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When viewers break bad: defending TV piracy

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Australians are responsible for 16% of the world’s illegal downloads of AMC’s meth-fuelled cash volcano, Breaking BadWe’re not afraid of going outside the law to get what we want, especially when what we want is US drama about going outside the law to get what you want. This is one of the factors motivating the US government to push for a crackdown on internet piracy as part of the Trans­Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that covers Australia among 12 other nations including the USA, Canada, and Japan.
But is the Australian viewing public’s pathological desire to obtain entertainment instantaneously and for a reasonable price, even when that means turning to a life of internet crime, unreasonable or even unusual? Television studios, in particular, have long treated Australia as a second-rate market, delaying and limiting releases and giving preferential treatment to lucrative US domestic audiences at the expense of the regional consumer. Peer-to-peer sharing has put power in the hands of the viewers, giving them an alternative to studio-dictated release schedules and payment.
Studios might have been surprised at the scale of this shift in the market at first, but it’s no longer the early days of internet piracy and the fact that the US is pushing to enshrine it in free trade agreements points to a long-term decision to resist, rather than adapt, to a system that has been irreconcilably altered by the internet.
The fact that such a large proportion of television viewers in marginalised markets like our own have chosen to take matters into their own hands shows natural dissatisfaction with terrible service, not wanton disregard for the law. These fans feel exploited and disenfranchised by a system that has been able to overlook us for years and now struggling to adapt to our new-found independence. Even viewers who religiously buy all their TV legally in the hope that a couple of cents make their way to the creators of the shows they love, (I happen to be a member of this sad, morally self-righteous group, still clinging to the hope that season four of Community will be shown on some Australian network, sometime) are forced to look for other options when our networks and stores lag behind the rest of the world.
Such is the case with Top Gear, the world’s most popular car show and one of the most popular TV shows currently in circulation in any genre. You may or may not have noticed that a new season is currently screening on Channel 9. What people who are not fans of the show might not realise is that the ‘new’ season being shown on 9 was shown on the BBC in June. Ten months ago. I’m by no means an expert but I probably could have bought a copy in the UK and brought it back by canoe faster than that.
Treating Australians like we’re still somehow cut off from the rest of the world is not only insulting to consumers but terrible for business. Despite this many studios, and even governments, continue to defend the practice of asking a nation of 22 million people to wait quietly in the corner until everyone else is done with that new episode of Big Bang Theory.
The outrage demonstrated by some of these interests, including the US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, who has previously asked if we wouldn’t mind stealing fewer episodes of Game of Thrones, seems to ignore the global consensus that demanding instantaneous access to all new content is not unreasonable. International markets demanding access to new products as soon as they are available is as much a part of globalisation as are the increasing connection and free flow of goods between those markets.
However, the argument that the entertainment industry seems to favour is that while latter has multiplied their profit by orders of magnitude the former can be ignored because it complicates their business. Resisting the tide of global consumerism is futile at best, and people who sell American culture should be well aware of this by now.
For shows with considerably more hype than Top Gear the gap between first viewing overseas and arrival on our televisions doesn’t need to be the full ten months in order to attract a similar level of rebuke. In a world of instantaneous communication, a large portion of which is focused on the A-list TV shows of the day, it is no longer acceptable to wait two or three days watching Twitter churn over the most recent developments while you wait patiently to be let in on the fun.
Early seasons of run-away hits Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones suffered as a result of  this. Game of Thrones only became available on the Australian iTunes store within 24 hours of release during the most recent season and is yet to appear on free-to-air networks. The response by the show’s large and early-adopting Australian fan base was predictable and nearly unanimous. It was also slow to abate, as even with improved access (despite its continued absence from free-to-air TV) Australian audiences pirated the show more than any other nation and accounted for 9.9% of the 50 million illegal downloads of the show in the last season, a number that is almost identical to its legitimate audience in America.
But is there any need for an antagonistic relationship between the people who make TV and people who, for all their supposed faults, are at a basic level fans? The actions of Australian pirates are not designed to hurt writers or actors or show scorn for an industry that we obviously love, but to demand that we be treated equally to the average American consumer.
The creators of Game of Thrones, despite the aforementioned plundering of their IP, have gone on the record to say they embrace piracy as a way of spreading hype about upcoming seasons, seemingly conceding that there are legitimate causes and uses for illegally downloading their work. However given the previously mentioned official request to curtail the theft, one is left wondering if they’re just trying to make the best of  a situation they know is less than ideal.
The supposed culture of piracy in Australia is not ingrained, but opportunistic. Producers and distributors that are willing to treat all audiences equally are certainly not immune to piracy, but suffer the wrath of the internet at a much lower level.
The Walking Dead screens at exactly the same time in Australia and the US because AMC understands that people can record television now. It was pirated only 2.7 million times during its most recent season, or at roughly half the rate of Game of Thrones, despite being the most popular show on US TV at the time, with a staggering 12,420,000 viewers, more than double Game of Throne’s market share.
The world is no longer at the mercy of TV executives, and if any section of a show’s global audience feels that they are being treated as second-class eyeballs, they will flock to alternative, non-official channels. To wrathfully attempt to eradicate this practice has obviously proved ineffective. Perhaps it is time for TV studios to embrace the global marketplace that has made them their millions and allow their dedicated fans to do the right thing without paying the price for not being able to contribute to US ratings.
NOTE: Season 20 of Top Gear, currently screening on Channel Nine was originally screened in June not January on the BBC as originally claimed in this article, however the India Special, screened Thursday night by Nine as part of Season 20, was first screened in December 2011 by the BBC.

