It is generally legal for viewers to watch online television shows by streaming them, reports Business Insider. However, downloading online television shows or showing them to a substantial amount of people in a public performance can be a violation of U.S. copyright law. People can download television shows only after purchasing them through authorized services, warns the U.S. Copyright Office.
The illegality is in the copying of the source material without licensing it first, explains Business Insider. As long as viewers watch television content without copying even a portion of it, they are not breaking the law. Some video streaming websites get around this legally by functioning as search engines and streaming television shows from secondary sites that have uploaded unlicensed content in violation of copyright law. Although viewers can watch shows legally on these sites, they often encounter pop-up ads, poor quality, pornographic material and viruses.
Subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus offer legal online viewing of television shows, according to HowStuffWorks. Free services such as basic Hulu, Crackle and Xfinity also provide legal television content, adds About.com. When viewers infringe copyrights by downloading television shows without purchasing them, they risk lawsuits with heavy financial penalties and may also have to pay attorney's fees for the copyright owner, states the U.S. Copyright Office.