Watch ABC Review
Quality of Video Stream5
Content on Offer6
Airplay and iOS3
The ABC is one of the Big Three US television networks that dominated American screens from the 50′s to 80s. But despite the following puissance of cable networks and recent shifts towards on-demand services, ABC still remains one of the most influential television networks in the country. But how well does their catch-up services compare with the best from around the world?
The ABC (American Broadcasting Company), not to be confused with the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is one of America’s oldest television networks, first broadcasting in 1948. It was also the first American network to stream full episodes of its television line-up on the Internet in May 2006. Since then, their on-demand website has evolved to their new corporate identity, Watch ABC, where they stream a good range of new content the day after their terrestrial airing.
Content available on Watch ABC is nowhere near as extensive as that found on similar UK services such as the BBC iPlayer or Channel 4′s 4oD, nor does the network retain a back-catalogue either. In fact, even PBS’s media library can make Watch ABC seem rather small in comparison. But what it lacks in quantity it certainly makes up for in popularity. Many of the programmes available on Watch ABC include those which provide some of America’s highest ratings.
Most series will retain episodes for approximately a month after they first appear, so it is usually possible to find 4 or 5 full-length episodes available. However, the odd series, especially reality-competitions may retain all episodes from the beginning until the last is aired.
Video quality is nothing to write home about, with variable bitrate streams peaking at a respectable 1500kbps, platform dependent. This is a basic standard definition stream and although it may lack the clarity of even 720p HD, it is far better than many similar services around the world. It is worth mentioning that many ABC programmes are also available on Hulu not only often for a longer period of time, but also in the case of Hulu Plus, at a much higher resolution and available on a greater range of platforms – that said, Hulu Plus is a great subscription service, but Watch ABC is free.
As is so often the case with catch-up services for American television networks, even the traditional OTA ones, hardware support is left to a bare minimum. Granted, some networks do offer a greater range of platforms if the viewer kindly also subscribes to a partnered cable TV service, but many may argue that that defeats the whole point of being a FTA network which traditionally could be received with little more than a bent coat hanger. Watch ABC follows the typical trend here for American FTA networks with not only very limited catch-up hardware support, but lacking almost any way to bring their content to a television outside of whacking an HDMI cable directly out from your computer or laptop.
In a similar fashion, Watch ABC may have been the first of the main American networks to offer live streams as well as catch-up via the Internet, but unlike similar and much longer-running services in the UK and Europe, live ABC streams are only available to Internet users who are both customers of selected cable subscription services, and who also live in a very small selection of American cities. Due to those restrictions, I could only test the free catch-up material for this review.
Finally, ABC is a commercial network which derives its revenue from advertising. This means there are ads before each programme and at regular intervals during playback. Commercial breaks are currently less than with live television and include a handy countdown, with a typical hour-slot programme containing approximately five commercial breaks. I personally don’t find this excessive, and it should be expected for a FTA commercial network.
abc.go.com is the new home of Watch ABC. What difference there is between ABC Go and Watch ABC is a mystery to me and probably the world as well, but in any event, the recent revamp of ABC’s webpage is very much welcomed. Gone are the highly annoying full-sound video clips advertising ABC programmes with the dark, gloomy screen, and welcome to a bright, clear and quieter new look.
Some commercial networks flood their catch-up websites with ads, which granted, don’t get in the way of full-screen playback, but if they are too overwhelming they can make navigation unpleasant and even difficult. Thankfully, this is not a serious problem with Watch ABC, and thanks here must go to their design and management team. While I’m on a appreciative note, I also would like to congratulate the network for not flooding the site with short clips either.
Outside of the Live television tab which I couldn’t get working due to the fact I don’t subscribe to an American cable network, and the Featured home page, Watch ABC also offer a Shows page, which lists all of the current programmes from ABC. Unfortunately, they have omitted any way to filter these to only show the ones that have full episodes. Clicking on a show is great if it contains full episodes, as a list will hover providing you with the options available. Unfortunately, if there are no episodes, it will take you directly to the programme’s own page which I found rather irritating.
Your watched shows are listed in My Profile, which is hidden behind the Menu button. There are a couple of nice features here, including a small timeline that shows how far you have been in a show before stopping, and the ability to remove programmes from the page. Programmes will resume where you left off, but since there is no way to log in via the web portal, there are no cross-platform features to shift this across to other devices.
Video quality was quite a bit of a letdown on this platform. Whilst the Watch ABC FAQ states a bitrate of 1500kbps should be expected – and this was achieved via iOS when tested on the same network, I was lucky to see 900kbps* on my own tests on the web portal. So, Watch ABC are providing higher quality streams on the smaller-screened mobile device and lower quality on larger monitors. Go figure eh. As my young nephew grows up and starts asking why the sky is blue, why people get sick, or the fundamental differences between nuclear fission & fusion, providing the right answers will be a lot easier than trying to understand Watch ABC’s motives.
- Easy to use and well laid out.
- Buffer level on video playback screen.
- Includes My Profile for previously watched shows.
- Timeline on previously watched shows, along with ability to clear programmes from the list.
- Ability to resume previously watched material.
- Video quality seems often substandard compared to iOS app.
- Not very sofa-friendly.
- Live TV requires partnered cable service.
- No cross-platform support.
(Accessing WatchABC outside of the US may require a good SmartDNS or VPN service)
Watch ABC’s iOS app is available via the American iTunes store and is possibly the best way to watch ABC’s content – as long as you don’t mind the smaller screen.
The app itself is well designed, clear and easy to use. Granted, there are funkier television catch-up apps out there, Channel 4′s 4oD is possibly the nicest I have used, but the new look recently laid out for the Watch ABC app is still quite pleasant.
