Digital piracy is a significant concern in the 21st century; particularly the illegal downloading of copyrighted software, movies, music and television shows (Gordon, 2005, p. 13-15). However, recent studies show the most prolific downloading of television shows is conducted predominantly by those unable to gain access to these programmes in a legal manner, despite technologies making access simple (Newman, 2011, p. 3-6). While digital piracy is everyone’s business, it has a long history dating back to the 1960s since the advent of the cassette tape (McLeod, 2005, p. 83). This paper contends that television shows differ from other forms of piracy because television is perceived as being free and viewers have a connection and sense of claim toward it. The definition of piracy no longer reflects the current cultural paradigm; the marketing and advertising of television shows need to be modernised to address the evolution of technology and society (Bergen, 2004, p. 182). Networks are disconnecting audiences by making programmes unavailable when they could easily be generating further revenue and lowering piracy through the introduction of micropayment systems (Peets and Young, 2008, p. 41). With globalisation making international communication easier than ever, the asynchronous screening of desirable television content is causing increased digital piracy (Pauli, 2010, Sundararajan, 2004, p. 287-9). Never has “the tyranny of digital distance” as proposed by Leaver (2008, p. 146) been more instrumental in understanding its significance to pirated television shows.
“The tyranny of digital distance” is a term still in its infancy but is one likely to become more relevant as the technological revolution continues. Blainey & Nathan (1966, p. 95) coined the term “the tyranny of distance”, referring to the physical distance of Australia from other countries and how this impacts on the sociology of the country, specifically with their internationalism to England and Europe. Leaver (2008, p. 145) expanded this concept to apply to the digital realm. He explains digital distance occurs when the perceived prospect of near-simultaneous worldwide distribution of media fails due to an alleged geographic location and profit, despite suitable technological devices existing to overcome these very issues. He gives the example of Battlestar Galactica: a science fiction television series with an enormous global fan base that utilised social media and the Internet to engage its supporters. However, despite encouraging international interactive use of their sites, much of it was ‘geo-coded’ so that those outside the continental US could not view it. This not only alienated fans but created an extension of the digital divide – those that had access based solely on their geographical location versus those that did not. Leaver (2008, p. 146) lists other factors that add to digital distance, including spoiler alerts, networked locked televisions series and availability. Whilst television networks enjoy the enthusiastic commitment to their programmes (often providing ways to expand engagement via social sites) they do so knowing they are spreading to a global audience that is then locked out of further discussion and interaction. Avoidance of spoilers for episodes becomes increasingly difficult in an Internet-savvy society and this is aggravated when some programmes may be substantially delayed, if ever shown, in a fan’s home country. There is no way to avoid these spoilers unless a viewer cuts themselves off from all internet communication. As technology makes it easier for digital content to be shared, remixed or discussed, those without legal access to these programs, who are encouraged to actively participate in discussion surrounding them, are severely disadvantaged. Leaver (2008, p. 145) posits digital distance is a cultural shift that specifically affects Australia, Canada and Mexico, where delayed television is common and piracy is rampant and ever increasing.
Big business claims to be severely affected by piracy as vociferously as television viewers’ state it is their only recourse. Nobody is certain on precisely how much money is lost due to digital piracy. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) (Smith, 2011) asserted in 2012 that it was 200 – 250 billion but this has been refuted by critics that the number is closer to less than 450 million (Plumer, 2012, Sanchez, 2012b, Sanchez, 2012a). The breakdown of this cost into music, movies or television is also not available nor do the figures state definitions of what is regarded as a lost sale or what constitutes a gained fan (Raustiala and Sprigman, 2012). If a movie is downloaded and watched illegally, would that person have actually paid to see it or are they watching it merely because they can get it for free? Has the Global Financial Crisis affected the number of sales and could this account for a downturn in the entertainment industry? The blurred lines of what makes a downloader either a potential customer or newly gained fan continue to grow fuzzier still. However, piracy claims by big business is not a new thing. Even before the internet was considered mainstream, corporations were concerned with the advent of cassette tapes and their impact on music sales (Carpenter, 2010, p. 8-11). Movie companies were outraged at the idea of VCR’s being introduced to everyday households yet while these technologies changed society and how we use these devices, it has not stopped people buying music or going to the cinema. History has shown us that sales continued to improve after an initial downturn, following a new technological release (Williams, 2002, p. 1-4, Manuel, 1992, p. 307). When given viable and affordable options, many of those that currently illegally download are willing to purchase instead. The “Don’t Make Me Steal Manifesto” of 2011 created a pact where people would agree to not illegally download movies provided their list of criteria was met (Boggiano and Spring, 2011). In our current technological environment, it is unlikely this list will ever eventuate, particularly as it addresses major issues like price, digital distance and globalisation.
