Something strange seems to have happened to Internet TV this year.
Specifically, it's become watchable. I know; I'm scared too. For years, it seemed that we would be trapped in a horrible world, being bored to death with talk about P2P this and streaming that and instant access to something else while knowing deep inside that none of it mattered because there were no programmes remotely worth watching.
Look at Joost, the much hyped home of absolutely nothing. If you scan its listings post-relaunch as a web player instead of a downloadable application seemingly designed to teach the art of creating horrible interfaces, you'll notice that there's precious little worth seeing.
But this year, things have exploded. The iPlayer has pushed Internet TV into the public consciousness over here, and the far grander Hulu is doing the same thing in the US.
Just about every major channel now has some sort of catch-up system, whether it's straight streaming like the BBC's or a straight download option like Sky's. And of course, BitTorrent and sites like SurfTheChannel feature collections of links to video-streaming portals like Tudeo and Megavideo that don't hurt if you absolutely must see the latest show now, now, now.
And that's the problem. Increasingly, you do.
If you're watching something like Heroes (which I don't recommend you waste your time on) or Lost (which I still love, and I don't care what anyone else says), every second counts. When the fun is watching a story develop, the worst possible thing is for someone (usually in the US) to decide that the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired by the next morning, and completely kill the programme for you.
I remember watching Babylon 5 a couple of years back, and being surprised by the fact that I knew pretty much everything that happened in its five-year story, just via some sort of cultural osmosis. Spoiler is the right word...
That's the part everyone always forgets. You don't have to go looking for this sort of thing to be affected. Yes, if you specifically jump into a forum thread that you know will contain them, like the main thread discussing the programme on a prominent forum, that's your own silly fault. But it doesn't have to be.
The spoiler could be a news report, the name of a forum post or a blog. It could even be in that most frustrating form – 'Spoiler: Rosebud was a sled!', for example – where you've no chance to look away.
Or something theoretically harmless, like a news report about an actor returning to a show, two minutes after you've watched their character be killed off.
The good news is that the networks are developing something of a clue. What's really needed is worldwide distribution of programmes and films, but we're some distance from that. However, at least they're trying.
UK now airs soon after US
The big shows like Heroes, Lost and Terminator are now typically aired in the UK within a couple of weeks of their US broadcast, as opposed to the months or even years that we used to have to wait. In the case of Heroes, you can even waste your time with Tim Kring's poorly written, increasingly chaotic comic book drivel on BBC iPlayer. Hurrah for licensing!
The unsurprising result of all this is that I find watching regular TV increasingly uncomfortable; and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. There's definitely an advantage to having a huge archive of legal downloads on hand 24/7, but it doesn't particularly encourage me to think of any of them individually as a special event.
Programmes that I'd have sat on my sofa watching this time last year I now have running on one monitor while I play World of Warcraft or do some writing. If I'm feeling in a particularly multitasking mood, I'll do all three at once.
I've yet to decide if this is a bad thing. It does tend to homogenise TV outside of the true classics into a more background kind of entertainment. Programmes only register if they're really, really good (like House) or really bad (like Heroes – in case you hadn't noticed). The ones that I really want to watch are still set aside for an hour of me-time featuring my sofa, some form of snack and loosened pantaloons. Pushing Daisies. Dexter. House. Most recently, Chuck, for which I feel no shame at all.
Is it wrong to treat the others as glorified background noise with a plot – like that 'radio' thing that used to be popular – or is it simply giving them the attention that they deserve in our busy rat race of a world? I don't know. But I do know this. I can't wait to be able to pull any programme that I want to watch out of the air, whenever I want, making pesky things like TV schedules become a thing of the past. If all it takes is blanking out an advert for a few seconds, all the better. I'm good at that.
And hey, if it fails, we'll always have pirates.
Now read: 9 easy ways to watch your favourite TV online
First published in PC Plus, Issue 276