Stephanie Popofsky, a senior at Cornell University, had just finished her first round of midterms last fall, and was eager to relax. In four weeks, she watched the entire series of the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” devouring 120 episodes.
Like many of her college peers, she watched at her laptop, having found the show through television aggregator sites that direct viewers to episodes online. Popofsky stumbled upon Sidereel, the Web’s largest independent source for TV content, with 10 million unique monthly viewers.
The site is redefining how younger viewers watch television. In a December survey of 1,800 visitors, Sidereel found that 78 percent watched more than five hours of TV online per week.
Serialized viewing online is transforming the landscape of television production and consumption. It has exposed old series to a new generation and is emerging as an inexpensive production home .
No longer do college students and young professionals sync their schedules with network prime-time lineups. NBC’s “30 Rock” is broadcast on TV at 10 p.m. Thursdays, but for many, the show is after their last class on Fridays at 2 p.m. on Hulu.
As the students enter the workforce, casual viewing may become the cultural norm, breaking down television communities into smaller, more independent niches.
Users love Sidereel’s ability to “track” their shows: They receive updates when episodes become available for viewing. “You follow a show like you follow a person on Twitter,” says Sidereel CEO Roman Arzhintar.
The site is a gateway to a vast array of content, referring viewers to authenticated sources for the episodes, often Hulu, iTunes and Amazon.com. But users post unauthenticated sources, something difficult to police, says Arzhintar.
Eli Susser, a senior at American University, says another popular Web site with his peers is Megavideo, a video browsing section of the Hong Kong-based site Megaupload. When accused of copyright breaches, site officials say Megaupload “is a so-called ‘cyberlocker’ and allows its users to conveniently store and transmit any kind of data from anywhere, to anywhere,” and that some people use it legitimately and some illegitimately.
According to the Nielsen Co., viewers watched two more hours of television per month in the first quarter of 2010 than they did in same period in 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, the average time spent simultaneously using Internet and television in the home was 3 hours 41 minutes per month, up nearly 10 percent percent from a year earlier.
“They might be using [the Internet] to research or comment on what’s on the TV screen,” said Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes.
Bob Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, has noticed a shift in the lifestyle of the young viewer since he started teaching in 1981. Back then, he noted, kids were called “couch potatoes” and “were made fun of for . . . watching too much instead of [completing] their homework.”
Now they can adjust their viewing to their schedules — presumably their homework schedules.
Thompson said many of his students don’t even have TV sets, but “they’re still watching a whole lot of television. . . . They’ll hear from a friend about some show from 10 years ago, and they’ll plow through every season of it: box sets, Netflix, online.”
Anna Flickinger, a freshman at George Washington University, found a show that ended 18 years ago: “Doogie Howser, M.D.” She watched episodes for two weeks for free on Hulu.
This “binge watching,” as Thompson calls it, is increasingly popular on campuses.
“There is no experience quite comparable to getting a really good show and getting the box-set seasons lined up, locking your door, filling your freezer full of microwaveable food, turning off the telephone, turning out the lights and just going crazy,” says Thompson.
The summer before starting college, Susser watched the first two seasons of ABC’s “Lost” — 49 episodes in two weeks. “I barely left my couch,” he said.
For Popofsky, having all of the seasons of “How I Met Your Mother” available on Sidereel sped up the drama. “Many of the shows that I watch can leave cliffhangers at the end, and it makes for a very suspenseful week,” she said. With Sidereel, she could simply continue on to the next episode.
Thompson thinks this method of watching has resulted in better writing. “If you’re a writer or producer now, you have the motivation to actually write more complex kinds of things . . . ”
Often, the shows most commented on or searched for are not the same ones that dominate the Nielsen ratings. At Television Without Pity, a site that recaps 60 to 70 shows a week and has become a hub for commenters to discuss shows, series such as “Pretty Little Liars,” “Gossip Girl,” “Mad Men” and “The Vampire Diaries” generate more comments than do the ratings juggernauts “NCIS” and “CSI.”
“There’s definitely this sort of dichotomy between what mainstream America watches and what garners the most real passion and interest online,” says site director Daniel Manu.
Ultimately, says Arzhintar, this transformation in viewing habits may lead to better-quality programming.
“Better means not necessarily that people are going to spend $20 million an episode to produce something for the Internet. Rather, what will happen is that they’ll produce stuff that [we] care about more as individuals for a variety of reasons.”
Eidler is a freelance writer and recent graduate of Cornell University.