The Afterlife Of A TV Episode: It's Complicated

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Have you ever seen a rerun episode that made you want to watch more of a show — even a whole season? With so many TV channels and so many shows to keep up with, it's possible that some of them could completely pass you by.

But there are also many ways to watch a show, even if it's no longer on the air. Take the medical drama House, which ended its run on FOX in May.

To watch an episode today, you could go to Netflix, where you can pay $7.99 a month to stream videos. But it only has House DVDs. So you go to Hulu. It has a few episodes. If you pay for Hulu Plus — which costs the same as Netflix — you can watch the final season, the one where House goes to jail.

On Amazon Prime, you can buy all eight seasons of House for $1.99 a show, or on iTunes for $2.99, says Mike Proulx.

"So that's gonna cost you over $500 if you want to watch all the seasons, if you've never seen the show before," he says.

Proulx co-wrote Social TV, a book about the new ways we're watching television and how baffling it sometimes is to find the shows you want.

"It is really complicated for the end consumer," he says, "because it changes constantly based upon the deals that are being made with television networks."

To watch House on old-fashioned TV, you can see reruns on the USA Network, and on a cable channel called Cloo, which is all mysteries and crime. Cloo is owned by NBC Universal — which, as it happens, also owns House. And it sells the rights to rerun House to local broadcast affiliates around the country.

The arrangement is partly to blame for the inconsistencies, says media analyst James McQuivey.

"Every one of these local markets is saying, 'Well, those reruns aren't worth anything to me if they're suddenly all available on Netflix,' " he says. "And so the owner of the program says, 'Hmm, how do we make sure Netflix maybe gets one season?' "

Hulu gets half of a season of House, and Amazon and iTunes get the show on demand, but only at a certain price. And while broadcast syndication is important, cable reruns are even more important.

"The biggest single source of revenue for the video business is cable," McQuivey says. "That's the biggest single source of revenue where they can point and say, 'Those cable companies, they're footing the bill.' "

So when it comes to House, NBC Universal will do what it takes to keep cable networks happy, he says.

NBC Universal makes a lot of money off of House through digital and international sales. And it's about to release the complete box set on DVD. Quaint, right? DVDs used to generate massive revenue — but that stream has basically dried up, Proulx says.

"Who wants to be dealing with the cost of packaging, waiting for delivery, having to go to a store to purchase it — exchanging cash?" he says.

Of course, some people don't pay at all. And when it comes to House, that's quite a lot of people, says "Ernesto Van Der Sar," the pseudonym of a Netherlands academic who tracks illegal downloads on BitTorrent. He says that for the past five years, House has been one of the top 10 shows that are downloaded illegally.

"From the top of my head, it's probably a million downloads for each episode," Van Der Sar says. "It's huge numbers, and that's only BitTorrent."

You also have direct streaming sites such as The Pirate Bay or Rapidshare. But watching videos illegally is kind of like Whac-A-Mole. You never know when a show will get posted, or when it might vanish.

I asked analyst James McQuivey when the studios will give us legal ways to watch House anywhere, anytime on any screen.

"That's at least five years away," he says, "because the owners of House are going to do everything they can to prevent that."

Still, NBC Universal would be wise to consider a little wisdom from Dr. House himself:

"It's one of the great tragedies of life: Something always changes."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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