Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Future of Torrenting Television and Streaming Series

With the piracy of television series becoming a more and more socially acceptable practice, what options are there left for the entertainment industry to keep making money from their shows?
 by Adriaan Odendaal

I have to admit, like many of you probably do too, that I illegally torrent (read: download) television series… all the time. I’ve even started to directly (still illegally) stream shows an hour or so after they debut on their respective US networks. And like I said, it’s not just me, it’s probably you too. In one way or another, it’s probably just about everybody with a computer these days.

This piratical form of cultural consumption has become so prevalent that it is now largely considered normal behaviour. It can even be seen as socially sanctioned behaviour when you are faced with a relative degree of social alienation for not havening watched the Breaking Bad finale or the latest Game of Thrones episode (or have you ever faced the reproaches incurred by telling a friend “No thanks, I don’t watch illegal series”?). Yet despite all this, the way most modern audiences consume television shows is still very much illegal. But for how long can the entertainment industry (and their political and non-political affiliates) sustain the criminalisation of socially accepted behaviour, and for how long can the entertainment industry be sustained by a dedicated audience of freeloaders?

Society and culture are irrevocably tied together (some definitions even amalgamate the two terms). Consequently, the cultural products we produce and the manner in which we consume them moulds and is moulded by the society we live in. Yet despite this reciprocity, we are currently living through a very severe conflict: the conflict between the self-directed drive of culture and the authoritative institutes that (try to) regulate society. And this conflict is reaching breakpoint with the momentous rise of television series piracy (Karl Marx would be thrilled).

Piracy is long since not been deterred by those ‘You Wouldn’t Steal A Car’ ads. Rather, it has become part of the very fabric of contemporary global culture. The term ‘piracy’ isn't even used anymore, as all connotations of social deviance have fallen from “copying a season of House from my friend’s hard-drive” and “downloading the latest Revenge episode”. And no non-totalitarian government can really influence a socio-cultural phenomenon at this level (you would have to orchestrate a global Maoist Cultural Revolution to stem a tide of this sort). Yet the US government, media companies, entertainment industry lobbyists, and US allies across the world, are trying very hard to combat this ‘unwanted’ cultural practice with the increased criminalisation and persecution of what has become normative social behaviour (I can even remember watching pirated movies at a church camp once).

It seems that the US haven’t learnt anything from the history of Prohibitions. Maybe those in charge should also illegally download HBO’s gangster period-drama Boardwalk Empire like I have. As Prohibition showed, the people get what the people want. Despite official intervention. And often to the detriment of those who are trying to stop them. For example: whenever a country blocks Pirate Bay (the foremost illegal torrenting site), people merely set up any number of proxy sites to access Pirate Bay’s resources again (when UK internet service providers began blocking Pirate Bay on 2 May 2012, the site reportedly received 12 million more visitors the day after the ban). And when pressure led the Swedish government to close down the company itself, Pirate Bay merely relocated to Greenland, then Iceland, then the island of St. Martin (each time springing the reach of US influenced jurisdiction). It might seem like the plot to a Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon, but in fact, it’s becoming less and less of a joke. Early in July Peter Sunde, co-founder of Pirate Bay, was arrested in Sweden for evading an 8 month jail sentence for copyright infringement. And he is not the first to be imprisoned for breaking copyright laws. Persecution of the creators of Pirate Bay has become an international diplomatic network of extradition and prosecution.

But the thing is, Peter Sunde and his cohorts are not part of some Al Capone hierarchical crime syndicate. A torrent site like Pirate Bay is merely a channel through which you and me and everyone else share files. No one actually downloads copyrighted material from Pirate Bay (a common misconception). Pirate Bay merely allows us to download torrents links, which allows peer-to-peer file-sharing between internet users. And Pirate Bay is just one of the many hundreds of torrent sites out there.

