Internet TV sites expand audiences, foster new addictions

Ami Tian

Credit: Bullion

“Yes!” exclaimed sophomore Jessi Whalen, grinning as she checked her text messages. “I just got invited to a ‘Jersey Shore’ party.”

“Jersey Shore” is an MTV reality show about eight Italian-Americans living together for the summer in a house on the New Jersey Shore.

“. . . Imagine if MTV staged ‘Real World’ on the Jersey Shore with eight characters, with names like ‘The Situation’ and ‘Jwoww,’ who combine steroids, fake tans and hair gel to make some of the trashiest television I’ve ever seen. This is an epic level of douchery that may not be matched in pop culture ever,” describes the “Jersey Shore” nickname generator, a Web site outfitted to provide visitors with their own reality TV name.

Despite the apparent depravity of the show, it is something of a guilty pleasure for Whalen.

“I’m a little bit embarrassed that I watch it,” she said. “All the girls are just trashy and slutty and all the boys are just total douchebags. But it’s so ridiculous and it’s so far from my life that it’s fun to watch.”

“Jersey Shore” is one of the five shows that Whalen watches regularly, all of which are available online via a combination of the host networks’ Web sites and Web sites such as  www.sidereel.com or www.surfthechannel.com,  which direct visitors to TV episodes uploaded onto video hosting Web sites such as  www.megavideo.com or  www.youku.com.

“These are shows that I never watched [live],” said Whalen. “I didn’t watch any TV in high school.”

The availability of shows on the Internet has led to expanded audiences. Downloading and streaming television shows has also made it easier for people to get up to date with current shows by making older episodes accessible.

One anonymous student said that she uses BitTorrent, a program that allows users to download large files, often illegally, within a peer-to-peer network. The program helped introduce her to shows like the ABC series “Castle,” which she might not have gotten into otherwise.

“I just started watching ‘Castle’ this year and it’s in its second season, but I was able to go back and catch up,” she said. “Now I’m watching it every time it comes out.”

Annie Petersen, visiting professor of rhetoric and film studies and instructor of TV and American Culture, confirmed that it was for this reason that networks have allowed their shows to be streamed on Netflix, as is the case with “Lost,” an ABC show about a group of plane crash survivors stranded on a mysterious island.

“It encourages people to catch up. ABC recognizes that, ‘Sure, we’re losing money from people who aren’t renting from us, but we’re gaining people who are going to become die-hard fans of the show,'” said Petersen.

Another way that networks have adapted to the phenomenon of watching TV on the Internet is through the creation of Hulu. Hulu is a Web site that streams shows uploaded by major television networks including NBC, Fox and ABC. Unlike many videos uploaded to Web sites such as  www.megavideo.com and  www.youku.com, the videos on Hulu are completely legal and therefore always accessible: at the cost of periodic advertisements during the episode. The site allows more people to reliably access TV shows on their computers at their own convenience.

Still, appointment viewing (watching shows on TV as they air) and group viewing are popular practices, made easier in a college setting. Sometimes watching TV in a group gets people to watch shows they wouldn’t watch of their own accord.

One group of first-years makes an effort to watch “Glee,” in the Jewett lounge every Wednesday when the show airs. The Fox series is about a high school glee club and is highly popular among Whitman first-years.

“It’s fun to observe different peoples’ reactions,” said first-year Peter Burrows. “I wouldn’t watch it on my own.”

High anticipation of a show often encourages appointment viewing. When conducting a diagnostic survey of the students in her TV and American Culture class, Petersen found that this was the case with “Lost.”

“I was actually really surprised when people took this diagnostic: I would say that the thing that most students have said that they’ve watched all of and are dedicated viewers of, and even appointment view and plan to appointment view, is ‘Lost,'” she said.

Sophomore Kyla Flaten agrees. For her, the appeal of the show lies as much in the discussion of it as it does in the viewing.

“‘Lost’ is the best night of the week,” she said. “Half the fun of ‘Lost’ is watching it with your friends. You need to talk about it with other people in order to fully understand its ridiculousness.”