TV Show Piracy: Maybe Too Convenient

Posted: March 28, 2013 in Thoughts on Technology
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Image courtesy of tvtel.pt

Image courtesy of tvtel.pt

How many times have you channel surfed through the TV and found absolutely nothing to watch? I know it happens to me all the time. I’ll want to want a good action show with the guys, and all that’s on is Gossip Girl. My girlfriend wants to watch something cute with me, and instead what’s playing is gory Dexter or Criminal Minds. I usually try to check Netflix which works for something general, but if I want a specific show or episode they often aren’t available. The only option left is to stream it off a illegal website that is littered with advertisements or to try and locate a copy to download of a torrent site like ThePirateBay. Almost all of my friends download their TV shows, especially being university students without cable. Seeing how popular it was, I decided to look into TV show piracy, and whether it’s as bad as it’s made out to be.

How common is TV Show Piracy?

It is difficult to look at just how popular TV show piracy is, because most of the studies looking into piracy on the internet group TV shows in with movies or even group all copyrighted material together. Fortunately, there are different ways to look at how common piracy of movies or TV shows is on the internet is. One can look at the amount of global internet traffic that is associated with copyright infringement. A January 2011 study by Envisional estimated 23.8% of this traffic was copyright infringing. A poster put out by the MPAA stated that 13% of all adults in the US have downloaded or watched illegal copies of movies or TV shows online.

2012 listing of torrent downloads for TV shows. Courtesy of torrentfreak.com

2012 listing of torrent downloads for TV shows. Courtesy of torrentfreak.com

This number surprised me, because it doesn’t really seem that high at all. When further looking into the numbers, however, I realized that while 80% of youth aged 18 to 24 in Canada watches content off the internet, only 10% of seniors aged 65 and older do. This equates to only 43% of adults watching content (legal or not) off the internet. Of the 43% of people, 13% of people is a pretty large proportion, assuming the percentage is relatively the same in Canada.

As stated earlier, when it comes to TV shows themselves it is more difficult to find numbers. There are examples of certain TV shows being heavily pirated however. For example, Game of Thrones was named the most pirated TV show in 2012 by torrentfreak.com with over 4,280,000 downloads of one episode. With 4,200,000 US TV viewers, that means about one copy was illegally downloaded for every one watched legally in the US. For some shows like Dexter, more than a million copies more were illegally downloaded than were watched legally in the US. The Wall Street Journal states in one article that there is a general increase in the number of TV shows illegally downloaded each year, so these numbers will go up even higher.

 Why is TV Show Piracy More Common Now?

There are a couple reasons why the piracy of TV shows have increased every year. These include:

  • With the advent of high speed internet, piracy of TV shows has increased. Image courtesy of geekhut.com

    With the advent of high speed internet, piracy of TV shows has increased. Image courtesy of geekhut.com

    Increase in internet speeds to homes – It’s hard to forget my days of dial-up internet, where I was waiting a few minutes for just the homepage to load, back in the early 2000’s. Plus the annoyance of my mother at not being able to use the phone at the same time. Trying to download TV shows on dial up or on any slow connection would be near impossible. With the ever increasing speeds of DSL and cable internet, TV show downloads are becoming progressively faster, sometimes only taking minutes.

  • Increased availability of TV Shows – Most common TV shows are readily available on P2P and torrent sites. Some shows are even available within hours after they air, or even before they air in some countries. For example, Game of Thrones airs in Australia a week after it does in the U.S. If Australians want to watch it earlier, all they have to do is illegally download it.
  • Playback Options – I, like most people, want movies that I can play on my smartphone, iPod, PC and XBOX 360. I like to be able to watch TV outside my home, like when I’m on the long bus ride back from campus or waiting in a long line up. Finding legal content that is playable on multiple platforms can be difficult. There are restrictions placed on some legally obtained video files called Digital Rights Management (DRM) that are intended to limit the use of the video files to what they were licensed for, ensuring they are not unlawfully distributed. One major downfall to it is that DRM usually limits the devices the videos can be played on. Files downloaded illegally do not usually have such restrictions.
  • Increased convince – For some people, pirating movies is just about convenience. For example, some modern cloud-based websites allow users to set up automatic downloads which will download their favourite TV shows from pirate sites as soon as they are available. This also means that we don’t have to sit through minutes of dumb commercials, and instead just watch what we actually want to – the show. Here is an example of a program, called TVTrigger which can automatically download all the episodes of a TV show as well as automatically download all the new episodes of a TV show.

Now that I understood why people pirated TV shows, I wanted to know whether people thought the practice of pirating TV shows was wrong, and if it was really harming businesses and people.

But is illegally downloading shows really wrong?

There are many mixed opinions on whether illegally downloading TV shows is wrong. I decided to look into the facts on downloading TV shows, to determine whether it is harmful to people involved with the TV industry or if it is actually beneficial to the show.

Let’s have a showdown to see both sides. First we’ll look at how TV show piracy may benefit TV shows:

Some people feel that pirated TV shows act as advertising. It is thought that if people watch lower quality versions from illegal sources and find that they really enjoy the show, they will then go out and buy the Blu-ray or DVD edition. Even people like the director of Game of Thrones, David Petrarca, feel that the social media impact of having people illegally download the TV show and enjoy it might outweigh the negative effect of losing official viewers. He had also said that pirates are partly responsible for the “cultural buzz” the show needs to thrive and survive. Here is an interview of some of the cast of Game of Thrones.

It seems though that a lot of the people download the videos illegally simply because they are either in a country where it is impossible to legally obtain the TV show, or where it is released long after it is in the United States. It’s impossible to believe, however, that all 4,200,000 downloads were from people in territories without legal access to Game of Thrones. It’s pretty safe to say that at least some revenue was lost by HBO- the network behind Game of Thrones. Most TV networks make their money in two ways: Advertising and so called per-subscriber-per-month fees that they charge the cable and satellite operators.

TV shows producers may lose significant revenue from lost DVD and Bluray sales. Image courtesy of tvshowsondvd.com

TV shows producers may lose significant revenue from lost DVD and Bluray sales. Image courtesy of tvshowsondvd.com

HBO is different from most TV networks in the fact that they do not run advertisements. Their revenue is largely through those subscriber fees, as well as some through DVD sales. Subscriber fees for most channels are bundled in packages from cable and satellite companies allowing the revenue stream to networks like HBO to be relatively stable. Although it is hard to study, HBO is probably losing subscribers because people have been giving up cable and satellite all together, or switching to basic packages.  They are doing this because TV shows can be easily found for free on pirate sites online, so why would they pay money for it? Lost DVD and Blu-ray sales may be where networks like HBO are taking the biggest hit. DVDs are the primary legal method of obtaining past seasons of a TV show but if they are readily available on in internet for free, people are a lot less likely to fork out the money for the high priced DVDs.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that TV show piracy is illegal, because downloading might cause to harm the revenue of the networks that run them. This in turn affects everyone involved in the show, from the actors to the people behind the scenes. An academic review into the total effect piracy has on TV show revenues found that it does indeed harm them. The study was funded by the MPAA, a company that is known to fight piracy, so that can be taken as you wish.

Personally, I can see the piracy issue getting better in the coming years, unless the networks provide users of legal content with all the conveniences that pirated content enjoys. I for one would be happy to pay more for a service like Netflix that allows you to watch many of the premium shows right after they air, rather than crossing my fingers and hoping the show I want is available. I’m sure many other people feel the same. If there was easier access to legal content, TV piracy could definitely become a thing of the past.

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