How The Internet Changed TV

TV is dead. Long live TV. For decades the box in the corner of our living rooms has been a focal point. We’ve gathered around it to hear some of the biggest news stories of the past half a century, laughed along with global sitcoms, and cried tears over emotional scenes. But while the internet has, and is continuing to massively disrupt many industries, it was difficult to break television’s hold over our lives. Over the past few years this has begun to change. As times have changed, so has the way we’ve watched television, and also how television is made.

Before TV made the jump to the internet, linear, timetabled programmes were the only choice, with the TV guide and a well-planned diary the key to ensuring that you didn’t miss your favourite programmes. Now if you want to know what’s on, you can look at an online TV guide on your phone browser on the way home. For those with a satellite TV service such as Sky or Virgin, you can even tell your sky box to record a show you worry you’ll miss with a few taps on your phone. The Sky app lets you view the schedule, often weeks in advance, then choose which shows should be recorded. You can even watch the show on your mobile phone with the Sky Go app, if it has already been broadcast. No more missed shows because the train was late. These developments didn’t happen overnight and it’s easy to forget that these useful features didn’t exist barely a decade ago.

One very modern phenomenon is so-called multi screening. This refers to the fact that many viewers will be watching their favourite show on their TV, but also tweeting about it or updating their Facebook status on a different device, as it is being broadcast. Many TV shows will often display a hashtag so users can share their thoughts and reactions, sometimes while the show is being broadcast live.

Even YouTube is harnessing the power of TV, offering the opportunity to not only buy and view popular TV shows but follow independent and original shows, some made by YouTube users. However, there are also some (illegal) uploads of popular shows hidden amongst the cat videos, including entertainment and documentaries from the likes of HBO and the BBC. This makes YouTube a popular way of watching back catalogues of past TV shows, a trend which has been recognised by producers and broadcasters, with official channels (HBO being an example) now appearing to help combat unofficial uploads. Companies are certainly looking at the way individuals are watching their show in an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach.

Arguably, the most popular way of watching TV online has illegal origins. In the early days of internet TV, some of online TV’s first adopters would often download illegally recorded TV shows over networks such as Limewire or through torrents. Developments in HTML and Flash video meant that high quality video could be accessed through a browser and HD video followed with the introduction of fibre optic broadband. Legally questionable sites such as Primewire, Peekvid and Yify allowed (and some still allow) users to watch thousands of high quality TV shows online, for free. An opportunity was spotted and services such as Netflix and NowTV (Sky’s online offering) were born, offering thousands of HD movies and TV shows, albeit for a monthly fee. As of November 2016, Netflix boasts around 33.3 million worldwide subscribers, with different shows available by region depending on the agreement Netflix has locally with a broadcaster or production company. Even though a show on Netflix may only be available, for example, in the United States, a VPN (Virtual Private Network) allows users anywhere in the world unlimited access to the Netflix catalogue by tricking Netflix servers into thinking that the user’s device or computer is actually in the country where the TV programme is allowed to be shown. This development in VPN technology has allowed users to view shows that they normally wouldn’t have access to, breeding international superfans and increasing the global profile of the shows in question. With Netflix’s current battles with VPNs it’s unclear whether they’ll still be used, but given trends in other parts of the web, it would be wise for Netflix to find ways to work with users’ needs, rather than put up a brick wall.

Despite the leaping developments in online television, the limitation of watching TV on a computer monitor or laptop can sometimes be inconvenient or off-putting. Step forward the Smart TV. Many modern TVs will have a built in internet browser or even a dedicated app for watching Netflix or YouTube, bringing the flexibility of online TV to what is often the best screen in the home. More incredible developments include certain features of Sky’s newest offering. SkyQ allows users to start watching a TV show whilst away from home on their device or computer and the show will continue to play on TV when the person arrives at home, or even more impressively, as they move between rooms if there are multiple TVs in the house.

As technology improves, the ways we consume media will continue to develop and improve, with innovations dictating how, when and where we watch TV. Advertising companies are jumping on board the streaming bandwagon, with services such as ITV player only available with built in adverts. There is no doubt that the way we watch TV in 10 years will be as different as it was when we were still scouring the internet for streams of series 1 of the Office.