Caught up in the Web

By Julie Anderson


Bronson Riley realized not long ago that he and his wife were paying way more for cable television than they were getting out of it. They watched only a few shows each week.

At the time, he was reading a book on personal finance. It mentioned purchasing services “a la carte” rather than as a package.

The Lincoln resident knew that wasn’t an option for cable TV. So he cut the cord about two months ago, canceling his cable subscription. Now the couple watch what they want, when they want — online.

Andrea Riley watches “Desperate Housewives” at, which streams free full episodes of that and other popular shows such as “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” often the day after they air. The couple buy episodes of another favorite, “The Soup,” a revamp of “Talk Soup” on E! Entertainment Television, on Apple’s iTunes for $1.99 each with only a day’s wait.

Even paying for the handful of shows they can’t get free legally, Riley figures watching TV online saves money. The only thing they miss is flipping on CNN Headline News and the Weather Channel in the morning.

“It’s all getting to watch the TV shows you want to watch at a cheaper price, at your convenience,” he said.

In making the switch, the Rileys have joined a small but growing number of people who are tuning in online rather than over traditional network, cable or satellite pipelines. Some watch online occasionally to catch up on an episode they’ve missed or to track down old or obscure shows. Others, like the Rileys, watch online routinely.

Convenience, potential cost savings and the sheer availability of content through network sites such as and videocasting destinations such as Hulu, Fancast and others appear to be among the drivers.

It wouldn’t be possible without changes in technology, including the availability of inexpensive laptops, the advent of smart phones and the increase in high-speed and wireless Internet access. An April survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project indicates that some 63 percent of adult Americans now have broadband Internet access at home — the kind fast enough to handle video viewing. That’s an increase of 15 percent from just a year ago.

The major drawback, sports fans, is a dearth of access to, well, sports., a broadband network, delivers online live sports programming, but only through a participating provider. For now, that list doesn’t include Cox Communications in the Omaha area.

Without cable, Riley couldn’t watch the College World Series last month or the Tour de France. But since neither he nor his wife are big sports fans, it hasn’t been much of an issue. They just have to warn their sports-minded friends that they won’t be able to watch Husker games on cable at their house this fall.

It’s not clear how many people are watching online. But the Nielsen Co. reported in April that the number of Americans frequenting online video destinations had climbed 339 percent since 2003 and that time spent on video sites grew nearly 2,000 percent during that period. From February 2008 to February 2009 alone, viewers of online video grew 10 percent.

And those folks weren’t just watching short clips. While YouTube topped all other video sites in February 2009, the growth in the early part of 2009 centered on sites that offer longer videos, including network sites and Hulu. Launched in March 2008, Hulu offers programming from equity partners NBC Universal, News Corp. and Disney, as well as others.

Jeremy Lipschultz, a professor and director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Communication, said the trend is just starting.

“People are just figuring this out,” he said. “Once people figure out that all this content is out there, you’ll see a more dramatic shift.”

Bobby Tulsiani, a senior analyst with the market research firm Forrester Research, said it’s still tech types who are making the change. Two years from now, more people will be doing it.

Both Lipschultz and Tulsiani predict a continued blurring of lines between the television and computer.

“The computer is more interactive than television,” Lipschultz said. “We were imagining a more interactive television age as early as the 1980s, but it never materialized until the computer. Now you come to a point where everything is converging, where it’s hard to distinguish between what’s television and what’s computer.”

So will we lose those shared frames of reference we had when we all sat around watching the console in the corner?

Not so much, said Lipschultz. The availability of hundreds of cable and satellite channels fragmented viewership long before the computer. Exceptional events, such as the Super Bowl, continue to draw mass audiences. President Barack Obama’s election brought people together around the TV screen, but that audience was augmented by people following it — and discussing it — on laptops, Twitter and social networking sites. Lipschultz and others tweeted last week during Major League Baseball’s All Star Game.

“We might not all be sitting around the same screen,” Lipschultz said, “but we’re looking at a lot of the same media and we’re talking about it online instead of face to face.”

With such integration, Lipschultz said, media becomes less one-way and more multi-way.

“I think that’s the biggest shift, and the biggest advantage is it gives people a voice that they didn’t have in the traditional television age,” he said.

At the same time, the TV isn’t likely to disappear from American living rooms. According to Nielsen’s April report, the amount of time consumers spent watching TV continues to grow — now hitting 5.5 hours a day. Nor is there evidence that the Internet is taking away from TV use, the company reported.

Ann Shrewsbury, public affairs director for Time Warner Cable Nebraska, said their business trends nationwide show the same thing.

But Time Warner, which serves 17 communities in southeast Nebraska, including Lincoln, is making changes to respond to customers seeking to view in a variety of ways and on a variety of screens, from the 2-inch iPod to 52-inch TVs.

To keep up with demand for downloading bigger files such as TV programs or movies, Time Warner Cable in June launched a new product that gives customers a boost of speed as they download. The company also is providing more on-demand content that customers can play whenever they choose. Husker football programming, such as recruiting videos and full press conferences with coach Bo Pelini, has been a big hit.

Cox, too, has launched new on-demand options, including one that gives customers instant access to hit programs, said Kristen Gohr, manager of public affairs for the company in Omaha.

Both companies also are in various stages of exploring systems that would allow paying cable subscribers to access programming through PCs and mobile devices. Time Warner is expected to conduct a trial yet this summer; Cox is in talks.

But not all of those who choose to watch online are hunched over laptops or slumped in desk chairs.

Riley, 34, a tech hobbyist, built a computer in his basement dedicated to television and connected it to his 42-inch LCD TV. He sits on a couch to watch and uses a wireless keyboard to get online and pick a show.

Upstairs is a smaller flat-screen TV connected to Apple TV, a digital media receiver linked to iTunes that he figures also will pay for itself in cable savings. He stores the programming he buys on a media server he can access through any of his computers.

His only worry? That Internet providers might someday start charging users for heavy Web use.

Sam Golgert of Omaha connected his old computer to his big-screen TV after he got a new PC.

“At that point, I said, ‘I don’t need cable anymore,’” he said.

He’s no longer spending money on programming he doesn’t want. When he does watch TV, Golgert, 33, can usually find what he wants on Hulu. The only thing he consistently watches is “Family Guy.”

Overall, he’s found himself spending less time watching TV shows and more time watching movies. He’s purchased a few movies online, which stream to him for about the cost of a rental. He certainly hasn’t found himself bored watching less TV.

“I realized I had it on as background noise most of the time,” he said.

Contact the writer: