Why are the nation's largest TV networks teasing viewers? In what might be their dumbest move yet, Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS) ABC and CBS (NYSE: CBS) are among those giving limited access to some episodes of their most popular shows -- but mostly through their own websites.

Consider The Big Bang Theory. CBS has put online five full episodes of its geektastic comedy, ranked the 15th most popular show at TV.com as of this writing. Trouble is, you won't find these episodes at Hulu Plus, or Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX), or Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN) Instant Video service, or either of the show's fan pages at Facebook and Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) YouTube. Nor can you download episodes from Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) iTunes Store.

Talk about stupid. Here's why:


U.S. Alexa Rank

Global Alexa Rank

YouTube.com 4 3
Amazon.com 5 16
Netflix.com 21 94
Hulu.com 38 228
CBS.com 301 1,114

Source: Alexa.com.

When you're a TV network that makes the bulk of its money by pushing ads to a captive audience during a predefined schedule, there are only two reasons to put episodes online:

  1. To get more ad dollars from shows that have already aired.
  2. To hook new viewers.

How likely are new viewers to "discover" The Big Bang Theory if discovery means navigating to the CBS site? You don't need to be a theoretical physicist to know the answer. (Not very likely, for those of you scoring at home.)

Fishing in the right pond makes all the difference
By contrast, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube have built-in search and tagging systems that make it simple to find related content. They help us discover and try new shows. They get us hooked, to the point where we'll set up our DVR just to find the next live episode.

But don't tell this to CBS, ABC, and the other networks. They aren't interested in the free advertising. All they want is to sell. Here's a rundown of the top 10 TV shows at TV.com, along with details regarding where and what type of content you can find online:




Available Online?

Where to Get It

1 Game of Thrones HBO All episodes available. iPad, iPhone, HBO.com (subscription required).
2 Grey's Anatomy ABC All episodes available. Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Hulu Plus.
3 House Fox All episodes available. Amazon Instant Video, iTunes (all seasons). Hulu Plus (season 7).
4 Doctor Who BBC All but the latest episode available. Amazon Instant Video, iTunes (all seasons). Netflix (seasons 1-5).
5 Bones Fox All episodes available. Amazon Instant Video, iTunes (all seasons). Netflix (seasons 1-5). Hulu Plus (season 6).
6 Supernatural The CW All episodes available. Amazon Instant Video, iTunes.
7 Criminal Minds CBS All episodes available. iTunes.
8 NCIS CBS Seasons 2-8 available. iTunes. (Amazon working through licensing issues.)
9 The Vampire Diaries The CW All episodes available. Amazon Instant Video, iTunes.
10 The Mentalist CBS No episodes available. Amazon working through licensing issues.

Source: Alexa.com.

Marketing so simple a small-f fool could do it
The good news is there are options for watching popular shows online. But if you're looking for something just off the margins or even a taste of a show you might want to try, you'll have to visit the network sites to get your fix. But even that's no guarantee -- the site for The Mentalist doesn't include episodes. For networks that purport to make their cash off marketing to viewers, this is a pretty stunning display of ineffective marketing.

My humble suggestions:

  • Make every episode shown free at a network site also free at Amazon, Hulu Plus, iTunes, and Netflix. (YouTube is only dealing in movie rentals at the moment.)
  • Work out a deal where freebies get special placement at these partner sites.

So what if there are still licensing issues to work out for The Big Bang Theory? Five episodes are online now and available for anyone to watch. A little technical work and ad-serving prowess should make them ready for most if not all of the streaming portals.

Don't let the horse and buggy pass you by, Hollywood ...
For the most part, movie studios have figured out how to use Amazon, iTunes, Netflix, and YouTube to their advantage. Teaser trailers. Sneak preview scenes. Related films released for cheap or even free. All of it helps build marketing buzz felt at the gate.

TV is episodic and a different beast. I know that. But it's also not so different as to excuse Hollywood's lack of creative marketing when it comes to using online distribution channels. In the cloud-computing era, investors can and should expect better.

But don't take my word for it. Click here to watch a free video that examines the links in the cloud computing value chain. You'll walk away with a richer understanding of how online access is changing everything, and creating opportunities for investors in the process.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.