First Look: NBC Direct Beta: Not Quite Ready For Primetime

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NBC Direct VideoNBC Direct, the first ad-supported, download service for prime-time TV, launched in beta over the weekend. So what can you expect from the latest NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) video experiment? To paraphrase Dirty Harry, “a user’s got to know its limitations.” NBC Direct is a keep-current player, not a way to catch up on a season. It’s meant for subscription download, not quick viewing; sign up for a season pass, leave your computer on overnight when an episode airs and it will download automatically (after it’s shown in Hawaii).

NBC Direct debuts scant weeks after the launch of Hulu, the ad-supported video aggregator/distribution service/portal from the NBCU-News Corp. (NYSE: NWS) JV. Browser-based Hulu, also in beta, is about as instant as a TV. Its cousin NBC Direct requires patience — to get started and to keep it going. The getting started part includes a new, proprietary player, software install with various required components, Internet Explorer 6+ and Windows Media Player 10. (It will work on Intel-based Macs with Boot Camp and Mac support is expected in early 2008.) It only took 8 minutes to install from start to finish and another 19 minutes or so to download episodes of 30 Rock and The Office. So far, so good.

But all I can tell you about the actual quality of the video from NBC Universal is it has ads. That’s all I’ve been able to see — the same Bertolli ads repeating back-to-back-to-back. Not sure why; clicking on help first brought up an empty window, then no answer for this. The same thing happened with two different episodes. Others have seen actual shows so I’ll keep trying. If I were an average user, though, the fact that it’s a beta wouldn’t make it less frustrating, especially if I didn’t try to watch until I was offline and relying on it for entertainment.

— The number of shows for now is limited: one episode each from 30 Rock, The Office, Bionic Woman, Friday Night Lights, Life. I don’t see any way to subscribe to shows yet to be loaded or any hint of other shows to come.

— Episodes expire seven days after they are uploaded to NBC Direct, not seven days after you download them.

— You have 48 hours once you begin watching an episode; to get a second 48 hours, you have to go online and reconnect with the mother ship. Again, the show will expire whether you

— It’s U.S. only; no sign of any international plans.

— Don’t go to looking for the new service.

For me, it’s the second online video issue with NBC in the past week: I was looking for NBC Direct a few days ago and saw a link promising downloads of select NBC shows for Media Center PCs. I thought the promo was over but the links were live and the software install went as it should. All was well until I actually tried to download a show only to be told the shows weren’t available and I should uninstall the software. The same promo is still running — but now the link leads to an error page.

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Amanda Natividad

It seems to stream better on Internet Explorer than it does on Mozilla Firefox, which is a pity because I am an avid Firefox user. In fact — though it could just be my PC — it doesn't stream that well at all. I think I'll stick to using my DVR to catch up on 30 Rock and The Office.

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