Legal streams for 2012 TV hits

Can you legally catch up online on last year's hit TV shows?

Over the last few weeks, I looked at how blockbuster movies fared on online streaming services. Many mentioned that TV fares was a better way to measure this so this week, as I’ve done for the last few years, I’m looking into how the top 50 broadcast TV shows fared when it came to legal availability online.

Approach

As I did last year and two years ago, I pulled the data from Deadline.com’s Broadcast series ranker and cleaned it up. I took out every live and reality TV shows as the archival value of such show is limited since they are primarily marketed as “events” and, as such, lose most of their value to the viewer after the initial broadcast. As a result, news shows and sport events were also dropped from the list.

For data on the latest season, I looked at data posted in Wikipedia and counted seasons that happened during the 2012 year. This means that content from the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 certain was the data set I was hunting for, with episodes having run during the 2012 calendar year.  Where part of one of the seasons was available, I gave the service a partial availability. Where seasons prior to the 2011-2012 years were available, I did not give credit if the 2011-2012 or 2012-2013 seasons had no availability because I was focusing the effort on availability of last year’s shows.

From a service standpoint, I focused on services that allowed for streaming to most internet-enabled television. This meant that Netflix and Hulu were the main subscription based offerings and Amazon on-demand and iTunes were listed as pay-per-view services. This year, I’ve added Amazon Prime as it is increasingly becoming a player in the subscription space.

Subscription services

After cleaning up the data set and double checking the availability of the last TV season, we have a full data set for subscription services.

The results were as follows:

Rank Network Program Netflix Hulu Amazon Prime
1 CBS NCIS No No No
2 CBS NCIS: Los Angeles No No No
3 CBS The big bang theory No No No
4 CBS Two and a half men No No No
5 CBS The mentalist No No No
6 CBS Person of interest No No No
7 CBS Criminal minds No No No
8 ABC Modern family No Partial No
9 CBS CSI No No No
10 ABC Castle No Partial No
11 CBS Blue bloods No No No
12 CBS Unforgettable No No No
13 CBS Rob No No No
14 CBS Hawaii Five-O No No No
15 CBS The good wife No No No
16 ABC Once upon a time Partial Partial No
17 CBS Mike & Molly No No No
18 CBS 2 Broke Girls No No No
19 ABC Grey’s anatomy Partial Yes Partial
20 CBS CSI: Miami Yes Yes No
21 ABC Desperate housewives Yes Yes No
22 CBS CSI: NY No No No
23 CBS Rules of engagement Yes No No
24 FOX Terra Nova Yes Yes Yes
25 ABC Body of proof No Yes No
26 CBS How I met your mother No No No
27 FOX Alcatraz No No No
28 FOX Bones Partial Partial No
29 FOX Touch No Yes No
30 ABC Last man standing No No No
31 NBC Harry’s law No No No
32 ABC Missing No Yes No
33 CBS NYC 22 Yes No No
34 ABC Revenge Yes No No
35 FOX Glee No Yes No
36 FOX House No No No
37 CBS How to be a gentleman Yes No No
38 CBS A gifted man Yes No No
39 FOX New girl No Partial No
40 ABC Scandal Partial Partial No
41 ABC Private practice Partial Partial Partial
42 ABC The middle No Partial No
43 ABC GCB No Yes No
44 NBC Law and order: SVU No No No
45 FOX Family guy No Partial No
46 ABC Suburgatory No Partial No
47 ABC Pan Am No No No
48 ABC Man Up! No Yes No
49 FOX The Simpsons No No No
50 FOX The finder No Yes No

When I set out do do this, I came to the data with the assumption that Hulu and Netflix would wins those categories hand-down but was very surprised by the net result:

Availability Netflix Hulu Amazon Prime
No availability 37 28 47
Partial availability 5 10 2
Full availability 8 11 1

Of the top 50 TV shows on broadcast TV in 2012, only 11 were fully available for legal streaming from subscription services. While we’ve already witnessed that the availability of box office movies was limited on those services, it is surprising to see that TV content seems to follow the same pattern. Netflix and Amazon Prime appear to have a paucity of recent TV content. Netflix had 16% of the titles and Hulu managed to offer 22% of last year’s top shows. Amazon Prime has a very poor showing when it comes to that content type, with a mere 6% being available in any way shape or form and only one show being fully available.

