Television Piracy

There are some stories in the news at the moment about the most popular ‘illegally downloaded’ television shows, and much hysteria about the impending doom this sort of thing spells for the television industry, oh no.

I wonder whether people aren’t overreacting just a wee bit, though. And I really, really, really wonder about some of those figures!

I’m not sure you can ever meaningfully calculate the number of “illegal downloads” of a television program online, so I suspect that these are, at best, pseudo-scientific guesses. Even if they’re somehow reasonably meaningful, I think they need to be taken in context – Heroes is supposedly the most-downloaded show – 54 million times and a bit, apparently – but that show has run for three seasons and 59 episodes to date – that’s a bit under a million ‘illegal downloads’ per episode. By contrast, Fringe has 24 million downloads – supposedly – which, given that the show has just twenty episodes per date, means it’s – by one measure – actually more popular than Heroes, in terms of – ahem – morally-challenged audiences.

Adding up numbers is lots of fun. Even if the numbers are completely made up and have no actual validity or relevance whatsoever, oops.

Should people be alarmed by the undoubtedly large scale of television ‘piracy’? Sure, the networks are – arguably – losing out on advertising revenue, which is no good (for them), but it had ought to be a comfort to the people who come up with the most popularly-pirated shows: for better or worse, they’ve produced something that people want to watch.

For my money, I think it’s interesting – though perhaps not terribly useful – to look not at overall numbers of downloads – which are pretty meaningless, IMO – but to look at the general availability of given shows on the internet, either on file-sharing sites or elsewhere.

It’s actually kind of surprising, when you start looking into it, just what shows are easy to download and which are virtually unobtainable. Want to download any episode or even complete season of The Simpsons? Not a problem. Weeds? Mythbusters? South Park? Beavis and Butthead? Futurama? Easier than taking candy from a baby.

Who are these shows popular with? Damned if I know the demographics, as such, but I’m going to hazard a snarky guess and say “illegal downloaders and file-sharers”.

Want to watch M*A*S*H? Pretty easy, somewhat to my surprise. Want to watch Mork and Mindy of all things? The first three seasons are fairly easy to find, nicely ripped from the DVD releases for your downloading pleasure.

Want to watch Taxi? Too bad. No nik-nik for you, my friend!

Junkyard Wars, the American version of Scrapheap Challenge? Not bloody happening, much to my dismay. (Good luck finding decent copies of many of the actual Scrapheap Challenge episodes, for that matter!) Nor is Salvage Squad, I’m afraid. Or the current British imitation of Deadliest Catch, Trawlers, Rigs, and Rescue.

I think this says more about the demographics of file-sharers and pirates more than anything, but you’d think something like Scrapheap Challenge would have a certain enduring popularity with people who like loud noises and wanton destruction, surely. Then again, The Pirate Bay has over a hundred episodes of “The Days of our Lives”, and the first two seasons of Laverne & Shirley, so… who knows.

I know that television networks are pretty much all about ratings, because ratings – however flawed, inaccurate, or meaningless they might be – drive advertising revenue, and everybody loves money. Still, I think in this day and age it’s probably time to look at the internet with a certain amount of fatalism, and recognize that you might as well make the most of piracy, so to speak. Want a good measure of just how popular a given, current show is? Just see how many times it gets uploaded to Rapidshare or Megaupload within twenty-four hours of airing, and see how many sites link to those downloads. That’d give you, I would think, a more meaningful idea of the true fanbase of the show, as such would be fairly immune to manipulation (“Let’s move ‘CSI:Vancouver’ to right after ‘Canada’s Got Talent’ and hype the hell out of it!”) or outside influence (“Oooh, ‘Are You Smarter Than a Protozoa’ is trending upward in ratings, yay!” “That’s because ‘Uzbeki Idol’ ended three weeks ago… and with only two television stations here, there’s nothing else to watch.” “Don’t tell the advertisers that!”) I mean, on the internet, people aren’t going to download – or upload – a television show just because there’s nothing else on. They’re going to do so because – gasp! – they like your show.

Don’t complain because your fans are criminals. Be grateful your show has fans dedicated enough to break the law to see it… then come up with a way – that doesn’t suck! – to capitalize on that fanbase.

I do wonder what the complete unavailability of some shows in the internet means about their popularity, though. Does the lack of Scrapheap Challenge episodes mean nobody but me wants to watch it? Or does it mean there’s a great, untapped market of punters eager to shell out twenty quid for a DVD or box set that doesn’t suck? Probably, Channel 4 will never know…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on August 28th, 2009| Comments Off on Television Piracy

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