The L.A Times has an article today pointing out that TV execs are having a devil of a time convincing people that when they download a television show from, say, BitTorrent, that they are stealing that show. In a weird way, it’s a problem that the TV industry created itself: for over a half-century, we’ve been told that, unlike a song, or a film, or a book, or a videogame — that show you are watching is free.
You the consumer aren’t paying for it, but rather the advertiser(s) who sponsoring that show, hoping to get you to purchase their product(s). My guess is that this is a model that is rapidly becoming outdated, and we are lurching toward a totally new era, where how we consume TV will be more like how we consume other media products.
Aha! Some of you might say, what about cable and/or satellite? That ain’t free TV! Well, not in the sense that I’m describing it. With cable, not only are you not paying for individual series, much less shows, you — except in the case of HBO, Showtime, et. al — can’t even make the distinction of paying for an individual network. And the cable companies don’t want you to be able to anytime in the near future, despite — or because of! — the fact that if a channel gets a reputation for quality, or a critical mass of critically acclaimed shows, people will decide to pay for it. For example, if it is true that Showtime is picking up Arrested Development, than that will quite possibly be the tipping point (on top of Weeds and Huff) for us to get Showtime.
So clearly, people will seek out and pay for what they consider to be TV value, right down to the individual episode of a series. This has already started happening, on a couple of different fronts:
First off, DVRs make it easy to hunt and peck and watch only the shows you want — that’s the killer app for DVRs: the ability to create a personal line-up of shows for my household. Even more than blipverting through the commercials or pausing Live TV (which I’ve done maybe three times in 6 years). What this means is that nobody ever has to sit through a Suddenly Susan for a second time just because it’s on between Friends and Seinfeld and you only have a single VCR and nobody is counter-programming anything else worth a damn against “must-see-TV” anyways.
Secondly, TV on DVD assigned value to entire seasons of “shows you can watch on re-runs for free.” Why this caught everybody by surprise is beyond me. I know that a re-run of The Simpsons is on right now somewhere, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the one I want to see; nor do I want to take up valuable DVR space with HBOs week-by-week run-up to the Sixth Season of The Sopranos, when I can mainline Season Five — or hell, the entire series — just to get ready for it. (And oh yeah, I am ready for it, whoo-hoo!!).
And, of course, iTunes downloads have assigned value to individual episodes of given series.
So, people are willing to pay for TV. They key is for execs to give them a good reason to pay. Seriously, all they have to do is get it out there, cheaply and legally.
Release it now. Everywhere. Forever. This is a Medialoper Mantra, but nowhere does it apply as strongly as to series television, and the Times article leads off with a perfect reason why:
Amanda Palmer hardly fits the profile of an Internet outlaw, but her obsession with the ABC show “Lost” makes this self-described “bubbly, nutty mum” the television industry’s worst nightmare.
Like thousands of other British fans, the 30-year-old personal assistant can’t bear to wait the nine months it can take for new “Lost” shows to air in England. So, soon after the closing credits roll in America, she downloads each episode off file-sharing networks.
When people have to wait several months for a season of a show to be released in their country and they can’t get it through iTunes (a studio requirment that downloads be restricted to domestic customers), they are going to resort to other methods. Can you imagine being internet-savvy and somehow avoiding Lost or Battlestar Galactica spoilers for nine frackin’ months? I can’t even avoid them for nine hours!
This is especially true with the new run of super-intricate arc-centric shows, where every new show depends on what came before. For these, the broadcast nets can also take a page from cable’s playbook and show first-run episodes more than once per week. While this might have once been seen as evidence of weakness — stupid network doesn’t have enough shows to fill its schedule — it could be seen as the sign of confidence in a particular show or shows. The WB has regularly used this strategy, building audiences for shows like Everwood or Smallville by showing them twice per week, so that interested potential fans might take a chance if their original broadcast times coincided with an established favorite.
As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that 24 originally took off when it debuted was that Fox was also running it on F/X, the same week as the original Fox broadcasts. People had a better chance of trying it, and getting hooked. These days Fox shows 24 once per week; no re-runs; no downloads, so if you miss a single episode, you are totally hosed. It is no coincidence that the arc-centric shows are also the shows that people are going to be more likely to download illegally.
according to BigChampagne. In the Britain, illegal downloads of the hit “24” increased by more than 150% in a single year.
All the Fox people would have to do is make it available for download at the same time. People will pay. I can attest to that. During the first season of Lost, we had an incident where I accidentally deleted an early episode. It could have been very easy to just give up on the series right then and there, depriving ABC of eyeballs and advertiser revenue. Instead, BitTorrent to the rescue, and we have continued to watch the series faithfully, and as a matter of fact, even bought the DVD of the first season and will buy the DVD for this second one as well, unless they end up going totally Twin Peaks on us. (Of course, 15 years later, I’m dying for the DVD of that season, too!!)
Compare that to this year, where Lost is readily available for download, and ABC did that awful consumer-hating thing where they decide to run an episode 3 extra minutes and our DVR cut off before the end. No worries, we just spent $1.99 to download it from iTunes, and saw the ending the next day.
(So ironically, in the end, a consumer using BitTorrent to download a single episode of a series probably made money for Disney instead of losing it for them, but that’s a different argument.)
The good news is that it seems that TV execs have watched the hash that the music industry made fighting the download technology, and maybe because they’ve never really had to base their income of the movement of atoms instead of bits, it’s entirely possible that they will continue to move forward.