Why steal it when you can stream it?

You missed an episode of your favorite television show last night. You don't have a DVR. You don't know anyone who recorded it. What can you do? The answer, for many people, is to proceed to download the episode illegally through the various channels of distribution available on the internet. My question to these people is this: Why don't you just stream it?

My interest in this subject was piqued a few weeks ago when I missed the premier of the new NBC series, "My Own Worst Enemy". My only option, I thought, was to illegally download the file and risk really ticking off my ISP. Perhaps it was by luck, but I suddenly remembered my friend talking to me, once, about Hulu.com. For the uninitiated, Hulu.com offers streaming episodes from NBC, Fox and a few smaller television networks. Sure enough, I head on over there and I was, within 2 minutes, watching a 480p stream of the episode I missed. I couldn't help but wonder why people would choose to illegally download this content when they could stream it instantly.

Don't get me wrong, the idea of streaming, whether through Hulu or a network's official website isn't perfect. There are advertisement breaks, but these are limited to no more than 30 seconds long and no more than three per half hour of air time. Not that inconvenient, but still not ideal, for some. Also, it's all web based which means you don't have access to some of the more advanced features present when playing a multimedia file inside your local multimedia application of choice and you can't simply load the file onto your iPod or PSP and take it on the road with you. Still, can that really be a deal breaker for every one? Again, why don't you stream it?

The answer is simple: There's no consistency and a lot of guess work involved because the networks have been slow to embrace this system of instantly gratifying digital distribution. Take a look at Hulu, for instance. Fox releases the latest "Family Guy" episode the day after it airs, but they wait a week to release each episode of "House". On the other side of the site, NBC decided to not post the first two episodes of the latest season of their struggling series, "Heroes". How can someone jump into the season and become a regular viewer if they're left without key information?

If you travel away from Hulu and visit the other networks, such as CBS, the CW, and ABC, you're bound to find just as much inconsistency. CBS barely offers anything, CW doesn't offer much in the way of higher quality streams and ABC requires you to install software to watch their shows instead of relying on flash like the other guys do. It's all one great big mess.

I really dig Hulu, though. I go to the site, choose the show I want to watch, choose the 480p option and then "dim the lights" (grays out the surrounding screen space to give focus to the video) and enjoy the show. I just wish it were more consistent. I wish all these sites were. The idea is absolutely perfect, but the execution is far from it. Think about it: You can instantly watch the show you missed at a reasonable quality. You don't have to wait for a download or break any laws in the process. The networks get their money and you get your entertainment with little interruption.

Unfortunately, if this ideal is to become a reality, the networks need to wake up and do it right:

  1. Use flash. We all have it installed, so there's little hassle involved in the entire process. Plus, it just works and won't scare off the more novice browser away with various installation prompts.
  2. Post current episodes immediately. We know you have to make money off the sales of the DVD's of each season, but get every episode of the current season online, in a timely manner, and keep it there until the season is over.
  3. Look at Hulu. The networks that don't post their material on Hulu need to look at the service and see how much they do right. The player is feature rich and really gives attention to the content that matters, the show (and subsequent advertisements) that you're watching.
Do all of this and you'll be surprised. You may not win over every one and portability is still an issue, but those pesky illegal downloaders may be willing to give legitimacy a chance, after all. Don't fight the technology, guys, embrace it.

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Actually if I miss an episode that my PC did not record, I trek over to iTunes or other media areas to see if I can buy it. If that fails then I move onward to downloading it; same stands true for movies.

The thing is, sometimes I try hard to find a movie I want to watch on itunes or other media areas and turn up entirely empty or in the case of today, I actually attempted to buy an episode of a series off itunes but ran into a problem with the site.... so I downloaded.

I'll add something to your list:

4. Normalize the volume on the freaking commercials. Yeah, I know commercials on TVC are loader than the programs usually, but at some online TV watching (southpark, NBC.com, I'm looking at you) sites, the commercials are freaking SCREAMING compared to the actual content.

Yeah, that's kind of wonky. And since here in Bulgaria there's no other option for me, I download the TV-ripped episodes via torrents. They're only 350 MB each, so we're not talking super high quality, and they're directly from the tv stations, albeit without commercials.

Because they aren't free! just because you don't pay a cent, doesn't make it free. The TV channel paid for the right to air the program and instead of charging the viewer, they make the money back from the ads.

OT: That is one thing that really irks me about subscription TV, you do pay for it and it's still riddled with ads...

