Television

To Stream Or Not To Stream: The Frustrating Case Of 'The Big Bang Theory'

Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco of 'The Big Bang Theory.'

Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco are seen here in last week's season premiere of The Big Bang Theory. If you haven't seen it, don't feel bad: they're keeping it under wraps. Sonja Flemming/CBS hide caption

itoggle caption Sonja Flemming/CBS

When I saw the pilot of The Big Bang Theory in the fall of 2007, it struck me as irritating and corny, and I threw it on the pile with all the other CBS sitcoms I don't watch. (Which is all of them, except How I Met Your Mother.)

But as it stretched into a second season, I kept hearing people I normally agreed with saying that they liked it, and I was eventually able to catch a couple of episodes. And, wonder of wonders, it had improved a lot (particularly in the writing), and it was pretty good.

Normally, the sequence here would be that over the summer, I would catch up with the first two seasons so I could start watching it in the fall. But then I realized that the first season was available on iTunes, but not the second, and the second wouldn't be out on DVD until September 15, about a week before the third-season premiere, and you couldn't (at that time) buy it as a download on Amazon or anywhere else. I'm not much for illegally downloading TV shows for a variety of reasons, so this was the part where I said to myself, "Never mind."

You can now purchase Season 2 as a download on Amazon, just as you can buy it on DVD, but since the current episodes aren't streamed, then unless I record and save those, then by the time I watch the second season, I'll be behind on the third season, and I won't be able to get that one until a year from now.

Given how hard networks are trying right now to retain audiences, and given that The Big Bang Theory has probably seen as much improvement in the quality of its buzz over its first two seasons (culminating in Jim Parsons' Emmy nomination) as any comedy in memory, it boggles the mind that they seem to be going to such lengths to make it difficult to become a fan.

The plaintive cry of the frustrated consumer, after the jump...

Again, this is complicated by the fact that not only are past episodes not legally downloadable, but week-to-week, not even the most recent episode is available through CBS.com — only clips. If you miss it, you can forget it.

Who does that? CBS, that's who — particularly with their newly popular shows. The same thing is true of The Mentalist, which also doesn't offer streaming of even its current episodes.

You can debate all day the effects on the network television business model of things like Hulu and Netflix streaming, and whether it's smarter to try to shove everyone toward live viewing and the DVD release, and whether online viewing will destroy television.

I can only say that the ability to legally watch episodes online (either by purchasing them or by watching them with commercials) has powerfully influenced my attachments to 30 Rock, The Office, House, Friday Night Lights, Burn Notice, Lost, and Chuck, to name a few. Releasing a season on DVD a week before the next season is coming out may seem like the best exercise in synergy for existing fans, but not for people you're trying to snag as new viewers, who would benefit much more from the kind of rolling free archive — supported by the ability to purchase past episodes for download — that a combination of Hulu and iTunes/Amazon offers for many NBC, Fox, and ABC shows.

This may matter more than it used to, because widespread availability of old episodes may make viewers more stubborn about declining to jump into a show without seeing at least some of the history. Perhaps ten years ago, I would have just started watching The Big Bang Theory because people said it was good, and when it showed up in syndication, I would have seen the old episodes. But now, I prefer to see everything in order if at all possible, because that's what I'm accustomed to, and I sense that a lot of people are the same way.

Perhaps this is a calculated risk that will pay off; perhaps trying to force viewers into a couple of boxes — you can either watch it on your TV when it airs, or you can watch it much, much later on DVD while also trying to keep up with what's current — is going to turn out to be a good business decision. For the moment, it means there's a lot of this show I haven't seen. What I've seen, I've liked. The most recent set of clips made me laugh out loud in the first ten seconds. It's rare to find yourself composing a plea that amounts to "Dear CBS: Please let me give you money and/or watch your enchanting commercials," but that's what it comes down to.

All in all, I'd prefer to be writing about how good the show is, rather than how hard it is to see.

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