Legal streams for 2012 TV hits

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.


As I did last year and two years ago, I pulled the data from’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:

RankNetworkProgramNetflixHuluAmazon Prime
2CBSNCIS: Los AngelesNoNoNo
3CBSThe big bang theoryNoNoNo
4CBSTwo and a half menNoNoNo
5CBSThe mentalistNoNoNo
6CBSPerson of interestNoNoNo
7CBSCriminal mindsNoNoNo
8ABCModern familyNoPartialNo
11CBSBlue bloodsNoNoNo
14CBSHawaii Five-ONoNoNo
15CBSThe good wifeNoNoNo
16ABCOnce upon a timePartialPartialNo
17CBSMike & MollyNoNoNo
18CBS2 Broke GirlsNoNoNo
19ABCGrey’s anatomyPartialYesPartial
20CBSCSI: MiamiYesYesNo
21ABCDesperate housewivesYesYesNo
23CBSRules of engagementYesNoNo
24FOXTerra NovaYesYesYes
25ABCBody of proofNoYesNo
26CBSHow I met your motherNoNoNo
30ABCLast man standingNoNoNo
31NBCHarry’s lawNoNoNo
33CBSNYC 22YesNoNo
37CBSHow to be a gentlemanYesNoNo
38CBSA gifted manYesNoNo
39FOXNew girlNoPartialNo
41ABCPrivate practicePartialPartialPartial
42ABCThe middleNoPartialNo
44NBCLaw and order: SVUNoNoNo
45FOXFamily guyNoPartialNo
47ABCPan AmNoNoNo
48ABCMan Up!NoYesNo
49FOXThe SimpsonsNoNoNo
50FOXThe finderNoYesNo

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:

AvailabilityNetflixHuluAmazon Prime
No availability372847
Partial availability5102
Full availability8111

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.

No availability21732
Partial availability13530
Full availability6540

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.


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:

RankNetworkProgramAmazon VODiTunesXfinityTV.comCable VOD (Comcast)
2CBSNCIS: Los AngelesYesYesPartialPartial
3CBSThe big bang theoryYesYesNoPartial
4CBSTwo and a half menYesYesNoPartial
5CBSThe mentalistYesYesPartialPartial
6CBSPerson of interestYesYesNoNo
7CBSCriminal mindsYesYesNoNo
8ABCModern familyYesYesPartialNo
11CBSBlue bloodsYesYesPartialPartial
14CBSHawaii Five-OYesYesPartialPartial
15CBSThe good wifeYesYesPartialPartial
16ABCOnce upon a timeYesYesPartialPartial
17CBSMike & MollyYesYesNoNo
18CBS2 Broke GirlsYesYesNoNo
19ABCGrey’s anatomyYesYesPartialPartial
20CBSCSI: MiamiYesNoNoNo
21ABCDesperate housewivesYesYesYesYes
22CBSCSI: NYYesYesPartialPartial
23CBSRules of engagementYesYesNoNo
24FOXTerra NovaYesYesNoNo
25ABCBody of proofYesYesPartialNo
26CBSHow I met your motherNoYesPartialNo
30ABCLast man standingYesYesNoPartial
31NBCHarry’s lawNoNoNoNo
33CBSNYC 22YesYesNoNo
37CBSHow to be a gentlemanYesYesNoNo
38CBSA gifted manYesYesNoNo
39FOXNew girlYesYesPartialPartial
41ABCPrivate practiceYesYesPartialPartial
42ABCThe middleYesYesPartialPartial
44NBCLaw and order: SVUNoNoPartialPartial
45FOXFamily guyYesNoPartialPartial
47ABCPan AmYesYesNoNo
48ABCMan Up!NoYesNoNo
49FOXThe SimpsonsYesYesPartialPartial
50FOXThe finderYesYesNoNo

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:

StudioNumber of showsAmazon VODiTunesXfinityTV.comCable VOD
ABC1615 (full)16 (full)2 (full) / 10 (partial)2 (full) / 9 (partial)
CBS2222 (full)22 (full)9 (partial)10 (partial)
Fox109 (full)8 (full)5 (partial)5 (partial)
NBC2001 (Partial)1 (Partial)
Total5046 (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.

StudioNumber of showsAmazon VODiTunesXfinityTV.comCable VOD (Comcast)
ABC1694% (full)100% (full)12% (full) / 62.5% (partial)12% (full) / 56% (partial)
CBS22100% (full)100% (full)41% (partial)45% (partial)
Fox1090% (full)80% (full)50% (partial)50% (partial)
NBC20%0%50% (Partial)50% (Partial)
Total5092% (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.


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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