But what could be the cause of that paucity of content. One of the things I decided to look into was whether certain channels were holding content back.

ABC CBS Fox NBC
No availability 2 17 3 2
Partial availability 13 5 3 0
Full availability 6 5 4 0

What is quite interesting here is how ABC and CBS dominate the overall number of shows that are offered. And, delving in, those two companies show radically different approaches to making content available online. ABC looks to offer the variety of its shows in some form. By comparison, CBS has decided that the only way a viewer should access its shows through its own website, thus unable on most aggregation services.

VOD

Because Amazon and iTunes both have strong VOD offerings on a variety of devices, I focused on those specific services. For comparison, Comcast offered to provide me with the data on their online TV services, Xfinity TV, and on their cable TV Xfinity VOD, which I incorporated into the chart below. The reason for on-boarding this data is that it presents an interesting story as to how cable companies are adapting to the new world, where many cord-cutters are trying to leave cable TV services for internet-only alternatives.

So with that said, let’s take a look at this year’s chart:

Rank Network Program Amazon VOD iTunes XfinityTV.com Cable VOD (Comcast)
1 CBS NCIS Yes Yes Partial Partial
2 CBS NCIS: Los Angeles Yes Yes Partial Partial
3 CBS The big bang theory Yes Yes No Partial
4 CBS Two and a half men Yes Yes No Partial
5 CBS The mentalist Yes Yes Partial Partial
6 CBS Person of interest Yes Yes No No
7 CBS Criminal minds Yes Yes No No
8 ABC Modern family Yes Yes Partial No
9 CBS CSI Yes Yes Partial Partial
10 ABC Castle Yes Yes Partial Partial
11 CBS Blue bloods Yes Yes Partial Partial
12 CBS Unforgettable Yes Yes No No
13 CBS Rob Yes Yes No No
14 CBS Hawaii Five-O Yes Yes Partial Partial
15 CBS The good wife Yes Yes Partial Partial
16 ABC Once upon a time Yes Yes Partial Partial
17 CBS Mike & Molly Yes Yes No No
18 CBS 2 Broke Girls Yes Yes No No
19 ABC Grey’s anatomy Yes Yes Partial Partial
20 CBS CSI: Miami Yes No No No
21 ABC Desperate housewives Yes Yes Yes Yes
22 CBS CSI: NY Yes Yes Partial Partial
23 CBS Rules of engagement Yes Yes No No
24 FOX Terra Nova Yes Yes No No
25 ABC Body of proof Yes Yes Partial No
26 CBS How I met your mother No Yes Partial No
27 FOX Alcatraz No No No No
28 FOX Bones Yes Yes Partial Partial
29 FOX Touch Yes Yes No No
30 ABC Last man standing Yes Yes No Partial
31 NBC Harry’s law No No No No
32 ABC Missing Yes Yes Yes No
33 CBS NYC 22 Yes Yes No No
34 ABC Revenge Yes Yes Partial Partial
35 FOX Glee Yes Yes Partial Partial
36 FOX House Yes Yes No No
37 CBS How to be a gentleman Yes Yes No No
38 CBS A gifted man Yes Yes No No
39 FOX New girl Yes Yes Partial Partial
40 ABC Scandal Yes Yes Partial Partial
41 ABC Private practice Yes Yes Partial Partial
42 ABC The middle Yes Yes Partial Partial
43 ABC GCB Yes Yes No No
44 NBC Law and order: SVU No No Partial Partial
45 FOX Family guy Yes No Partial Partial
46 ABC Suburgatory Yes Yes Partial Partial
47 ABC Pan Am Yes Yes No No
48 ABC Man Up! No Yes No No
49 FOX The Simpsons Yes Yes Partial Partial
50 FOX The finder Yes Yes No No

