HBO made a bold promotional move this week by putting the first two episodes of Girls' new season up on YouTube for free, allowing even the plebeian non-subscribers an opportunity to take part in a premium TV premiere and contribute to the buzz of the show's return. It's a win-win situation; HBO gets more coverage, and those of us without premium channels — or even a television — get to watch the season premiere without paying a dollar. Like HBO, most networks with hit comedy shows understand the viability of making their content easily available on the internet, but how do some of the most popular channels stack up in terms of their internet friendliness?
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live are both sketch-heavy shows with high potential for viral buzz on the internet, and NBC has long made recent episodes available the next day via Hulu or their website. While NBC's late night shows only post clips and a handful of recent episodes (before their shows spiral down into some dark and mysterious rights agreement hole), series like Parks and Rec usually stay up until the start of a new season. Right now you can watch the entire current season of Parks and Rec on both the NBC website and its partner Hulu, and the rest is all available over on Netflix. The more outlets for viewers to reach the better, and NBC knows this best. (On the downside, the once gloriously complete SNL episode database on Netflix is no longer, so hopefully NBC plans to make them available online somewhere soon.)
Another notable addition to NBC's internet push is SNL's integration with Instagram this season, where each cast member gets to helm nbcsnl's account for a day and new players participate in an introductory "Freshman 15" segment for followers. Fallon has a list of online-only web series and sometimes even posts guest segments from between commercial breaks, making NBC one of the best television networks for TV-less viewers.
The talent on Comedy Central keeps getting better, and it's only logical to correlate that with the fact that the network simply kicks ass in its online efforts and availability. Viewers can watch virtually any episode from South Park's 17 seasons as well as Workaholics, Kroll Show, Inside Amy Schumer, Drunk History, and both late night talk shows. The Amy Poehler-produced series Broad City doesn't premiere until next week, but Comedy Central gave viewers a special treat by putting the show's season premiere online for free back at the end of December. Hopefully the network continues with this generous and fan-friendly trend online, because it's awesome and way more headache-free than most of its competitors.
Yesterday Adult Swim posted all this season's episodes of Eagleheart on YouTube, which is interesting considering the network is generally stiff with full episodes. Shows like NTSF:SD:SUV:: and The Eric Andre Show are only available five episodes at a time — and those episodes expire. Almost every show has hundreds of clips you can sort through, but the commercial-to-content ratio isn't worth the effort when you can probably hunt the clips down on YouTube anyway. Hopefully the move with Eagleheart points to more available full episodes soon.
Since Portlandia blossomed into the offbeat pop culture spoofing titan it is today, IFC has added more comedy content with Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Birthday Boys, and The Spoils of Babylon. While IFC's internet presence is often playful and interactive — Portlandia's pithy Twitter comes to mind — the website is a little on the clunky side, and finding their "Full Episodes" page is not as easy as it should be. Even when you do find the full episodes, you can't view them until you register with cable provider information. It's too bad considering that IFC maintains such a unique and friendly voice across its social media platforms, a strength that's unfortunately overshadowed by its more nuts-and-bolts weaknesses.
HBO has given out its members-only content in the past with shows like Veep, Chris Lilley's Ja'mie: Private School Girl, and British adaptation Getting On, and its addition of the Girls two-episode series premiere this week is a great sign that the network knows how to woo viewers into purchasing a subscription. Since HBO is a pay network it's assumed they'll be less likely to share, but in a world where alternatives can be easily googled, maybe they'll find a way to successfully blend their more traditional members-only reputation with the much more democratic audience on the internet.
Without a hit late night talk show or live comedy series like SNL, there's a little less opportunity for worthwhile online interaction with Fox. For whatever reason, Fox's approach with their content is a little more possessive. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Mindy Project, New Girl, and Family Guy follow the same line of rules: Episodes are available a day after they air to viewers who sign in via cable provider information, unlocked to non-cable subscribers after 8 days, and then expire a little over a month after their original post date. It's kind of confusing and not a very viewer-friendly online experience, but some episodes are certainly better than no episodes. (Note: Fox is also a partner in Hulu, but some shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine have free episodes mixed with episodes available only on Hulu Plus.)
It should be interesting to see whether or not FX changes its online approach once Louie returns and the already anticipated Zach Galifianakis show inevitably goes to series. The FX website is perhaps the clunkiest of all and is another one of those cable provider-prompted VOD setups, and shows like Louie and Archer have specific pages with not many clips to choose from. It doesn't really matter how many clips or "exclusive extras" a network wants to post — viewers want to experience an episode on their own, not through a pile of curated-by-the-network clips. FX's streaming service FXNOW is clearly ramping up though, so this might just be a transitional period until more viewers get on board (which will probably happen when the service begins streaming all 24 seasons of The Simpsons this August). In the meantime, both Louie and Archer are available on Netflix anyway, so there's still a way to watch FX shows without getting lost on their website.
So what can we glean from all this, other than the fact that Comedy Central and NBC are currently the most connected with how viewers access their content? If anything, it's that these networks are clearly still learning how to navigate the challenges of the internet age, where a no-budget YouTube video can get more viewers than a brand new sitcom, and reconcile viewer demands with their financial bottom line. They'll need some time to figure things out, but the recipe for success isn't that complicated: The easier it is for viewers to access, the more they'll tune in — and the more they'll love you for sparing them all the legal hoop-jumping. (Exhibit A: Louis C.K.) Hopefully in time, all these networks will learn how to tune in too.