Pompous Pirates

So, topic #2 this week is inspired by a funny-but-sad comic from The Oatmeal about pirating Game of Thrones. The gist, if you’re not inclined to click the link, is that Mr. Oatmeal went on an online hunt to find a legal way to view the show, since he doesn’t have HBO. Stymied at every turn, he finally gives in to the devil on his shoulder, and hits a file-sharing site.

Before I get into the meat of why this whole thing is so frustrating, let me get this confession out of the way, first: yes, I have occasionally used illegal means to view TV shows (and, rarely, movies.) The vast majority of my straying into evil pirate territory has to do with access to things I can’t otherwise get in the US (usually, UK shows that won’t make it here in a reasonable timeframe, if ever) or things that are out of print or otherwise completely unobtainable via legal means. I never do illegal downloads if there’s a way for me to give money to the people who make the entertainment I love, and if I do so for time-constraint reasons, I always make sure to buy the DVD later when it comes out, regardless of what region it is. But if I don’t have any reasonable way to give those folks my money, then yes, I’ll go there. This is, of course, technically illegal, and could get me arrested, but it’s not necessarily unethical.

However, people who pirate solely because they can’t be bothered to access readily available, perfectly legal sources for their entertainment? Make me want to scream. One, because they’re depriving creators of pay for their hard work, two, because they’re part of why we keep getting threatened with horrific stuff like SOPA/PIPA, and three–most importantly–because they’re making it even harder to get quick, legal online access to entertainment.

Now of course I (if not the RIAA and MPAA, etc.) realize that the lion’s share of illegal downloading comes from people who would never consider paying for the work in the first place (thieves), or people who would never have the opportunity to do so because of living well outside of the work’s legal distribution channels (the foreign resale market.) I also think that any industry calculation of lost revenue that includes those viewers is inherently skewed: they would never have got money from those folks regardless of whether the illegal downloads were available. But there’s also a contingent, which is far larger than it should be, of people downloading simply because it’s cheaper or easier to do so than obtaining something via legal means, and people who seem to think they’re somehow entitled to free entertainment, and feel personally offended at being asked to pay for it. These folks, though they may not be a large enough group to represent significant revenue losses, are nonetheless screwing things up–even for themselves.

Paying people for the work they do is important, and it’s incredibly rude to steal from them. And feeding the illegal fileshare beast is what’s scaring the suits into threatening everyone with decades in prison for watching an episode of Doctor Who. But that’s not what I’m here to scold people about.

From a bigger-picture perspective, the far-more-critical problem with illegal downloading is that it’s shooting viewers in the foot. If the goal is to have easy, instant access to quality entertainment via something other than a giant box in your living room, choosing to use an illegal fileshare rather than a legal download/streaming method is only going to make it less likely for that easy access to happen in the future. Speaking as someone who would very much like to be able to watch my fabulously geeky shows from any device I happen to own, whereever I happen to be, that’s really, really annoying.

Every eyeball counts

I won’t reiterate the entirety of my explanation of how TV ratings work, but here’s the short version. All money made from TV shows happens in three ways: advertising, direct-purchase or subscription. Usually these days, all three revenue streams are involved in some way. The far-and-away vast majority of that revenue, however, comes from the first, in the form of commercials aired during live broadcasts. Exactly how much money is made via this advertising has to do with the rates the channel is able to charge advertisers for that airtime during their show, and those rates are set via one thing, and one thing only: ratings, or: the number of viewers who are exposing their eyeballs to those sponsors’ ads.

Most people do know this. They also know that if you’re not signed up with the ratings agency (Nielsen, in the US), your views aren’t getting counted. Some people, however, seem to assume that because they’re not being counted for live airings, it doesn’t matter whether they view the show that way or via illegal means. And that? Is simply not true.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before elsewhere, if not here, in terms of what shows get greenlit, produced, renewed, etc., generally speaking, those Nielsen (etc.) ratings are all that matter. If a show you like is on the bubble, and you’re not a Nielsen household, and don’t know anyone who is whom you can beg to watch your show, you’re pretty much screwed for any real method to save your show. Fan campaigns have, on rare occasions, given a show a final-season renewal, but it almost never goes beyond that if the ratings numbers don’t somehow rebound.

But! Just because you can’t save a show via a ton of legal online viewing doesn’t mean that those views aren’t useful. There are two reasons to do this, even if you’re not terribly inclined to give your money to TV networks or JJ Abrams: 1. You’re registering your interest in quality entertainment, and 2. You’re registering your interest in that method of distribution.

