Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

Screening TV shows on demand will scuttle the pirates

Piracy of television series and movies will not be defeated until content is available on demand, argues Brett Debritz.
Television series such as Better Call Saul, which is being released in the UAE soon after in the US, reflect the new reality of pirated content. Photo: Ursula Coyote / AP
Television series such as Better Call Saul, which is being released in the UAE soon after in the US, reflect the new reality of pirated content. Photo: Ursula Coyote / AP

“I wouldn’t rob a bank, so why would I steal a TV show?”

My friend was responding to what I thought was a throwaway remark. He had been showing me a DVD compilation of the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory that had just arrived by courier from Amazon, and I said: “You know, you can get that online.”

While it is possible to purchase legitimate digital copies of the series, he assumed I was suggesting that he should have downloaded the series illegally.

It’s a natural conclusion to draw considering that many people do pirate copies of movies and TV shows, or access blocked foreign streaming sites using a virtual private network.

In general, they do not consider themselves to be thieves. Those who are expatriates argue that they’d be able to watch and record these shows legally, and for free, in their home countries.

The people who own the content beg to differ. The producers of TV shows and films strike different deals in different countries. A programme that is broadcast on a commercial channel in the US is funded by American advertisers. The BBC funds itself at home through a licence fee that all British TV owners must pay, and internationally via its own cable channels or selling content to other broadcasters. There is really no such thing as free TV.

The problem is that while certain programmes – recent examples include Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad – generate a simultaneous international buzz thanks to social media, the deals between producers and broadcasters mean that episodes of these shows are not available everywhere at the same time.

Broadcasters will typically delay screening new episodes of hit shows until peak viewing periods, which differ from market to market. In some countries, there is no deal, so the shows are not legally available.

But even a few hours’ difference in broadcast times will mean that plot spoilers appear online, frustrating many fans.

The experience with iTunes – and with music streaming sites such as Pandora – is that people will pay for the content they want if they can have it on demand.

One thing that drives otherwise law-abiding people to piracy is the fact that they are forced to wait to see new shows. Production studios even control the release of repeat episodes which, combined with complicated residual payment agreements, mean that many classic shows are not available by legal means.

Regulation can provide no solution, because governments are obliged to enforce international copyright agreements.

However, an answer may be at hand. Producers are sympathetic to fans’ demands, with some even encouraging the piracy of their work on the grounds that wider exposure is a good thing.

Even Hollywood moguls don’t want to annoy the people whose continued enthusiasm is essential to pay their salaries, so there are signs that the showbiz players are rethinking their international broadcasting deals.

Here, sport is leading the way. No diehard football fan would tolerate a delayed broadcast of a big match, so English Premier League (EPL) games are shown live around the globe. When that was not the case in the UAE, there was enormous pressure on the rights holder, beIN Sports, and the EPL to rectify the situation.

Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, launched early this week in the US, will premiere here on OSN First HD on Sunday. That’s quick, but not quick enough to stop the pirates.

Broadcast networks will remain reluctant to forgo the flexibility to schedule programming to their best commercial advantage, but they won’t have it all their own way.

Online streaming service Netflix is already creating its own content, such as the Kevin Spacey series House of Cards, while HBO is selling programmes like Game of Thrones and True Detective directly to internet users, rather than requiring them to sign up to cable packages that make viewers pay for dozens of channels they will never watch.

So far this is only happening in the US, but where America goes, the rest of the entertainment world usually follows. The good news for my ethically-minded friend is that he won’t have to rob the bank, just open an online account.

bdebritz@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @debritz

Updated: February 10, 2015 04:00 AM

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