Thursday, August 13, 2009

TV on the Internet

Note: This is another one of those blog posts that's probably going to go on for a while without really saying anything important. I haven't done one of those for a while.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it gives people the opportunity to watch television shows and movies without a television, VCR, or DVD player. For someone like me, who watches a lot more television than I'd like to admit, it's exciting. However, it can also frequently be annoying. Why is that, you may ask? Well, I'll tell you why. Because, with instant access to certain shows, I come to expect any episode of any television show to be just a few clicks away--and it definitely is not. Granted, a lot of the new shows are available in various places online, often just a day after they air on TV. But older shows are a lot harder to track down. Or they can be.

Anyway, there are basically 3 different ways to find TV shows on the Internet: free with commercials, free without commercials, and paid.

Free with commercials: This includes sites such as Hulu, Fancast, and the "Shows" section on YouTube. This also includes the network websites. If you're looking for a specific, current show, chances are good you can watch it on the network's web site. Some of the video players are easier to use than others. The other sites have the rights to certain shows from various networks (and, in some cases, only certain episodes from those shows). You can watch them for free, but the videos are interrupted periodically to show a commercial (sometimes the same commercial during every break). They're always adding new stuff when they get the rights to it, so the selection is expanding. They have old shows, new shows, network shows, and even some cable shows--but nothing rated TV-MA (sorry, True Blood fans who don't have HBO!).

Free without commercials: These are usually found on websites with user-generated content, where kind souls have decided to upload shows that they, technically, may or may not have the rights to. Aside from the legal issues, this can be both good and bad. The main advantage here is selection. If you can't find it on Hulu, chances are someone else has it uploaded somewhere. This includes shows you would normally only be able to find on premium cable channels. Websites like Surf the Channel try to collect all of the links into one easy-to-search place. The disadvantages here are that these links are much more unreliable--if YouTube is purging copyrighted content, every episode of a certain show could disappear...for a while. They're constantly being deleted and re-uploaded. Also, Surf the Channel is vulnerable to hackers. My antivirus program doesn't like it.

Paid: This includes websites like iTunes and Amazon, where you can pay to own a favorite episode or show. This is good if it's something you know you'd like to watch over and over again--and if you have the space for it. It's not so good if you've never seen a show before and don't feel like paying $2 an episode only to find out you don't like it--or if you don't happen to have an extra 30 gigabytes on your hard drive. I will say that iTunes has an insane selection, especially with new shows, including premium cable and shows in HD. Netflix also has videos you can watch online (or stream through the Internet to your TV with a special box) but their selection of TV shows isn't nearly as wide as iTunes.

What I'd really like to see is a site that has a wider selection than the free-with-ad sites without having to purchase the episode. Here's my vision: For a monthly subscription fee, you get unlimited access to thousands of shows (more than the free-with-commercials) which you can watch at any time over the Internet. You could even have different levels: a free version would let you watch, say, five hours per month. Or maybe certain shows would only be available with a paid plan. Paid subscribers could have unlimited viewing, and for an additional fee could download episodes to their computers. I like the streaming-to-TV idea that Netflix has--I think the box is from a company called Roku--so I'd make my website compatible with the box as well (no additional charge). There could be an extra fee for HD format. You could even charge extra for shows like Dexter or True Blood or The Sopranos. Personally, I'd make it compatible with iTunes and other portable video players. I doubt Apple would agree to that, but this is all hypothetical anyway...

I'd be willing to pay for a subscription like that. Normally I only use the Internet to pay for items, not services (Netflix being my one exception). But let's say a website like the one I envision would cost $20 a month. First of all, that's cheaper than cable by a wide margin. If it had a wide enough selection of shows, it could actually replace cable TV altogether. And if you'd watch more than 10 shows in a month, it's cheaper than iTunes. Personally, I think the flat rate is better than paying per episode or per viewing, because if I purchase a video and don't like it I feel it was a waste of money. And while I do love being able to carry around my favorite TV shows on my iPod, they take up A LOT of space on my laptop.

Question for the comments: What do you think of my idea? Would you pay for a website like the one I've described? What, if anything, would you change?

(Additional question: who wants to bet this post will be spammed with at least 5 ads for video sites? Should I add a spam filter?)

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