24 responses to “When viewers break bad: defending TV piracy

  1. this brings a new perspective. Not yet a GoT or other devotee, I thought Aussies were merely tight fisted (& self-forgiving thieves) re illegal downloads. Yes indeed, we are not a colonial enclave.

  2. I want to pay someone, Im completely happy to pay, and feel guilty when I cant. But if they wont sell it to me when it comes out Im sorry but Im just not going to wait months until they decide to release it to the Australian market.

  3. Exactly, if I can’t access immediately legally why shouldn’t I avail myself of P2P?
    It’s not about money as I’m happy to pay, it’s about being penalised for living in the wrong part of the world as far as the networks are concerned. Screw ’em, as old Walt might say

  4. I download the premium shows (e.g. GOT, BB, TWD, etc) for a couple of reasons. I can watch it whenever I want as many times as i want, they are ad free, and I can get them within hours of screenings. The fact that they are free is a bonus. That being said I’ve just spent a couple hundred $ on BB and GOT blu-ray box sets so the producers do get a return from me if what they deliver is good enough.

  5. Free-to-air TV is currently showing only the beginning of season 2 of Scandal, and I am getting twitter updates of season 3 which is currently screening in the US, and no legal way to obtain the series. Bit-torrent – thanks very much!

  6. Just a bunch of high minded nonsense. Twenty-five studies have found that free content reduces revenues. In the US, Home Video revenues including all new business models, PPV, VOD, streaming, Netflix, etc. have dropped 25% since BitTorrent took off.

    1. I wouldn’t deny for a second that illegal free access to content won’t result in lower revenue.
      The article here isn’t suggesting that it wouldn’t.
      But bittorrent is there and it isn’t going anywhere. The article is suggesting that it would be wise for the industry to adapt to this fact and offer a competing service, that a lot of honest people will happily use. It will never completely stamp out piracy.
      Cracking down on piracy here will just result in the higher use of VPN and related services.
      The entertainment industry needs to stop seeing piracy as a big bad monster that needs slaying, and start offering a service that is remotely competitive with the service offered by online file sharing.

  7. Theft, straight up.
    You are not *entitled* to anything. Sure, feel hard done by that you can’t watch the show that you want (not need) to the second it is available overseas, but content makers can make these decisions because they *own* that product.
    If you make the decision to steal it, that’s your call, but don’t try and pretend that it is even vaguely morally justifiable.