As most savvy viewers know, Nielsen ratings are a total dinosaur, because they generally only count one kind of viewer: those who park in front of their TV at a designated time and watch a specific show. Younger and more tech-literate viewers simply aren’t watching that way any more. Many don’t even have a TV, or a cable/satellite subscription, and even those who do (yours truly, for instance) are watching almost exclusively via DVR or various on demand services.

Since the ratings method is a dinosaur, so, too are the people it measures. They’re older, more conservative, more inclined to be insular. They’re people who are watching after work, after dinner, after the kids are in bed, who really don’t have the mental-energy bandwidth to spend on entertainment that’s challenging in any way. The few younger viewers who are being counted by Nielsen tend to skew toward reality competition shows that demand live viewing. This means that the vast majority of what gets produced now is stuff that appeals to those people. TV consumers who want something different aren’t being counted, because they’re not watching in a way that gets registered.

This is where legal online viewing can make a huge, huge difference. Even though the hit/download count for things like networks’ sites, Amazon, iTunes, etc. isn’t really counted toward official ratings, those views still do matter. The more these methods are used, the more likely producers are to refine and standardize those methods to ensure that they can get to everyone with a net connection. Eventually, if those numbers are significant enough, we’ll finally start seeing more programming that caters to people who want to watch that way.

But, if half the people watching, say, Caprica are doing so via illegal downloads instead of via iTunes, etc., those views aren’t being counted at all. Then, the bean counters start questioning whether the additional overhead of online distribution is even worth it, and whether they should bother with the hardcore production costs and logistics of making an FX-heavy ensemble show. Next thing you know, we’re back to the Cretaceous, and we’re not getting good shows at all.

Like it or not, TV is a business, and one that has a great deal of expensive overhead. Those schmancy SFF shows aren’t cheap to make. In order for the studios to justify making them, they have to be convinced that they can make a decent profit from them. If the people to whom these shows appeal aren’t contributing to that bottom line in a significant way, the studios aren’t going to bother catering to them, both in terms of programming and distribution methods.

Simply put: until/unless legal online views start rivalling couchbound ones, online distribution of smarter shows will die.

It IS TV; it’s HBO

Now, all that said, none of this would really help the situation with Game of Thrones.

HBO doesn’t get their revenue via advertising, but via subscriptions, and because those subscriptions rely on cable/satellite providers, they’re naturally vested in keeping those providers healthy. Allowing a la carte online viewing from people who aren’t cable subscribers would completely gut their primary revenue source. It’s therefore in their best business interests to restrict access to that show to subscribers only. This is quite annoying for people who don’t have a TV, or for whom a cable subscription makes absolutely no financial sense. If you’re only regularly watching three or four shows, and half of those are readily available via other means, then there’s simply no budgetary justification for a substantial cable bill. So, once again, the couch-bound set wins out. Dangit.

The solution for this, of course, is for cable/satellite providers to create an online-only subscription service, and to allow for a la carte channel subscriptions. Paying $100/month to watch one show is pointless. But if, say, Comcast allowed you to have an online-only subscription to HBO for $10/month? I think a lot of people would do that. That way, Comcast gets paid, HBO gets paid, the people who make Game of Thrones get paid, and viewers can sit back and relax and enjoy the show, secure in the knowledge that they’re not going to get a nasty letter from HBO’s lawyers.

Alas, this isn’t happening, and likely won’t for at least the near future, because more than HBO and Comcast are involved in this business. First, many of the updial channels that wouldn’t get purchased in an a la carte offering rely on the revenue they get from package subscriptions, and would therefore balk at a plan like that. Second, non-premium channels still rely on live-aired commercials for a signficant portion of their revenue, and don’t want to dilute that revenue stream for the reasons I outlined above. They’re not going to be happy if HBO wants to break off from their pack and therefore reduce the number of cable subscribers who might be tuned into their shows.

So, yes. Would-be Game of Thrones viewers without an HBO subscription are pretty much screwed. Which sucks, I know. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have some power to change things.

