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Oric cuts confusion of online TV, finds favourite shows for free

A nifty service called Oric aims to cut through the confusion of online telly, finding your favourite shows for free -- and it's legal.

You want to watch some telly on the Internet -- but where do you start? Netflix? Blinkbox? iTunes? LoveFilm? A nifty service called Oric aims to cut through the confusion, making it easy to find your favourite shows like Homeland, Peep Show and The Big Bang Theory, often for free and all in one place.

The folks behind Oric started actively developing the idea in January this year and launched the first version of the site in May. I spoke to Richard Cappin, product manager at Oric, about Oric's place in the changing world of online telly.

"More and more people are watching TV online, but a lot of that is done illegally and often with a poor quality picture when streaming," Cappin told me. "People don't want to watch TV episodes on a specific day or at a specific time, they want something like TiVo or Sky Plus -- but without the cost."

The problem is that our favourite shows are scattered round various services. You can stream from subscription sites such as Netflix and Lovefilm and free catch-up services like iPlayer and 4oD, or rent or buy TV episodes from stores such as iTunes and Blinkbox. That variety can make finding your favourite show a headache -- which is where Oric comes in.

One-stop shop

"The US has Hulu as a central place for finding -- and watching -- great TV online. Meanwhile the UK had Project Kangaroo and then Seesaw, which have both now been shut down, and an array of free, subscription and pay-per-view services that legally show TV programmes online. Our objective is to give UK Internet users a single website for finding legal TV content online," Cappin explains.

"It's a shame that the UK isn't going to get a central site anytime soon for hosting all the online TV content, but we aim to make up for that. It seems like we're still being slow to catch up with the Netflix model of having a lot of content available on a subscription.

"The amount of popular TV content available to buy on iTunes and more recently Blinkbox is vastly more than what's available to stream on Netflix or Lovefilm Instant in the UK. That's likely to switch to some extent, although there are doubts in America as to how affordable that is even for Netflix," says Cappin.

As well as acting as a central point to find something to watch, Oric keeps you posted on your favourite shows when they're on in future. "Although it wasn't the priority at the start, we've also focused on helping users watch those TV episodes for free while they're available. So when users sign up for an account and let us know what shows to track, they get emails when free episodes of those shows -- on iPlayer or 4oD, say -- are about to expire."

There are technical challenges to pulling in TV from such a diverse range of services, Cappin says. "The main challenge is ensuring accuracy whilst having a decent-sized catalogue of shows. We found early on that automated crawling only helps us so much, so there's a lot of manual processing involved to get the links online and kept up to date.

"That manual work is also necessary for us to make the site look good, with high-quality images that we obtain legally from the UK TV networks."

Fight for your rights

Much of the complication in the world of online TV stems from rights issues -- something Oric sidesteps. "As we don't host any video, rights are not a huge issue. But it did take a while to get permission to legally use all the images of TV shows that we have on the site."

The constant fight over rights to popular shows means few services are comprehensive yet. Lovefilm is quietly removing 63 popular TV shows from its streaming service Lovefilm Instant, while Cappin admits that recent arrival Netflix "still doesn't seem to have that many TV shows available in the UK -- although it is getting better."

For the latest films and TV, online viewing is a distant second to pay TV. Sky in particular has a stranglehold over the latest movies and much of the latest telly. But as Cappin points out, "The situation with Sky has actually gotten a bit better thanks to Blinkbox. They've been quite successful in getting rights for both UK content like Trollied and US HBO content like Game of Thrones.

"However, the fact that a lot of TV shows shown on Sky are not available to non-Sky subscribers on services such as Blinkbox for several months, or even more than a year after they're first broadcast, is not going to help reduce the amount of illegal downloading and streaming."

While Sky's monopoly on new stuff isn't going away anytime soon, Oric aims to make it simple to watch legally available content, rather than resorting to more convenient -- but less salubrious -- methods.

"Our main rival is the general practice of downloading illegal content, both in terms of streaming and torrents. In that respect, our rivals are also the vast array of spammy looking websites that appear when you search for 'watch Gossip Girl online'."

Other sites have similar ideas, but Cappin believes Oric does something unique. "Sidereel is a popular and decent rival, although they only have legal links to US and Canadian sources, so most of their UK users will be using the illegal streaming links they provide.

"Your iPlayer is the most comprehensive UK-focused rival, but they've gone down the crawler route with all the shows and information pulled from other websites. We aim to provide a much more pleasant user experience than them, and also focus on what TV shows are available to watch rather than what shows were on TV yesterday."

The future

Oric currently offers links to a wealth of popular TV shows, but the principle could be extended. "We definitely want to add films to the site at some point, but would like to build up a significant user base on the TV side first. That's where we feel we can add the most value to users because of the desire to watch episodes in order. There's also the greater quantity of free content."

More online viewing services are also on the cards. "We'll definitely add [Sky's] Now TV to the site once we add links to movies; we're still waiting to see what (if anything) they do in terms of offering online TV series, although the best of the Sky Atlantic content probably won't ever appear there because of Blinkbox's exclusive deal for HBO content.

"We're adding other shows that are available to stream online legally, but we don't have plans to add every TV show that has ever existed, just to have a page that says it's not available to watch online."

Oric has ambitious plans. "In the long term we'd like to work with TV networks to bring new shows and pilots to an audience that likes similar shows, even if those similar shows are on a different network."

And the big question: how does Oric make money? "We earn a small commission on all links to episodes and seasons where the user has to pay to watch them. Despite that, we always want our users to watch the episode for free whenever possible."

How do you watch TV online? Does the world of streaming need to make some changes to encourage viewers and tackle piracy? And what do you think of Oric? Stream your thoughts into the comments below, or tune into our Facebook page.