    1. Moralising, self righteous and actually off topic.
      The market has failed, mate. Your head’s stuck in the sand…..
      The content makers are quite distinct from the distributors. The content makers are paid the same regardless of how the content gets distributed.
      The distributors are unable or unwilling to change their content distribution model to take advantage of changed technological circumstances.
      There’s a revolution underway in case you hadn’t noticed.
      Region coding, delayed international broadcasts and other means of suppression of the popular titles are losing effectiveness due to technological change not moral decay.
      Like horse fettlers (motor cars), or hand transcription monks (printing press) or pyramid builders (the fall of the ancient Egyptian pharoahs) before it, the industry that distributes TV shows and movies is going away. (Same with books, pop music and newspapers…)
      This behaviour has been ongoing for decades. Ever heard of tape swapping? I know of people here in Australia who have been watching the latest eps of overseas TV since the late 70’s by means of VHS tapes through the mail. ( A fannish minority obviously but networks find a way….)
      To call it “theft” is a moral judgement and is not helpful or reflective of reality. Such labelling isn’t gonna do much to improve the distributors plight. They have some work to do I suspect.
      From the content makers’ viewpoint, people who go to extraordinary lengths to obtain the latest episodes quickly are paying them an extraordinary vote of confidence. The distributors may be should consider this more carefully.
      This discussion is about how movies will be promoted, distributed, paid for and watched in the future. The position of the distributors (who masquerade as ‘copyright holders’ when in fact they ignore the interests content makers) is akin to King Canute ordering the sea to retreat.

  8. “The supposed culture of piracy in Australia is not ingrained, but opportunistic.”
    I wonder though if Australian’s are so sick of being treated so poorly, that is now indeed ingrained.

  9. Further, no-one’s signing up for whole Foxtel contract to watch or two shows… and the latest The Walking Dead episode isn’t available soon enough on iTunes for people to buy it.

  10. I signed up for Foxtel in order to get BB, GoT and Mad Men within hours of it viewing in the US. I’m happy we did that but it still doesn’t resolve a lot of the problems that this article alludes to. I am still waiting for the elusive Community season 4 to air legitimately somewhere (anywhere?) in Oz so I can watch it (it’s certainly not on Foxtel) and Orange is the New Black is only airing on Foxtel now when my favourite US websites have been raving about how great it is for months and months now. So I agree for the most part with this article, treat Aussie lovers of good quality TV better and you’ll find they’re happy to pay for it.

  11. Rather than paying for Foxtel or stealing, I highly recommend that you spend $5 CAD a month creating a US DNS, allowing you to sign up to Hulu, Netflix and even HBO Go if you have an American friend with HBO. In fact, you don’t even need an American DNS to access the US iTunes store. You just need to create an account with a gift card for the US store (easily obtained). For those of you of who believe that all of this is too difficult, it is no harder than downloading a torrent.
    Add those accounts to your Apple TV (or similar) and you have paid HD content on your big screen.

  12. $40 plus extras to watch one or two shows ( maybe 4 a month ) on fox? No economics needed here.netflix the obvious choice to bring any semblance of balance here. No matter how you look at it ,we are are seen as rich 2nd class.not Rich enough mr murdoch ?

  13. My take on this is a little different. I am not so consumed by TV programmes that I need to see the next episode minutes after it is first aired in the US or wherever.
    However, when I do watch an episode, I don’t appreciate the constant intrusion to story continuity by incessant ads ….usually about 15 – 17 minutes per 60.
    Accordingly, I now seldom watch commercial TV . I would much rather a pay per view model which allows me to watch commercial free…at least during the programme.
    Foxtel would be a solution if it went back to the ad free operation seen during its first 5 years in Australia but when I was last a subscriber, it was worse than FTA in terms of insensitively timed ad breaks and constant repetition of upcoming programme promos.
    My point is simply that there are more reason than timeliness that drive people to download so they can watch how and when they like.
    I suspect that FTA tv as a viewing model is dead but just doesn’t realise it yet.

