Watching TV on the computer isn't exactly a new idea, but much has changed in recent years. The television industry was once incredibly restrictive with its content on the Web, preventing clips from shows like Saturday Night Live from appearing anywhere online.
But now, clips and even whole episodes are showing up on the Internet — legally — through sites like Hulu, Joost and Babelgum.
Hulu, which was founded by NBC Universal and News Corp., posts complete episodes of shows including Family Guy, The Office, Arrested Development and Saturday Night Live — as well as dozens of other NBC and Fox shows.
Another site, Joost, has deals with Viacom and CBS, and offers Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, Showtime's The L Word and more.
Omar Gallaga, a technology culture reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, says the advertising model for these sites works much like it does on TV — short ads run in similar increments as they do on television. It's a different business model than the one Apple's iTunes Store uses, in which a customer pays for and downloads the content so it comes ad-free.
Gallaga tells NPR's Michele Norris there are some perks to watching videos online.
"Recently, a few sites — including Will Ferrell's comedy site, Funny or Die — debuted the HBO show Flight of the Conchords a month before it's scheduled to air on cable," Gallaga says. "And fans of The Office and Battlestar Galactica have been able to watch extended episodes and Web-only shorts for a while now."
But the Web opens even bigger creative doors, Gallaga says. Producing a network TV show requires a lot of time, money and compromising, so some A-list writers and actors are using the Web to do what TV won't let them.
"Case in point: Last year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon shot a musical called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, starring actor Neil Patrick Harris," Gallaga says. "Dr. Horrible was available exclusively at Hulu and on iTunes, and was so successful that the project was later released on DVD and spawned a soundtrack."
Also in the Web-only world, an Austin, Texas-based company called On Networks produces high-definition Web videos on topics like cooking, dating, professional football and other subjects, Gallaga says. The company recently launched a show called Smart Girls at the Party, hosted by comedian Amy Poehler, in which she interviews preteen girls about their lives.
"It's funny, intelligent and has star power," Gallaga says. "And you can't find it on TV."