There was a time that if you wanted to watch your favorite television shows, you had to plan to be home at a certain hour on a given day of the week. Well those days seem like an even more distant memory as DVR’s and TiVo’s are joined by a vast array of online video streaming options. Americans are watching more and more television content online via sites like Hulu and Netflix, and from the look of it, the trend is on the rise.

The Nielsen Company, which is best known for the “Nielsen ratings” that gauge the viewing audience of television shows, is also tracking online video viewing. And well they should be, given the fact that earlier this year, Nielsen reported that “online video usage in the U.S. is up considerably from the same time last year as time spent viewing video on PC/Mac/laptops from home and work locations increased by 45 percent.” While the number of unique online video viewers increased by a modest 3.1 percent from last January, Nielsen noted that total video streams were “up 31.5 percent to 14.5 billion streams.”

It looks like those numbers are going to keep going up in 2011. Nielsen’s March numbers indicated that “all of the top 10 U.S. video brands saw an increase in unique video viewers from the previous month.”

So what are people watching online? Not surprisingly, YouTube retains a solid number-one rating in Nielsen’s numbers, and Hulu and Netflix continue to anchor the entertainment options online. But internet users are also looking for more streamed news content, Nielsen reported: “The fastest-growing among the top brands—and new to the top 10 during March—was CNN Digital Network with a 60 percent increase in unique U.S. video viewers.”

While this boost in news viewing numbers was likely the result of interest in the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, streaming media has definitely established itself as a serious medium outside the home as well. In education, schools such as Central New Mexico Community College cite several benefits associated with streaming media, including “greater access to instructional materials at a time and place, and on a schedule that meets their needs.” It also allows students to “study at a pace that is comfortable to them—pause for research and reflection, and then replay as needed.” Streaming media also provides educators with more options for imparting knowledge before, during, and after classes.

There will soon be an opportunity to find out more about these technologies at the Streaming Media East 2011 event, to be held May 10-11 at the Hilton New York in New York City. The conference program reflects how streaming media is reshaping home viewing, education, and also the corporate space. In the latter of these applications, streaming provides another benefit—cost savings. Those interested in finding out more about this angle can attend the “Cost Savings From Enterprise Streaming: How the Conversation Has Changed” course at Streaming Media East. The session will show how “streaming can offset travel costs, outsourced services and production costs, and the opportunity costs of removing employees from the office for meetings” with firsthand examples from Fortune 500 organizations that are using streaming to support core communications, training, and educational programs and employing metrics to prove cost savings and employee engagement.

The popularity of video streaming is unquestionable, no doubt because it sure beats trying to figure out how to program the VCR.