The Best Guides to Watching TV Online

Now that the fall TV season is back in full swing, Mad Men and Wipeout fans aren’t the only ones able to watch new episodes of their favorite shows. But while you were out enjoying the summer, arrangements between networks and distributors were renegotiated, web site navigations changed and new shows came on the air, so finding what you want to watch online may be a bit of a challenge.

But there are some emerging TV aggregators that can help bring all your programming together into one place. As a dedicated online TV watcher, I’ve spent the fall premieres week trying out these various services, and I have some tips.

casttvCastTV: I find CastTV’s guide, whose calendar shows exactly when free episodes from a certain day’s programming are posted online, the most intuitive to use. If I want to watch last night’s episode of FlashForward, for example, I can see at a glance if it’s already posted on Hulu (yes, ABC shows are now on Hulu, so you don’t have to install the Move plug-in to watch them if you don’t want to), zSHARE, MegaVideo and ABC.com.

To be sure, CastTV does index unauthorized uploads, so those who find such a practice offensive might want to go elsewhere. But I appreciate that the index is that much more complete. (However, it also might be worth mentioning that TV Guide has in the past been known to get litigious with those who try to use a grid to display programming.) CastTV raised $3.1 million in 2007.

clickerClicker: This brand-new site wants to be “the ultimate programming guide for Internet television.” (It also quotes NewTeeVee in its introductory blog post, so that’s got to count for something!) CEO Jim Lanzone says the model, “surf not search,” is based on the belief that most of the time users want something to watch, they just don’t know what. “It’s part directory, part search engine, part entertainment guide, part wiki, part DVR,” he said. And the site includes online originals along with TV reruns, a big plus. Clicker isn’t open to the public yet, but if you’d like to try it out, sign up as Lanzone promises you’ll get an invite within about a day.

The company, which is composed of the former Ask.com search team and members of a similar startup it recently acquired, Modern Feed (our profile), has $8 million in funding from Benchmark Capital and Redpoint Ventures, so I’m hoping it’ll be the one with the firepower to unite its listings and on-demand experience across all the places I want to watch TV, from my phone to my PC to my TV.

slashcontrolSlashControl: AOL’s new dedicated online TV and movie streaming site has a good index of shows and a wide selection drawn from all the big outlets (currently 81,352 total videos, it says). The site does a good job of telling you exactly what’s available from each show — how many episodes, how many clips — wherever you see it searched or indexed.

What’s counterintuitive is that SlashControl, the site for online episodes, is separate from both AOL Television (which has a TV guide and TV listings) and AOL’s TV blog TV Squad. You’d think someone would realize these are synergistic. But as compared to other web portals, AOL definitely tops Yahoo’s bland list display of online episodes.

Some other options are SideReel, LocateTV (which also shows when things air on TV), TV Guide’s Online Video Guide and Prime Time Rewind. You could also try Fancast, Sling.com or the new AT&T Entertainment. (CBS’ TV.com used to have Hulu shows, but due to their rivalry it doesn’t anymore.) One thing that’s pretty cool about most every online TV aggregator these days is that they use embedded versions of shows, so you can watch right where you’re browsing. In the past there was a whole lot more clicking through required to view the actual videos on someone else’s site.

So TV fans, you have some good options out there, and the programming looks better than ever, with many outlets employing adaptive bitrate streaming and offering HD episodes. Though now that so many shows are hosted in multiple locations, one feature I’d like to see these sites add is a rating that makes clear which host has the highest resolution version of each show. If there’s HD available, send me there first!

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