The TV-distribution industry has a virtual monopoly on short-form video entertainment, and their lack of effort toward online distribution is, to be frank, a protectionist scheme. There’s some incredibly high overhead involved with running a TV channel, and since online distribution requires only a fraction of that (converting a file and sticking it up on a website is child’s play compared to the logistics involved in live airings on broadcast and cable) a lot of people would end up losing their jobs. Naturally, they don’t want this to happen. The poor schmuck sitting in the local master control office making sure local ads get stuck into commercial breaks during Warehouse 13 doesn’t want to lose his job to a fully automated system that attaches ads to an online, non-live version of that show.

But, let’s face it: that guy’s job is simply not the future of entertainment. Just as people who worked in vinyl-pressing factories were always going to be out of a job as soon as music went digital, and just as book binderies are rapidly becoming obsolete with online publishing, the massive TV-network industry built up around distributing video is going to shut down eventually, too.

Unfortunately, the way viewers are getting entertainment right now is keeping that dying industry on life support well past its expiration date. If we’re not supporting alternate methods of distribution in ways that make business sense, there’s no incentive for existing distributors to change what they’re doing. Every time you do an illegal download instead of a readily available legal one, you’re only ensuring that video entertainment will keep being run by people who think the internet is solely for porn and forwarding chain mail from their grandparents.

Just like refusing to vote doesn’t actually change how government and elections are run, refusing to be a consumer in the video entertainment revenue stream won’t change how that entertainment gets made. Being invisible is never, ever a way to get counted. So, while it may not help you get immediate access to Game of Thrones to do legal downloads of other stuff, it will, eventually, help make that sort of thing possible. If you want quality, online entertainment, you have to tell the people making it that you’re watching that way. And hitting Wupload for the latest episode of Breaking Bad? Isn’t doing that.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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3 Responses to Pompous Pirates

  1. kwite says:

    Until last year, I had never had a cable subscription. All of my TV viewing was done online, through legal sources whenever possible, though I admit I would pirate the occasional premium cable show and buy the DVDs later.

    But I didn’t want to pirate Game of Thrones. I had been looking forward to it for over a year, and wanted to do everything I could to support the show. So, I bit the bullet and signed up for cable. I was that customer that makes the premium network model so valuable to cable companies.

    My attempt to do the right thing was a disaster. Time Warner Cable postponed my installation three times without notice, eventually hooking me up six weeks after my original appointment, and then tried to bill me at three times the price they had offered me. The time and stress I expended waiting for cable guys and yelling at customer service people was in no way worth it for a token show of support. At the end of it all, I didn’t even feel good about supporting the show. I felt like I was throwing my money away by paying for tons of stations I didn’t need or want, while only a small fraction of my monthly bill actually went to HBO. I felt dirty to be supporting an outdated distribution system which, as far as I’m concerned, cannot die soon enough. Looking back, I wish I had just pirated the show, and used the money I would have saved to buy a half dozen copies of Game of Thrones season 1 on blu-ray.

    • I agree that many cable and satellite companies are dreadful (though that can vary by region.) But it’s actually better than how things were in the early days, when cable was basically a monopoly in each market, and could therefore screw people over at will. It may be that TW is the only option you have, but in most markets, there’s at least one cable and one satellite provider, so if one screws you over, you can choose to use the other one instead.

      Also, FWIW, the problems you have with cable are also common with ISPs. So it’s not like online viewing is any sort of magic pill that makes bad media corporations start behaving.

      I do think the premium-channel conundrum–and maybe even Game of Thrones itself–may be the proverbial straw here. I think HBO will definitely, as I mentioned, keep propping up the cable/satellite industry as long as possible because their subscription-only business model requires it, but I’m not sure how much longer they can truly sustain that. It could be that they know this, and that’s why they’re being so particularly stingy with this cash cow. It’s their one last chance to prove that channel-package subscription is a valid business model for TV entertainment.

  2. Julie Nilson says:

    “But if, say, Comcast allowed you to have an online-only subscription to HBO for $10/month? I think a lot of people would do that.”

    I would, I would! Other than two shows on HBO (GoT and True Blood) and one on TNT (Leverage), there’s virtually nothing I want to watch on cable. (Well, there’s Jon Stewart and Colbert, but their shows are available on the Comedy Central site.) As much as I love those shows, I’m not paying $100 a month for them. I would also rather not subsidize the Kardashians and the Jersey Shore nimrods and all the other reality shows that cable seems to be loving these days.

    Fortunately, the shows I love usually come out on DVD fairly quickly, but that doesn’t help their ratings. If I could get cable a la carte, and just get the two channels I want and not the 99 channels I don’t, I would absolutely do that.

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