It is important to note that television programmes differ significantly from other forms of illegal downloading because of a perceived viewpoint that these programs have always been, and always will be, free of charge. Music and movies are seen by users as things you buy, but radio and television have historically been readily available to all for free. Even with the advent of paid television/radio channels, these have added to the variety available and not made the original source disappear (Jain, 2008, p. 611). Another important difference that delineates television from other downloaded media is that does not gain its income source in the same way. Whereas physical products and services are offered for a price in stores (both online and offline), television sources its income through advertisements, sponsorships and product placement (Goettler, 1999, p. 4-5). The costs for advertising are determined by ratings by a small sample group of viewers who have a Nielsen rating box. A rating box will only store data for a television show currently being watched (nielsen, n.d). If an audience decides to use a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) or VCR to record the show to watch at a later stage, this information is not documented and it therefore does not count toward revenue. Viewers without these boxes do not contribute to the aggregate numbers and therefore have no affect on any exchange of money. The television programme is still made available to the public, regardless of whether they have paid, and therefore perceived as free. To further complicate matters, many networks also provide the very same show on the internet immediately after it has aired on websites designed for ‘catch up tv’, where a viewer can watch the program at a time better suited to their needs. This amenity mimics that of the PVR and VCR mentioned above and allows people to watch a show they might have missed earlier. Again, this service is provided free, often with advertisements surrounding or preceding the show but not within the programme itself. Product placement is also used to bolster revenue for a television show and this is paid directly to the network as part of their sponsorship of the programme or channel (La Ferle and Edwards, 2006, p. 66). This revenue does not impinge directly upon the audience member who continues to judge television as free. This sense of entitlement to free television forms a strong and unique bond between audience and creator that is not obvious with other media forms such as books, software and movies.
Just as the Internet underwent a massive paradigm shift from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 in the mid 2000s, television has also undergone a change in how it’s presented, viewed and used (Doyle, 2010, p. 432). The sellers of television advertising need to evolve to align themselves with current technology and the changes in marketing required. New devices like Tivo™ or PVR’s give users the ability to record programmes for later viewing and to skip or erase advertisements. Whilst Tivo™ is now available in limited release in Australia, an agreement between Tivo™ and Channel Seven means they are only available without the ad-skipping tool (Turner, 2008). The result is called time-shifting – where the public now dictate what programs they want to watch and when (Hilderbrand, 2009, p. 36). In America, they can also do it ad-free. This places the power of scheduling television and the effectiveness of advertising firmly in the hand of the audience. Because networks provide the shows for free both at the time of airing and later via encore performances or ‘catch up tv’ sites, should downloading these programmes to watch at a later time, still be considered pirating? Piracy indicates a lack of revenue for the creators and breach of their copyright, but television downloading has always been free. If the audience time-shift or watch the show on their recording devices would this also be considered pirating? It would seem to indicate that television sets quickly become illegal paraphernalia for watching stolen property. The paradigm shift in television-watching has not been echoed with new strategies for television marketing or advertising and this change must surely alter the characterisation of the term ‘piracy’ for this particular media.
By failing to be progressive, television networks are estranging themselves from their global audiences, and therefore contributing to the rationale for illegal downloading (Cremer and Pestieau, 2009, p. 38). Piracy is particularly prevalent in Australia because of digital distance, especially with American and British television shows. The constraints applied to release dates and geo-coding of these programmes alienates foreign audiences from the network (Dejean, 2009, p. 330-1). While networks have embraced and encourage cross-platform media, such as global social networking sites – to include users and garner further sponsorship revenue – the lack of internationalism of television programmes forces many viewers to download these shows illegally (Mason, 2008, p. 237). Social media negatively impacts those suffering digital distance due to spoiler alerts and the inability to follow their favourite television shows, and the social conversations surrounding them, due to location. For example, the television show “Dexter” runs on free-to-air channels in Australia up to two years behind the United States and was the most pirated television programme for 2011 (Knight, 2011). The internet and social media websites are littered with information and spoiler alerts about the programme, even though Australians cannot access this show legally. This is a common theme for many series in areas suffering digital distance. In an effort to mitigate this digital distance, the Australian Channel Nine network aired a ‘catch up’ hour in 2004 that contained a highlight reel of four years of ‘Days of Our Lives’ episodes (Moran, 2004). They also did the same with ‘The Young and the Restless’ when they condensed 961 episodes into a one hour special, in an attempt to maintain viewer loyalty without needing to invest more air-time for these shows. This ‘band-aid’ resulted in more outrage than support and soon after, the network cancelled the remainder of the series (Butler, 2007). Networks want audience members to invest their time and support to a series but do not provide the means for fans to engage beyond their geographical location. Fans of ‘The Young and the Restless’ no longer had options for continuing their relationship with a television show that was available in 178 countries, but no longer available in Australia. Eliminating digital distance and giving new options for viewing television may aid in limiting the amount of piracy occurring. This has been shown in other fields such as music, movies and games (Mousley, 2003, p.669). The acceptance of micropayments by sites such as iTunes, Big Fish Games and Netflix for digital products has already shown decreasing numbers of known pirated material and this crossover is likely to flow to other genres.
Whilst research into the effect of digital distance is limited, it is evident that further study is likely to show a strong correlation between piracy and digital distance. The disadvantages of digital distance are numerous and compel those affected to use illegal means to gain access to their shows. It is also obvious that the attitude of television networks toward the paradigm shift that affects modern television-watching habits also hinders their financial constraints without addressing ways to prevent piracy. While it cannot be determined how much piracy would be eliminated if other means of watching television shows were available, it does seem that the majority of users prefer to remain legal where possible. Elimination of digital distance may turn out to be the key to providing a more equitable solution to an ever-increasing trend.
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