All-you-can-eat entertainment, all for the cost of an Internet connection

Column: Forget the movie theater. Forget cable. Your computer has all the movies and shows you need.

Rick Nease/Detroit Free Press/NEWSCOM

If you’re anything like me, you’re looking for every way you can to trim a few dollars here and there. Buying in bulk. Finding the cheapest gas in town. Combining trips to make errands more efficient.

In my family, one of the expenditures that was the hardest to cut back on was entertainment. We enjoyed going out to movies or buying the newest DVD for the kids. But we’ve even cut back on these amenities.

Now that I’ve pulled it off, here are ways to get back some of that entertainment value – all for the cost of an Internet connection. There can be small additional costs, yes. But you can determine which of those costs you can afford, while still giving your family a few treats.

Let’s start with the obvious: YouTube. I’m not talking about the videos put up by college students or overzealous political types – although they do have their moments. No, I mean the good stuff. For instance, I discovered the other day that James Burke’s amazing series “Connections” is available on YouTube. I’m a huge Monty Python fan – most of their better skits are free online. There is also the YouTube Screening Room, where new films are featured every two weeks. (This week it’s the documentary about America’s obsession with food, “Super Size Me.”)

Thanks to YouTube’s agreements with video producers, we now have two new categories on the site: Movies and Shows. I found “Sherlock Hound,” an animation series done by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese genius behind “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” If you’re in the mood for a flashback, there are even old episodes of “MacGyver” and “Charlie’s Angels.” And YouTube has every music video you’ve ever wanted to see. (Love that Weird Al!)

If you’re looking for something more up-to-date, try Hulu. NBC Universal and News Corp. created the sleek site in response to YouTube. There are scads of movies, documentaries, TV shows, and trailers from upcoming films. You can catch last week’s episode of “30 Rock” or Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” (To be fair, you can also find Mr. Stewart on Comedy Central’s website, along with lots of other funny stuff.)

Now, I want to suggest a few things that I pay for. I have a Netflix account for about $15 a month. The other day I broke down and took the kids to see “Monsters vs Aliens” at a local theater. All together, it cost $50 – and that was for the non-3-D version. (The extra dimension would have cost an additional $21.) As my wife said to me, “Netflix looks better and better.”

The subscription sends DVDs to my mailbox. But here’s something you might not have known: there are hundreds of older movies that you can watch for free, instantly, as part of your subscription.

I can't part with my subscription. It lets me watch Red Sox games from here in rural Northern Virginia. But I can also watch Dodgers games if I like, or Brewers games, or, heaven forbid, Yankees games (only to watch them lose, of course). It’s about $100 for the entire season. (I’ve also written in the past about how you can listen to NBA and NHL game for free.)

But there is one glitch in this: Internet entertainment means that you need to watch all everything on a computer. Today’s larger monitors make it a lot less cumbersome than you might think. (My kids do it constantly and don’t mind a bit.) And just last week, Wired reported that Adobe will bring Flash – the code used for YouTube, Hulu, most other Web videos – to televisions, set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and other home-entertainment devices.

“What this means is that Internet TV providers will soon be able to deliver interactive content directly to your living room TV, without you having to attach a computer to that TV,” writes Wired. “The upshot? Hulu in your living room -- we hope. Adobe says that the first devices with the new Adobe Flash Platform for the Digital Home will be available in the second half of 2009. The company has already lined up an impressive array of content and cable company partners, including Comcast, Disney, Netflix, and The New York Times Company.”

So it might not be that long before we won’t have to gather around the old computer screen to see the “Parrot” skit from Monty Python, or the latest episode of “Biggest Loser.”

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