The first thing that pops at you is how much green there is for online VOD services like Amazon VOD and iTunes. Let’s aggregate the data to make it easier to read it:

Studio Number of shows Amazon VOD iTunes XfinityTV.com Cable VOD
ABC 16 15 (full) 16 (full) 2 (full) / 10 (partial) 2 (full) / 9 (partial)
CBS 22 22 (full) 22 (full) 9 (partial) 10 (partial)
Fox 10 9 (full) 8 (full) 5 (partial) 5 (partial)
NBC 2 0 0 1 (Partial) 1 (Partial)
Total 50 46 (full) 45 (full) 2 (full) / 25 (Partial) 2 (full) / 25 (Partial)

Amazon  had complete sets of 2012 episodes for 46 of the top 50 shows (92%), while iTunes had 45 of them (90%). Considering all the other data sets we’ve looked at over the last few weeks, this is a very good showing, making it clear that TV companies are mostly comfortable with selling their most recent content online.

What is surprising, however, is how little parity there is for cable TV. When I was approached by Comcast with their data set, I assumed that we’d see something close to 100% when it came to making shows available on TV VOD. But due to an approach that focuses more on recent content (ie. the last few weeks), in the same way as Hulu does for their subscription service, Comcast does not offer much beyond the last couple of months. Of the 50 shows, only one (Desperate Housewives, from ABC) had all episodes running in 2012 available.

While some of the reason for this poor showing can be seen as a strategy of presenting primarily the last 4-5 episodes series on a rolling schedule, another surprising part of the data set showed that 23 out of 50 shows (or 46%) were not available in any ways, either partially or fully, on Comcast’s services.

In this instance, the data seems to show that, if you want to catch up on complete seasons of TV shows, your best bet is to pull out your wallet and purchase episodes from an online service like Amazon or iTunes. In a world where hard drive is no longer a limited resources, the availability of any show any time is still limited by licensing rights and it appears that TV rights holders have decided to crown the internet as the place to go to purchase such content.

By Studios

Lastly, the question of whether a particular studio does better licensing that another could come up. So I normalized the data as percentages to get a sense of whether a substantial difference existed.

Studio Number of shows Amazon VOD iTunes XfinityTV.com Cable VOD (Comcast)
ABC 16 94% (full) 100% (full) 12% (full) / 62.5% (partial) 12% (full) / 56% (partial)
CBS 22 100% (full) 100% (full) 41% (partial) 45% (partial)
Fox 10 90% (full) 80% (full) 50% (partial) 50% (partial)
NBC 2 0% 0% 50% (Partial) 50% (Partial)
Total 50 92% (full) 90% (full) 4% (full) / 50% (Partial) 4% (full) / 50% (Partial)

Based on the data, ABC may be more willing to license its content out than its competitors and CBS seems to be more conservative in its approach. Corporate ties and history may have to do with this, as ABC is owned by Disney, a company with close ties to Apple (Steve Jobs sat on their board and was a major shareholder after he sold Pixar to them). However, corporate history isn’t everything, as Comcast’s ownership of NBC does not seem to give it much in the way of preferential treatment on content (then again, the data set is so small that it’s hard to tell).

However, we are dealing with relatively small data sets so trying to draw any major conclusion out of this may be premature. However, watching how those number evolve over time could be interesting.

Conclusion

When it comes to legally streaming hit TV show, the internet is the place to go. The catalog there is richer than the catalog you can find on regular cable television. In a world of increasing bandwidth and cheaper storage space, it appears that VOD services like Amazon VOD and iTunes have taken an early lead. Meanwhile, cable companies are still focusing on more recent fares as part of their offering. Which model is best in the long run is a matter for debate but it is clear that if you wanted to bring yourself up to date on what was hot on TV in 2012, the internet is the place to go.

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About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.