Once upon a time there were only three channels on the television and you had to be in to watch a show when it was actually broadcast. Then came more channels and video recorders to give viewers more choice and freedom – and now the industry is going through another seismic shift as TV on demand services gain in popularity.
How do they work?
The increasing speed and stability of home broadband services and the development of "cloud" storage means that it's now viable for viewers to "stream" programmes from the broadcaster at a time of their own choosing. The TV shows and movies are stored on a central server and broadcast direct to the customer's home.
What can I get for free?
Channel 4's 4oD was the first streaming service to be set up by a major UK broadcaster, launching way back in 2006. The BBC followed shortly afterwards in 2007 with it's iPlayer offering – and the ITV Player and Demand 5 services complete the offerings from the terrestrial broadcasters. It might be worth noting that 4oD has now been renamed All 4.
All of these are free to use and the content featured on them is usually available for a good amount of time afterwards. In the case of the BBC's iPlayer this was extended from seven days to 30 days some time ago in response to public demand. Not all content is featured on the catch-up services however, with movies being less likely to appear than original content - due to the broadcaster having a restricted licence for the films.
And if I pay?
Then the world is your oyster. The biggest player in on-demand TV is Netflix, which began as a DVD rental business 18 years ago but has since evolved into the market leader in on-demand TV and movies. Priced from £5.99 per month (with a month's free trial available first), the service has branched out into original content creation with acclaimed series such as Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards.
Significant rivals include Amazon Prime Instant Video (formerly LoveFilm), Now TV (which is Sky's offering in the sector), Blinkbox and Apple TV. While the first two are primarily subscription services, the latter companies focus more on single movie "rentals" for newer films – often before they are released on DVD.
What can I watch them on?
These services can be accessed via a desktop PC, a laptop, a tablet or even a mobile phone if you really must. But many users prefer to watch them on a good old-fashioned (or brand new) television instead. Many new TVs are now "smart" and allow easy access to the apps which control these services – along with having the hardware to log on to your home's wifi network. But don't worry if you have a "dumb" TV, a relatively cheap product like Google's Chromecast dongle can allow you access to services such as Netflix and the BBC's iPlayer.
Rivals to the Chromecast include Apple TV and the Roku Streaming Stick. These dongles also allow the viewer to see content from YouTube, which opens up a whole extra world of pop videos, movie clips and hilarious (or not so) cat-based footage for your enjoyment. It's also possible to access TV on demand services via a games console such as the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
But I have special interests
One of the great things about streaming-based TV is that it has lowered the bar to entry for would-be broadcasters, allowing smaller channels and websites to offer niche-interest content direct to the consumer. For example, Red Bull TV offers an array of "extreme" sports coverage for free and wrestling fans can subscribe to the WWE Network and get live and on-demand matches.
Which service have you gone for? Leave a comment below...