Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has become the pre-eminent home for online video globally. While this has permitted a welcome democratisation of content, YouTube has also faced flak for allowing copyrighted content to find its way to the website without attribution.

Copyright infringement is undoubtedly a grave offence, but the take-no-prisoners approach of Indian television channels has had a chilling effect on a practice that has as much to do with love for classic shows as with individual users trying to make a quick buck. For Indians who grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, the advent of YouTube has belied expectations of ready availability of old television favourites.

For instance, while Star’s Khichdi can be watched in full on the video sharing website, not one episode of the same network’s Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai is available. Users who upload favourite episodes every now and then find they get taken down on the channel’s request.

The situation is, of course, not restricted to India. In 2013, responding to criticism from Hollywood studios, YouTube launched the Content ID service, which enables the company to track uploaded videos for copyrighted content. If a user uploads a music video or a clip from a film, Content ID flags it. Users may still be able to upload the video on the condition that they share the advertising revenues from the video with the copyright holder.

When it comes to producer-backed content, other issues crop up. Fans of old shows, especially those from the pre-YouTube era, often upload clips or entire episodes. The idea is not necessarily to make money, but to show appreciation for a beloved series. Case in point: many old Doordarshan serials like Wagle ki Duniya and Bharat Ek Khoj can be watched online.

‘Bharat Ek Khoj’.

Doordarshan, as a public broadcaster, may be indifferent to its clips being published online, but private networks, and not just in India, have hunkered down for the fight. In the US, Viacom and YouTube closed a seven-year-old copyright infringement lawsuit in 2014 that paved the way for YouTube’s hardened stance on the publishing of copyrighted content by non-copyright holders.

When it comes to currently broadcasting content, networks around the world are chary of posting it on YouTube. None of the major US networks, such as ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox, offer current programming on YouTube. Back home too, most channels, be it Star, Sony, Colors and &tv, offer only a dekko of their current content. &tv has clips of its hugely popular Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hain on its official YouTube page. For viewers who watch the show on TV, the online version makes for a poor replica, with clipped gags and narrative inconsistency.

‘Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hain’.

There is also a noticeable difference between India and other markets in how the YouTube page is deployed to supplement the show’s cachet. For evidence, look no further than the YouTube page of HBO’s Game of Thrones. It does not merely put up carefully selected clips from episodes but offers interviews with the cast and the production team. The Indian television space is sorely lacking in strategising YouTube or other online tools to kindle a connection with the audience.

‘Game of Thrones’.

Some original content does make it to YouTube, such as recent episodes of Sony’s The Kapil Sharma Show, but in the majority of cases, channels desist from using YouTube as a strategic distribution partner. Colors and Star have launched, respectively, the apps Voot and Hotstar, where users can watch full-length episodes for free (the videos are monetised through ads). Yet, the channels need to put in a lot more effort into the apps. Few videos can be downloaded and the streaming is of poor quality.

With the launch of Netflix in India, channels are keener than ever before to control the entire value chain, from production to distribution, in order that they do not miss the technology bus. This seems to be the rationale behind forgoing partnerships with YouTube and posting content directly to inhouse apps. But this strategy may not yield the desired result. Channels may find it hard to replicate YouTube’s appeal, especially among the young demographic.

In other markets, networks happily permit the broadcast of old series online. Full-episode runs of old hits like 21 Jump Street and The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be watched on YouTube.

‘Mary Tyler Moore’

Availability of content is not the only issue with online video in India. On occasion, the way the content is presented leaves a lot to be desired. The absence of background music (taken from Bollywood and accompanying certain acts) on YouTube reruns of Sony’s Comedy Circus is jarring. (For instance, watch this clip from 9:33 onwards.) This happens because the channel had obtained the music’s copyright only for the television broadcast. At any rate, these clips are random snippets uploaded by individual users. There is no library of content that can be searched or referenced.

The unwillingness of channels to put the library of old shows online is more than a monetisation issue. Their reluctance does a disservice to users, for whom certain TV series, together with other cultural markers like film and music, are part of collective memory. From Flop Show to Malgudi Days, iconic shows provide viewers a tangible connection to their past. Countless online forums and Reddit entries are focused on the innocent nostalgia of a beloved childhood show or teenage comedy. This bonding can, in turn, benefit channels, refurbishing their brand.

Rather than let users have a seamless online viewing experience, Indian channels are more interested in adopting new distribution models. Talk of content distribution makes sense only when the content is worth distributing. On that parameter, most Indian shows fail abysmally. This makes the online absence of the little quality programming that Indian television has produced over the years all the more unfortunate.