Are TV Networks Beginning to Accept Online Viewers?

Amid all the furor over the concept of "cord-cutting" and replacing traditional television with the Internet, studios and networks have quietly started offering early Internet release of shows online. Is this an attempt to get a jump on the world of tomorrow, or simply a sign of old television surrendering to new television?

The Internet is already excited about the news that the final three episodes of Downton Abbey are to be released on iTunes before their PBS airing, but that's hardly the only example of broadcast being beaten to the punch by digital; Hulu has the pilot of new series Do No Harm and second season premiere of Smash (Both NBC shows) up weeks before their official debuts on television, for example. As someone who's watching an increasing amount of their television online as opposed to "traditionally," this move is something that greatly appeals to me - Hey! An early chance to see something is never a bad thing, especially during the traditional post-holiday quiet period for new episodes and material - but I admit that I'm somewhat confused about whether the early release of the episodes means that networks are becoming less concerned about the impact of online viewing on final broadcast ratings.

There is, after all, an argument to be made that those who watch shows online are a separate audience from those who'd watch on television; this is essentially the "digital as additive audience" argument that has been seemingly proven to be the case with comic books, where digital releases haven't negatively impacted print sales, but instead potentially bolstered the market by introducing a new readership altogether to the medium. For most analog-to-digital media models, it's the other way around - Music being the poster child for the "digital is killing [insert old model here]" claim, of course - but I wonder whether the very physicality of watching television on television and watching on a computer is so different that it draws a line between potential audiences. For my part, while I watch some television on my laptop, I have to admit that my Apple TV - which allows me to turn my television into another laptop screen - is the gateway drug that really helped me ease into online TV. Without that - which, essentially, allows online TV to still "be" TV to me - I doubt I would have made the jump.

There's also the fact that, at least in the case of the NBC shows, releasing what are essentially sneak previews online are considered important enough in terms of generating interest in the shows - I am, after all, writing about them here and I doubt SpinOff would've found much to say about Smash otherwise - that any hit taken in broadcast ratings is considered an acceptable loss. Do No Harm, as a mid-season new series, particularly needs all the publicity it can get, and allowing early adopters a chance to… well, adopt the show early and spread good word of mouth, could be just what it needs to survive in these increasingly bizarre televisual waters.

The old paradigms are continuing to change, and we're continuing to see television companies of all stripes try to get used to the idea of the Internet as something that has to be dealt with in one way or another. This inclusive kind of outreach is a promising sign of things to come - and, I hope, will lead to more crossover between broadcast and the Internet. Now, if only Hulu could get mobile device rights to Being Human...

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