As with the website, the app’s front page concentrates on featured shows, with an all-on-one All Shows page listing everything ABC offer. And just like the webpage, there is no way to filter this down to programmes that actually contain full episodes. It’s a bit of hit and miss here.
In a move that seems as if it were created to curb the ever growing number of cord-cutters, the Live tab will only work if you subscribe to a partnered American cable TV operator and you are in a geographic location they support.
So that said, a bit more useful for cord-cutters is the Me tab, which is exactly the same as My Profile on their website, but with a different name. You even have the same opportunity to delete shows from the list, as well as track where you are by a handy timeline.
Video quality on the iPad is surprisingly better than what I could achieve on Watch ABC’s web portal. I tested regular streams averaging 1500kbps*, which is essentially standard definition. The video looked great on the iPad and it would probably also look good enough on your television, that is if Watch ABC supported AirPlay.
AirPlay will work through mirroring, but considering this is the cropped version, with black borders and diminished video quality, there is very little reason to resort to this.
The iPhone on the other hand, seemed to make do with only a 400kbps* stream. This is shockingly low by any standard, but I have to admit the algorithms used produced a good enough video on the tiny iPhone screen. Much better than many other streams I have tested at higher bitrates.
In almost all respects, this app would deserve the best platform title, but with no AirPlay, and thus no possible way to watch on a larger screen, along with the lack of offline downloads, this seems to relegate the app to a method of watching ABC programmes when in the garden or on the john.
- Standard definition streams that are good enough quality to watch (iPad)
- Watchlist through the oddly named Me screen.
- Ability to delete titles from the Me screen, as well as see where you are with the timeline.
- Program resume possible, and cross-iOS-platform compatible via iCloud syncing.
- Well designed user interface.
- No proper AirPlay support (Only poor quality mirroring).
- No offline download feature.
- iPhone only uses 400kbps streams.
- Not cross-platform compatible outside of iOS devices.
(Accessing WatchABC outside of the US may require a good SmartDNS or VPN service)
For a country that has some of the best commercial pay-wall on-demand services, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant and many more, the United States does lack behind many other countries for their FTA catch-up. A lot of this has to do with the country’s complicated licensing agreements, the fact that Hulu Plus already exists and the ever powerful and slow to adapt cable networks – not to mention a clear fear of the direction modern television is heading. No other country has such complicated and restrictive contracts and partnerships between cable/pay TV and terrestrial FTA television as that found in the United States. And this does hold back the catch-up industry quite significantly – with the viewers suffering the most.
But all that aside, it is possible to watch free-to-air catch-up television without paying extra for the privilege, even if it is then heavily restricted. Watch ABC provide a good basic service that is certainly worth visiting if you don’t have a Hulu Plus subscription. With such a subscription, there would be very little reason to hit the official ABC website or their respective apps, as Hulu Plus not only offer a larger range of ABC content, often with more episodes and at much higher resolutions, but also available on plenty of alternative devices making it easy to watch on your main television set – but that does come at a price.
Otherwise if you don’t mind watching low quality streams on your PC/Mac (which technically can be fed to your TV via an HDMI cable) or on a mobile platform, then Watch ABC’s own services may still be worth the effort. ABC do produce a wealth of entertainment, and if their new programming is up your street then it is certainly worth a visit.
The most important thing lacking here is full AirPlay support – after all, a recent survey did suggest that only 1.5% of people actually like to watch content on their mobile device rather than the main television, so why ignore the remaining 98.5%? While we are at it, try adding a Roku channel as well. If PBS can offer their services on Roku, the nations highest rated television network shouldn’t be dragging their feed either.
- Easy to use user Interface.
- Free access to a range of recently aired ABC programmes.
- Video quality up to standard definition.
- Resume and watchlist on each platform.
- No offline downloads.
- Free content arrives 8 days after airing.
- No proper Airplay support (without mirroring).
- Live streams require a partnered cable subscription despite being FTA.
- Limited hardware support and difficult to bring to the television.
- No cross-platform support.
- Watch ABC on the Apple TV will only work when subscribing to a partnered cables service.
- Live Stream is only available with a participating Pay-TV Provider account.
- Windows PC: 2.33GHz or faster x86-compatible processor, or Intel® Atom™ 1.6GHz or faster processor for netbooks. 128MB of RAM (1GB of RAM recommended for netbooks); 128MB of graphics memory
- Windows PC: Microsoft® Windows® XP (32-bit), Windows Server® 2003 (32-bit), Windows Server 2008 (32-bit), Windows Vista® (32-bit), Windows 7 (32-bit and 64-bit)
- Windows PC: Internet Explorer 8.0+ (IE 9.0+ for Live Stream), Mozilla Firefox 8.0+, Google Chrome 17.0+, Safari 5.0+
- Mac: Intel Core™ Duo 1.33GHz or faster processor. 256MB of RAM; 128MB of graphics memory
- Mac: OS X v10.6 or v10.7
- Mac: Safari 5.0+, Mozilla Firefox 8.0+, Google Chrome 17.0+
- Linux is not supported.
- iPad, iPad mini, iPhone, iPod touch: iOS 5.0 or above.
- Other devices: Kindle Fire (2nd Gen), Kindle Fire HD 7.0″, Kindle Fire HD 8.9″, Google Nexus 7″ & 10″, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7″ & 10.1″, Samsung Galaxy Note 8″ & 10.1″.
* All bitrate results are averaged from multiple tests.
28.08.2013: Review published: Score 5 – Average.
24.01.2014: Major update on all platforms.
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