Got a hankering for The Daily Show?
Or maybe the season finale of Heroes, or that Alfred Hitchcock episode you vaguely remember from childhood. How about The Simpsons, season 19, episode 13?
They're yours. It doesn't matter whether you've got a DVR - they're available online. Now. Free.
High-speed Internet access is finally the norm, rather than the exception, and that means people can post full-length and professional videos on the Internet for viewing whenever and wherever they like. (We're not talking YouTube amateur hour here, as entertaining as that can be.)
Major networks now air "catch-up" episodes online of some of their most popular shows (CBS' Survivor, NBC's Tonight Show, ABC's Lost). Video rental company Netflix offers subscribers unlimited on-demand Internet videos. And a whole collection of sites devoted to video has bloomed in the past couple of years, including Baltimore's TidalTV, which launched in test form in May.
The sites are different from the TV tuner cards you can buy for your PC, allowing your computer to receive live television signals. These are specific shows available only through the Internet; some require you to download software to watch them.
Some sites are definitely better than others, with clear show listings and easy navigation. And all are expected to get better, assuming they survive the cut, analysts said.
"They've got to start making money," said Adam Wright, director of Ipsos MediaCT, a Minneapolis market research firm that analyzes converging media and content in the telecom and technology industries.
For the most part, the sites hope to make money through advertising, embedding limited commercials throughout videos, the same way we're used to seeing them on traditional television. Except these commercials can't be skipped or fast-forwarded through as TV commercials can be nowadays with digital video recorders.
It is a model that people understand and seem to accept.
A December study by a division of Experian Research Services showed that viewers are 44 percent "more engaged" with commercials they watch online than those they see on TV. That means they tend to pay attention to commercials rather than use the ads as a reason to leave the room and refill their drinks.
The television set is still the main place people turn to watch video, though the Internet is steadily gaining ground, according to Wright's research.
More than half of the country ages 12 and older has watched some kind of streaming video online. In February 2008, those who watch online viewed 19 percent of their videos on the Internet, up from 11 percent a year earlier. And they watched 70 percent of their shows on the traditional tube, down from 75 percent in 2007.
Wright's firm tracks the number of people viewing these sites, and it is still a tiny percentage, he said, "barely even registering." But he expects that to balloon during the coming years.
"I think it all boils down to they have some control over the digital media," Wright said. "This light has sort of turned on above consumers' heads."
The Internet first taught us we could get the information we wanted when we wanted it. Then music came along and taught us we could get the content we wanted on demand.
And "now video is trying to fall in line," Wright said.
If your cable's out, you can watch shows online. If you want to kill time waiting for a train, watch on your laptop. If you have an urge to view a specific episode, chances are at least a clip of it is available on the Internet.
"It's changing the way people consume content from a passive to a much more active [role]," said Robb Tyler Doub, a general partner with College Park's New Markets Venture Partners, which funded TidalTV's first round of financing.
The Baltimore company raised $15 million, which puts it among the top video sites based on venture capital, but on the low end according to Will Richmond, a broadband analyst based in Boston who publishes online at VideoNuze.com. He figures that the top eight such sites, including those that provide amateur and original content, have raised a collective $366 million so far.
Here's a look at four Internet sites that offer the most professional video selection, the sort of shows people are used to seeing on TV.
FOUNDED: 2007 by Scott Ferber, formerly of Advertising.com
VENTURE CAPITAL RAISED: $15 million
NAVIGATING: The site is organized like a digital TV grid, with rows of channels and columns of shows. Shows are also listed alphabetically or by channel.
SELECTION: Roughly two dozen channels, a mix of news, sports, lifestyle and education. Channels include HGTV, National Geographic, Ford Models, the Food Network and CBS. Current shows include AP news, CSI Miami, House Hunters, and Big Brother.
PLUS: There's a channel flipping feature that lets you surf shows as you do in front of the television, though slower.
MINUS: The pop-up remote control takes up half the screen, and the site, which is still in the working-out-the-kinks phase, can be difficult to navigate.
HEADQUARTERS: Los Angeles
VENTURE CAPITAL RAISED: $100 million
NAVIGATING: Hulu lists its content by category (genre, popularity, network, clip or full episode) or title.
SELECTION: Hulu has clips and full episodes (marked by a TV or film reel icon) from partners including Fox, NBC Universal, Warner Bros., FX, E! Entertainment and Bravo. Shows include The Office, House, The Simpsons, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
PLUS: Hulu offers entire feature films, including The Jerk, Requiem for a Dream, and Ice Age. It also lets you embed videos on your Web site, and it is a breeze to get around.
MINUS: Hulu seems to have the formula down. All that's left is to make money and continue adding content.
Veoh Networks (veoh.com)
FOUNDED: 2004 by Dmitry Shapiro, who also created a peer-to-peer security software
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
VENTURE CAPITAL RAISED: $70 million
NAVIGATING: Veoh lists video by category (genre, popularity, network, community) and title.
SELECTION: Veoh has YouTube-style amateur content (you can upload, too) and the professional stuff. The site grabs video from various sources, including competitors (one movie came from Hulu) and shares them by linking computers in a peer-to-peer, or P2P, method. Content publishers include CBS, Lions Gate and PBS. Shows include The Love Boat, Family Ties and Arrested Development.
PLUS: Through its free VeohTV download, you can search for video anywhere on the Internet and watch it from that one application. And because it streams content from other sites, you can watch Hulu's stuff.
MINUS: You have to register to download software for the coolest features. TV shows and movies are all lumped together in an alphabetical listing.
FOUNDED: 2006 by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom, founders of Skype, a popular voice-over Internet program that lets you make free calls from your computer
VENTURE CAPITAL RAISED: $45 million
NAVIGATING: Joost lists shows by channels and genres, though it is difficult to understand how they are arranged (not alphabetically), which makes browsing tough.
SELECTION: Joost says it has more than 28,000 shows and 480 channels, though some are pretty obscure, such as those devoted to the tango. A little more popular may be the selections from MTV (full episodes of Punk'd ), Nickelodeon ( Ren and Stimpy) and CBS (Swingtown).