Trial and Error Blog: Testing New Media

Sep 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Editor’s note: TelevisionWeek contributing writer Daisy Whitney is blogging on TVWeek.com about the pinnacles and pitfalls confronting viewers who want to consume television in new ways. Check in frequently as Daisy kicks the tires on the new media juggernaut and dishes on which services do-and don’t-make the cut. Her first foray appears both below and on TVWeek.com, where you’ll find more entries.

Media companies pelt the press and the public daily with announcements of fresh plans for online delivery of television shows on iTunes, Google Video, AOL Video, Yahoo, their own Web sites and other destinations.

The big question is, do these services work? We decided to test-drive them for our readers in a regular blog, Trial & Error, on TVWeek.com. In our initial test, we found that while some services work seamlessly, users may also stub their toes as they seek out TV shows online. While our auditions are by no means comprehensive, they represent how consumers experience digital media.

For the inaugural edition of Trial & Error, I chose Fox as the guinea pig. This in part is in recognition of the network’s aggressive push recently into online streaming. Part of Fox’s marketing strategy is to feature the first three episodes of “Vanished” and “Prison Break” for free across more than 50 Web sites.

For my first stop, I jumped into Fox.com on the evening of Monday, Aug. 28, expecting to find a big, blaring video player or other obvious guidepost for the free episodes.

A 30-second clip for “Prison Break” began playing automatically in the embedded video player. The video started without my consent, which is known in the online video world as “non-user-initiated,” though users probably refer to such self-propelled video by more colorful terms.

I clicked on links for other show titles underneath the player but found only more promo clips-and no sign of the full episode. Then I scrolled down a few more inches on the site and spotted an ad in the lower left-hand corner. It said: “Missed a Fox show? Watch an episode online now.”

But that teaser only led me to another message: “Sorry, this episode is no longer available. Please visit Fox.com/streaming for the next episode.” In fact, that is the very URL I was already on, so I appeared to be trapped in a black hole in the online Fox universe.

Just to be sure I hadn’t caused this infinite feedback loop through user error, I contacted Fox. The spokesman there explained that the sites can run an episode until 3 p.m. (ET) on Mondays and then post the fresh installment Tuesday morning after it airs the previous night. That means most sites with the episodes are “dark” for nearly 24 hours.

How was I, or anyone else, to know?

My stumbles on the site signaled it was time to leave Fox.com. I hopped on over to AOL Video. The home page was jam-packed with video-on-demand channels, video links and even a scrolling guide, which didn’t list the Fox shows. However, the “Most Recent” heading below the guide did feature a link for “Prison Break: Full Episode.” I clicked and it started playing immediately. That’s when you want an instant response from Web video-when you’ve selected it.

Next I skipped to Google Video. I clicked on the “TV Shows” category on the main page, but found no evidence of “Prison Break.” I noodled around some more, clicking on other links for “TV Shows.” Since Google is the king, queen and ace of search, I figured that if I just plugged “Prison Break” into the search window on Google Video, it would whisk me to where I want to be.

Well, no. Instead, I got a page of results with opening themes, previews, promos and video on the “Prison Break” theme.

Off to Yahoo. On the main page, I clicked on the video tab, then searched for “Prison Break.” Again, the list of search results didn’t include the full episode.

I was convinced that I must have been doing something wrong, so I continued in this scavenger-hunt fashion, entering Video.yahoo.com into the browser. Once more, I typed the show’s name in the search window and once more, the first page of results didn’t include the episode.

The next morning, I remembered Fox.com’s explanation about the missing videos. So I returned to the site and easily found “Prison Break” in the “Featured” category on the Google Video site. I also learned through Fox’s public relations department that “Prison Break” is housed under the “TV” section for Yahoo. Finding the episode that way sort of feels like cheating on a test. Nevertheless, the segment plays.

The moral? A helpful post on these sites letting viewers know when a show is and isn’t available online would be useful for those visitors who aren’t able or interested in giving the services a stay of execution.