I use BBC iPlayer quite a bit. Although since getting Virgin Media with a V+ Box I have started recording a lot more. I am a little disappointed though to find that this new HD box only has ONE HD channel... ONE! Even then that channel broadcasts only for a few hours and when it does most of the programs are all ones I don't watch. Even when Sky One returns to Virgin, tomorrow it seems, it returns only in SD. I guess after getting excited about it Sky One coming back to Virgin its still not making the most of the HD. Looks like I will still be forced to download from the net to get access to LOST and 24 in HD then.

If I can't store, move, copy, or delete it, I don't own it and am at someone else's whim. This is the argument behind most DRM today - and this leaves a lot of people wondering what happens when the company/person who controls the distribution (Sony/Microsoft/whoever) goes under. I see people downloading TV episodes as an extension of this train of thought. I think it's the perception that something publicly available on a national TV network should be generally available; that is, available for the audience anywhere, and at any time. Apple, Amazon, and a few others are way ahead of NBC/Fox/whoever in trying to understand what consumers want.

Online providers, such as Hulu and what have you, are the compromise in what I call 'imaginary ownership' of material. They are available at any time, and anywhere the original service is normally provided free of charge, but you can't copy, delete, or move them. It's a balancing act of rights for the owner and the consumer. Remember, the only right you have is to watch the video, even if you purchased the box set for a TV show. All you really bought was some shiny circle-shaped plastic discs, a cool box, and the license to broadcast said media for personal use only, subject to whatever restrictions copyright laws provide. This is where people get caught in their logic. "If I bought it, I should be able to do anything to it, right?" Wrong. This is imaginary ownership. Now, by extension, you can see where this whole world of lawsuits and litigation companies such as the RIAA and MPAA comes from.

The saddest thing is that all of these companies are defrauding consumers in that they are not advertising what they are actually selling. You see on a box "All twelve episodes of season five," and think that you've actually bought the episodes, when really all you've done is buy the rights to broadcast for personal use. You'll never see or hear anyone describe the physical boxset as a license, but that's all it is. There you have it, the balancing act between what is and isn't property. If you think this is wrong, even distribution companies don't know what to make of it. Apple has a "self destruct" clause, where they will provide all information needed to decrypt or unlock media in the event they go under and can no longer enforce the license to broadcast that they sell. Talk about a broken system.

Anyway, as it stands, online providers such as Hulu tip the balance more towards the content providers in that they give more ultimate control over the actual content they own, and the perception of ownership is, in my opinion, one of the underlying reasons why people seek out and download episodes as opposed to streaming them.

I "steal" episodes because the tv shows in our country are either reality series, hospital series, or police series numero: 29348723947.

That and the fact that it's hard to find a decent show on a channel then sends a complete season in one run is near to impossible. I download because that is the only way I can watch a show from beginning to end, without commercials and it's the only way to watch a fun show.

There is way to much crap television nowadays. Idols, The Next Topmodel etc etc etc. And in the Netherlands we have a few even worse ones as well. Like "Farmer looks for wife" (yup, I am not kidding), Big Brother (was fun the first time, and a little the second, but they decided to milk it). Then there is a terrible rip-off off big brother called "The Colden Cage" and I could go on forever.

I used to watch tv for hours around 8 years ago if not more. Now it's a world record for me when I watch 3 hours tv in one month!

Ow, and that site is nice, but a lot of people don't live in the US...

Yamanaka said,
I "steal" episodes because the tv shows in our country are either reality series, hospital series, or police series numero: 29348723947.

That and the fact that it's hard to find a decent show on a channel then sends a complete season in one run is near to impossible. I download because that is the only way I can watch a show from beginning to end, without commercials and it's the only way to watch a fun show.

There is way to much crap television nowadays. Idols, The Next Topmodel etc etc etc. And in the Netherlands we have a few even worse ones as well. Like "Farmer looks for wife" (yup, I am not kidding), Big Brother (was fun the first time, and a little the second, but they decided to milk it). Then there is a terrible rip-off off big brother called "The Colden Cage" and I could go on forever.

I used to watch tv for hours around 8 years ago if not more. Now it's a world record for me when I watch 3 hours tv in one month!

Ow, and that site is nice, but a lot of people don't live in the US...

Your not the only ones, we have that here in Australia too. Commercial TV here is the pits and the ads are way out of control! in some shows it's 5 minutes of show, followed by 30 seconds to 1 minute of ads...it's very annoying.

Why stream it when you can download it?

I don't really know why people like streaming long videos (youtube is ok usually - short videos), but if I download an episode, I can watch it whenever I want (and I use RSS for TV shows, so the download starts as soon as the show is on the tracker) pause, fast forward and rewind (a feature that is semi-broken on youtube) and if for some reason I have to restart my PC in the middle of watching the show, I do not have to redownload it. Oh, and for some shows, I can get 720p quality.

