Ryan Chartrand

It’s a TV network’s nightmare come true: millions of people watching its content, new and old, without paying a dime and only sitting through single 30-second advertisements.

And yet it was the networks themselves that made it all happen.

In case you hadn’t received the memo, cable television is going out of style. Before you know it, watching TV without a mouse in your right hand will be as socially wrong as singing the Macarena in 2008.

TV networks NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, The CW, Cartoon Network, Sci Fi Channel, VH1, MTV and many others host full episodes of shows on their respective Web sites for free.

While it’s certainly not a flawless system (some episodes are removed after a few weeks and not all videos play in the most user-friendly video players), watching your favorite TV shows online makes enjoying entertainment far less painful on your wallet.

No longer will you need TiVo or a DVR to record the shows you miss, as any missed show can be watched later online.

And if you just can’t get enough of every network’s shows at your fingertips, the recently launched Hulu.com lets you go back in time to watch old shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without ever having to buy the box sets first.

The following is a list of some popular networks and what they offer on their Web sites.

NBC.com

NBC offers 25 shows with full episodes and 30-second advertisements, including popular, newer shows such as “Heroes” and “Medium,” and it’s the only network site that features late-night talk shows. NBC also hosts full episodes of classic older shows such as “A-Team” and the original “Battlestar Gallactica.”

If you’re not a fan of streaming your shows, NBC also offers a free program for PC users called NBC Direct, which allows you to download the episodes and store them on your computer for a week after their airdates. Mac support of the program has been delayed.

ABC.com

ABC offers 23 shows with full episodes and 30-second advertisements, including all of its most popular shows such as “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and more.

ABC is also one of only two networks that allow viewers to stream episodes in High Definition (and it streams them amazingly well at full-screen size). The site also features online-only shows, a concept only MySpace and YouTube addicts could understand.

CBS.com

Lagging behind is CBS, offering 19 shows with full episodes and 30-second commercials. Its video player isn’t all that great, the show selection could be better, it doesn’t provide late night shows with full episodes, and the online exclusive videos certainly aren’t vital to your entertainment schedule for the week.

To make up for it, the site also hosts older shows such as “Star Trek: The Original Series” and “MacGyver.” Nevertheless, CBS has some catching up to do if it ever plans to survive in the next five years.

FOX.com

Although it took FOX much longer than NBC and ABC to finally offer worthwhile shows on its site, there’s no denying that FOX has become a big competitor online.

The site offers 21 shows with full episodes and, for unknown reasons, no advertisements. On top of that, “House,” “Prison Break” and “Bones” can be streamed quite well in HD. The site also features the most creative, interactive menu for selecting shows similar to the “Big Wheel Spinner” from “The Price is Right.”

For whatever reason, most networks choose not to offer reality shows on their sites, and such is the case with the reality powerhouse “American Idol” on FOX.com. Nevertheless, the site is still a worthy contender against NBC and ABC.

Hulu.com

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be a member of the Hulu community. With more than 400 television shows and more than 100 free, enjoyable films like “The Girl Next Door” and “October Sky,” Hulu is a dream come true.

Included television networks are NBC, FOX, USA Network, Bravo, Fuel TV, FX, Sci Fi, Style, Sundance, G4 and Oxygen.

The video player is one of the best available (far better than YouTube) and includes the option for high-resolution videos (streamed at 480p for you tech geeks). Hulu also has an HD Gallery for HD clips, but the collection is small and only contains movie trailers.

Since Hulu is a community like YouTube, there are many features geared toward viewers, such as customized playlists of videos, ratings, comments, viewed videos history and a section that groups several clips together, such as “Best of Christopher Walken.”

The one complaint many viewers have with online television is that they would rather watch the shows on their television. But just because the shows and movies appear on your computer monitor doesn’t necessarily mean you need to watch it at your desk.

If your laptop or desktop has some form of video output on the back of the computer, such as a VGA connector (blue), an S-Video connector (black circle) or a DVI connector (white), you can easily watch online content on your television.

Simply find out which of the three you have and then buy the appropriate cable and adapter to connect the two. For example, someone with an S-Video connector would want to buy an S-Video-to-RCA adapter if the television had a white, yellow and red connection on the back.

Watching television online may seem restricted to the “tech geeks,” but with some patience and research, you can save $20 a month by not having to pay for cable television.

Television, as you know it, is changing. Networks will no longer expect you to come to them during primetime. Now you make the calls, and you get to decide when, where and through what medium you will view their content.

It’s a television network’s nightmare come true.

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