Netflix? Amazon? YouTube? A surfer's guide to TV

Suddenly everyone wants to make quality telly. Confused? Log on with Sarah Hughes to the brave new viewing world

When the American remake of House of Cards arrived on Netflix in February, it was hailed as the future of television. Or at least television drama. Last week saw the launch of the company's second drama series, Hemlock Grove. And it's not just Netflix – everyone from Amazon to the BBC, from Sky to YouTube is scrambling to cash in on a broadcasting future that appears to be online and a world away from old-fashioned scheduled television. But what does it all mean for you, at home, scratching your head in front of the box?

What's the big deal with Netflix?

Netflix is the biggest online streaming service in America. It's been available in the UK since January 2012; for a flat rate of £5.99 a month you can access a library of 6,000-plus titles, including the most recent series of the critically acclaimed drama Breaking Bad. You can watch on most devices with an online connection. That said, Netflix don't have the latest DVD releases.

I already subscribe to Lovefilm, which does get the latest DVD releases – so what does Netflix offer that Lovefilm doesn't?

Netflix recently made headlines by developing original drama for television. The first, House of Cards, arrived last February (it's still available to watch). It was produced by David Fincher, who also directed the first two episodes, it stars Kevin Spacey, and was written by Oscar-nominated playwright Beau Willimon. They got through $100m making the series. Hemlock Grove was released last week, to be followed next month by the long-awaited new series of cult comedy Arrested Development and then prison drama/comedy Orange is the New Black.

House of Cards is a hit then …

Who knows? Netflix chooses not to release subscription details, although Ted Sarandos, the company's chief content officer, recently called it "the most watched thing on Netflix right now".

Why the fuss?

The classy talent involved, the money being thrown at the shows and the way they're being made. Horror king Eli Roth is behind Hemlock Grove, while Arrested Development, which reunites the old cast including Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi and Will Arnett, has a cult following. "We offer a different type of creativity because people aren't working under the same constraints, they don't have to worry about a pilot season or ratings … they have more freedom," explains Joris Evers, Netflix director of communications.

That's all very well, but how am I supposed to watch these shows?

It's up to you. Netflix released all 13 episodes of House of Cards and Hemlock Grove at once, and will do the same for Arrested Development, allowing viewers to "binge watch" the entire series over a weekend or spread it out over a month, or even two. But watch out for others who have seen more than you tweeting and Facebooking spoilers about these shows – that's one wrinkle with the watch-whenever-you-want credo.

Is anyone else offering the same sort of service?

Yes. Online retail giant Amazon has some original comedy pilots currently in production, most notably Silicon Valley comedy Betas from Michael Lehmann, the man behind pitch-black 1980s teen movie Heathers, and Zombieland, a spin-off from the cult film. It will also air pilots for six children's shows. All of them will be available on Lovefilm (which Amazon owns) in the UK. Sony's online streaming site, Crackle, recently aired the Jerry Seinfeld web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and if that all sounds too American, the BBC is also getting in on the act thanks to a production deal with US streaming service Hulu.

Hang on – is the BBC going to put original comedies and dramas online instead of on the telly?

Not quite – the production deal with Hulu saw the two companies co-produce the fourth season of The Thick of It and they have also worked together on the new James Corden/Mathew Baynton comedy The Wrong Mans. However, while that will air on Hulu worldwide it will be shown on BBC2 in the UK. "I can't see us putting an entire drama or comedy series online," says Victoria Jaye, head of BBC television content online. Hulu has, however, worked with BBC3 to create a series of short films, which will air exclusively online.

I keep hearing about YouTube …

YouTube's idea is slightly different. The video-sharing website allows users to create their own "channels", essentially the home page for any user's account. The recent YouTube Original Channel Initiative saw Google plough $100m (£65m) into funding original content on the site.

How does that work? YouTube's just full of videos of cats doing silly things, isn't it?

If only. The YouTube Original Channel Initiative is supposed to move the site closer to a television station by funding professionally produced shows with original content. They've recruited a number of American celebrities, including Madonna. Among the best non-celebrity sites are sports show Grantland, which produces clever content that captures the witty feel of its sister website Grantland.com. In the UK, the news production company ITN has cleverly used the site to provide a rolling news service, a celebrity news channel, and last year launched Truthloader, a YouTube channel dedicated to citizen journalism. The company claims its content is viewed more than 35 million times every month.

And this is all free like the silly videos, right?

Yes, but that's about to change. YouTube recently announced it will be introducing paid channels costing between $1 and $5 a month (60p & £3). The company may also introduce some pay-per-view content.

If this is the future, should I just throw out my television and start watching everything online?

Not quite yet. But it's true that traditional broadcasting companies are investing more in their online services: Sky recently put series one and two of Game of Thrones on its catch-up service, Sky Go, and is increasingly making both its back catalogue and its older US imports available on demand. ITVPlayer and 4onDemand offer a mix of programming new and old, while the BBC is to launch a number of programmes online ahead of its scheduled television broadcasts.

So, basically, I'll have more control over what I watch and how?

Sort of, yes. Provided you love American shows and are prepared to cough up for the pleasure.

'Hemlock Grove' is available on Netflix now. 'Arrested Development' comes to Netflix on 26 May

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