Minova, a site similar to Piratebay, gives daily statistics on the file sharing activities that occurs through their site: the 22nd of June saw 10,640,687,255 new downloads started and 86, 584 new torrents uploaded for downloading. This gives you an idea of how delusional and futile the fight against piracy actually is. Yet, I had a friend who received an email from Paramount telling him to cease his downloading activities or they will sequentially follow legal action. But of the 10 billion torrents downloaded daily (and this is only from Minova), how many emails can they really send out? How many times can they try to shut down Pirate Bay or throw the visionary minds behind these sites (for they are ahead of their time) in prison? How many anti-piracy programs can they roll-out that don’t immediately get undermined and made void by smart internet users? Torrenting and streaming series, despite its popularity, is however something of a late comer to the piracy party. The music industry has been embroiled in this polemic since most of us were still using dial-up. Remember the Napster debacle in the late 90s? The same thing is happening now, only slightly more exacerbated. This is because television piracy, as I’ve said, seems to be the culminating into the breakpoint of the entire legislative socio-cultural conflict surrounding the practice.

What the music industry seemed to have done though (albeit only by increments), is what the television industry must also do. Get with the times and adapt. When such paradigmal shifts in the way we consume (cultural) products occur, the market should respond appropriately (rather than trying to retrogressively stonewall it). And this is why certain industry role-players have netted unprecedented success, while the rest have been left in the dust trying to hold their archaic systems together. Netflix, once a DVD rental company, has now become the foremost online streaming site in America (and possibly the world), bridging the gap between legality and our new way of consuming television (they have even adapted to our binging habits by releasing Netflix original series like Orange Is the New Black in complete seasons rather than week by week episodes). Starting their online streaming services in 2007, Netflix has grown from 1 million US subscribers in 2002 to 50 million global subscribers in 2014. The reason behind this is that they offer a (monetized) alternative to illegal streaming and torrenting. I talked to a friend of mine from the UK and he said that the reason he got Netflix was because it costs him less money than the time he wasted circumnavigating internet blocks to illegally download series (he is a ‘time is money’ kind of guy). The illegal sites I use to stream my shows are also not ideal: they are of poor quality, on dodgy sites, and force me to use unreliable media-players. If Netflix was available in South Africa, I would gladly pay (the equivalent of) $ 8.99 a month for unlimited access to series and movies with the benefit of great service delivery and responsive tech support.

Netflix is a great model for how the entertainment industry should adapt to the irresolvable problem presented by media piracy: you find a way to work with, rather than fight against it. Likewise, advertising can be a potential source of revenue. Advertising has always been a great way of getting money from something you give away for free. One of the oldest media outlets in the world, radio broadcasting, works like this (it has also become a great, albeit annoying way, for freeware software developers to make money). The more people you can get to use your product for free, the more money advertisers will pay for the increased exposure. Game of Thrones, the undisputed king of pirated series, saw an estimated 5.9 million illegal downloads of Season 3 in 2013 (with a 10% growth from 2012). How much money do you think advertisers would pay to reach that kind of audience?

To give credit where credit is due however, many industry role-players have begun to realise piracy
can be used to their benefit. Game of Thrones director David Petrarca said that the show thrives on the “cultural buzz” created by illegal downloads (we all know those ‘Winter is Coming’ memes). Piracy has helped make Game of Thrones HBO’s most successful series ever. Petrarca also said that illegal downloads drive people to buy HBO subscriptions, as HBO now also offers an online streaming service called HBO Go (with the premiere of Game of Thrones Season 4, HBO Go crashed under the heavy demand of viewership). And there are other options out there as well: Google Play and even iTunes offer the chance to watch Game of Thrones episodes (and other series) in all their HD glory for a small fee.

In whatever way the entertainment industry responds to piracy, they should realise that culture is a dynamic and self-regulating social force. It is the folly of industry role-players and legislators that they often can’t see this, or use it to their advantage. This has led to the increasingly preposterous criminalisation of something that has become commonplace behaviour. Reading up on anti-piracy legislation in the US has even become unsettlingly similar to reading Orwell’s 1984. Fortunately, no one really pays attention to anti-piracy laws anymore (just like we used to ignore those FBI Warnings on DVDs). And this is precisely because these laws now seem to belong to a delusional worldview that doesn’t reflect the changing face of culture or society at all.