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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.