them as they ride their choppers into the saloon and dance on the bar. As much as I wanted to see what happens to these misunderstood rogues, I couldn't stand the stop-motion video, which left large blocks of pixels in place of faces. There was no "on demand" aspect to this channel--you have to know when the movie starts to catch it from the beginning.

Other sites worth mentioning include Joost, which lets you watch a wide variety of TV programming over the Internet for free and with a full-screen option, and the open-source company Miro, which offers free Internet TV and a player that plays any video file.

My unscientific conclusion is there's a mixed bag of TV programming available online. A lot of it is trash and a lot of it's glitchy, so I'm definitely not worried about becoming an online TV addict.

I also learned that a show about meerkats is probably the best TV on the Internet.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that the full episodes of Dancing with the Stars could not be viewed online.