Now, if some particular show was available only on streaming - I would record it, that's what I do with all TV shows that I watch on TV. I have two VCRs. If a TV show airs at a convenient (for me) time, I will watch it and record it stopping the tape at commercials (and I newer buy what they advertise). If the show airs at an inconvenient time then I set one VCR to record it then I watch the show and record it to the other VCR. Finding the final version on bittorrent saves me from having to buy the tape and wear out my VCRs. If you want to know why I use an outdated technology (VHS) to record my shows instead of a PC with a TV tuner, the answer is that I found PC to be not as reliable. Oh, and usually TV shows that are on TV and those that I download are mutually exclusive as I don't live in the US.

It means I can watch it on my terms. I generally tend to have issue with my broadband when streaming from the BBC on a Saturday for the football/soccer, so streaming a show might be out of my league! It's not like I'm on a slow connection either, 5Mb/sec and more!
So if I come home and want to watch Family Guy, I'll unashamedly start the download, make my dinner and come back to find it 90% complete.

Oh and I own all the shows I download on DVD, buying myself or get bought the box sets! Once I own the physical media, I delete the avi's to free up space on the old hard drives.

I'm a big Hulu fan... when I'm in the US...
But I have family that lives in Latin America (who I visit a lot) and currently I'm in London. And guess what does not work outside of the US.... Hulu...
Yes... I know there are ways around it. And yes, it does have commertial ads but they are very short and we should all understand that somebody has to pay for the show.

Lastley... I think a big reason to illegally download shows is because a lot of people like to collect things (such as my self :p). And if 3 years from now I want to re-watch Season 1 of The Office... chances are Hulu will not have it. Yes... I know I could just get the DVD... but I <3 digital media so much better than a silly old disc

Try to stream something from Canada.

The fact is for Canadians illegal download or recording is still the only options when you miss an episode. Not everyone can afford a 500$ CA PVR just to record twice a year or have the knowledge to bypass location filter.

Because streaming video looks like crap; because a downloaded video can be played on an actual TV and watched from the couch, instead of hunched in front of a monitor; because I can watch it anytime I want forever without needing the internet. Oh and finally I don't believe downloading a TV show is stealing any more than taping it off the TV is.

Streaming is a huge headache because you need an internet connection, so that means a whole bunch of devices don't support it. Also, certain clients are only available on certain platforms, with video files you can just convert between formats. Certain devices require custom software to load content onto them, so sometimes this may be your only choice.

Another reason is bandwidth costs. If you're constantly streaming tons of videos, especially if you want to watch the same ones over again, there's a waste of bandwidth. A lot of ISPs are putting caps on connections, so you may be paying a lot more if you are streaming than if you are just downloading once and playing many times.

Quality is also a factor, since streaming video has a lower bitrate than videos you can download, especially if we are talking high definition content.

Biggest reason of all: If you download it, you control the content. Some moderator won't come around to take it down, or access won't be restricted to paying members after a while, licensing issues won't mean your video is no longer available, a bankrupted studio won't have all their content taken down, etc.

Even with physical media, you can't get certain movies on DVD anymore, ever, because whoever owns that content is not publishing it anymore, or the various licenses are owned by different parties, etc. That doesn't matter to someone who just wants to see their favorite movie/TV show/etc.

It would be the same case with streaming video, except in that case when the ONLY copy is down, NOBODY ever gets to see it again. At least with discontinued videos, the copy you own does not disappear into thin air.

It's just too much trouble for a media that is completely unpredictable and often unreliable.

I know I will be downloading a lot more tv episodes since the nwe place I'm moving doesn't offer HD cable (I could but then I'd have to go with Rogers), and I refuse to watch House in SD on a nice 46" tv....

Maybe it's because I'm still a teen, but is there anyone else that actually likes commercials? Not in excess, but they give me free time to go to the bathroom, and some are just outright funny.

Very nice Chris! many good points! Portability is a huge thing for me I easily see problems with them making free portable versions of it, since they cannot guarantee you will watch the ads, and they have no way of tracking how many times ads in that version were seen.

somwhat related... I have a better chance of watching ads when they are shorter. For example, Fringe airs with only 90sec commercial breaks, which typically is short enough to keep me from wandering away from the tv or flipping channels...something like 30 second ads (i think hulu has ads short like that) are even better, since i would typically be too lazy to bother fast forwarding the 30 seconds on media i had control over

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