  14. I, like many above feel that if we weren’t left waiting the producers would find people willing to pay for content. One other sticking point for me is that when purchasing content in Oz we are gouged to the tune of 15-30% over buyers in other markets. That’s crap, pure and simple.
    I am not usually a conspiracy theorist, however given that Murdoch virtually has a monopoly on subscriber TV here, the NBN was seen as a white knight and internet TV was poised to boom – or is it? Certainly, the spectacle of a supposedly intelligent and savvy type like Malcolm Turnbull doing his best to sabotage this project – surely at the behest of “interests” within and without the LNP – is breathtaking. Allied with the afore mentioned price gouging for content and 2nd class treatment of Australian media consumers (not just TV, music and software are other examples) and I personally am beginning to smell something funky…

  15. It’s past time that business models adapt to the new reality of the internet. As GlenGle correctly points out, it is not technically difficult to evade IP-based geofiltering. The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back in.
    Concurrent worldwide release is the only reasonable option I can see as it is near impossible to avoid spoilers regarding the conclusion of your favorite show for > 24 h after release.
    I feel it’s only right to reward the content makers such as AMC, HBO, etc but I don’t think we owe monopoly rent-seekers such as Foxtel and television broadcasters a living. Bring on more choice and competition, Goodness knows, Australia needs it.

  16. “I happen to be a member of this sad, morally self-righteous group”
    As an aspiring member of this group, I’ve found that it means waiting for the DVDs to come out. I’d like to pay for content, but even though I have a smart TV that can play any format, the DRM on the iTunes store (our only realistic option for most TV) means that if I bought the files I wouldn’t be able to watch them without buying a further device just to “unlock” them. Doing the right thing has meant just waiting for DVDs to come out.
    I’d love to be able to pay for HBO, AMC, Showtime, and Netflix. They create shows I want to watch, and I do think I should be able to support them. The Internet means I have the infrastructure to be able to get the content if it were on offer, yet I’m stuck between paying for Australian Pay TV (To get Game of Thrones, you can’t just subscribe to the channel that shows it, but subscribe to a whole lot of “basic” channels, then get the “premium” package on top of that. I fail to see how I’m supporting the content makers by getting Foxtel – Foxtel create nothing!), buying more Apple hardware, or waiting for the DVDs when they finally emerge just before a new season begins. Why can’t I pay the companies directly?

  17. Is there any real difference between downloading and watching something on free to air tv anyway? I thoroughly ignore any and all advertisements as much as I possibly can.

  18. And how does this gel with the rip-off Australians suffer by Itunes, Apple products and microsoft software where we pay hugely inflated prices for electronic bits that cost hundredths of a cent to distribute.
    USA is ripping Australians off in many areas, as are other opportunistic corporations.
    And if there is no other way to access something because theya re too lazy to deliver it, well they get what they deserve.
    Call it theft if you like, but much of capitalism is built around it. Of course if you are the vendor, a large corporate, they don’t call it theft.
    There is much more moral ‘grey’ in this than the pathetically myopic ‘it’s theft’ crew would have us believe.
    We are paying way over the odds for a huge number of products from overseas, for no reason than they can get away with it.
    It’s true that 2 wrongs don’t make a right, but as nobody in capitalism is playing a fair game, or paying fair taxes, this amounts to less than a drop in the ocean, and is little more than huge multi-national corporate whinging, and the buying of the american political system.

  19. You’d hope that a Trans­Pacific Partnership agreement would actually promote a global marketplace, rather than country-specific services (i.e. Netflix, iTunes in its various national incarnations). Surely it wouldn’t be hard to apply some form of base price + local taxes + local royalty fees pricing structure… Prices would vary from country to country, but content could be made available on-demand or as it’s broadcast globally, at a reasonable price.
    The recent BBC production ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was simulcast in 90+ countries… As well as released in 3D within theatres. A 50 year old program somehow manages to demonstrate a model that’s profitable, and provides content across the world to 90+ different markets.
    It’s strange how music services such as Spotify and Pandora can make music available for free – $10-$12 a month, but cable in Australia’s $40+ per month.

  20. This article overlooks the fact that Game of Thrones has NEVER been shown on free to air tv in the USA either. It is only viewable in the US by PAID subscribers to HBO, or to folks who have rented/bought the DVD or the download, or who have pirated copies.

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