TV industry using piracy as a measure of success

This is a guest post by Guinevere Orvis. Guinevere is a Web Producer in Toronto, Canada working both freelance and in the broadcast industry for Alliance Atlantis, CTVglobemedia and currently CBC. She has 10 years experience in the online space and specializes in social media, online marketing and content production.

seeders.pngIf you’re a TV exec, there’s a magical number that you worship to measure your show’s success… those digits handed down on high from Neilsen ratings. Traditionally, little else mattered, but the television landscape is drastically changing. Is it time our success measurement tools change too?

Our online audience numbers have grown to a level where they’re demanding serious attention. Show promotions, trailers and clips that broadcasters are pushing on YouTube and other video sharing sites are getting more views than some shows do. Television is reaching a milestone where online is veritably driving on air viewership. Neilsen TV isn’t the only game in town anymore. If we are going to understand what our audience wants, we have to consider a bigger picture.

So, if YouTube numbers matter, what about members on a Facebook fan group? What about mashups and fan art? How about BitTorrent downloads? Yeah you heard me: maybe we should use unsanctioned downloads of our shows as a measurement of legitimate demand.

Tech-savvy consumers have been boldly declaring that piracy can help and not hinder industry for years (especially when it comes to music downloads), but I was shocked the first time I heard the same claim from another group: from some very knowledgeable marketing types one day over a year ago in a boardroom. One of them simply asked, “Is the show on BitTorrent? How many people are downloading it?” The rest of the group looked genuinely interested in the answer from a demand point of view, not from an outraged one. I’ve since heard the same thing again several times, from different companies.

An even more interesting thing has started to happen: unofficial, but sanctioned television show leaks on BitTorrent. Broadcasters aren’t posting their shows directly on PirateBay yet, but they are talking informally and giving copies of shows to a friend of a friend who is unaffiliated with the company to make a torrent. Why? Well, it’s partially an experiment, but the hope is that distribution of content this way will lead to new viewers that wouldn’t have been reached through traditional marketing means. Early signs indicate that these experiments are working.

The hit TV series Weeds has had some high profile “unofficial” leaks of their shows prior to airing on television. When a show is on BitTorrent that hasn’t yet aired, it’s a fairly good indicator that there’s a insiders nod-and-wink at play. The Weeds show producer Jenji Kohan hinted at both her approval of the leaks and the reasons behind them, “Revenue aside, I don’t expect to get rich on Weeds, I’m excited it’s out there. Showtime is great, but it does have a limited audience.” Weeds ratings continue to grow and leaks seem to be part of their ongoing strategy.

While the Motion Picture Association of America is uploading fake torrents of movies to discourage torrent use, mainstream television show producers are engaging in flirtatious trials with torrents as a viable new way to promote their programs and reach new audiences. Clearly content producers & distributors don’t agree on how to deal with this technology and the battle will wage on for some time. In the meantime, seeders and leechers are building a business case for digital distribution by proving demand.

BitTorrent and the like are simply new distribution models and the number of our viewers choosing to view our content this way is as relevant as those still choosing to watch on broadcast television. What’s missing is the definitive business model for online that has existed for decades for TV. My prediction is that one single model won’t emerge and that we’ll monetize our content in as many different ways as there are to distribute it.

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

15 Responses to “TV industry using piracy as a measure of success”

  1. Aaron says:

    This is a refreshing point of view. I am happy to see that some marketing execs realise that the Internet is the way of the future, and if you’re not online you’re going to be left in the dust. While I haven’t downloaded any leaked shows, merely knowing that there are some firms that are okay with having their shows out on BitTorrent makes me more likely to watch the show!

  2. Ariel says:

    I’m not an expert on Media bussiness, but I assume that the whole discussion above is based on the assumption that shows don’t make money outside of TV (say youtube, bittorrent, etc), but only use those channels as a way for the show to drive TV watchers, or does their bussiness model include making money outside TV too? (e.g. through Internet ads shown along their content)

  3. TIm says:

    And this is how it should be. This is how I got hooked on “LOST”. It was all downloads. Then I got caught up. AND I could not wait for torrents. I wanted to see it as soon as it came out. That me me turning on the TV and watching.

    And this season, when it starts back up I will be there.

  4. Guinevere says:

    For those who are engaging in it, the experiment has 2 main goals:

    #1 get new viewers for the actual show on broadcast TV
    #2 build a business case to prove we need a long term business model for distributing content digitally

  5. Evan says:

    I personally started watching several shows after downloading torrents and watching them, and for several of them I bought the DVD sets as well. I think torrent is a great way to check out new shows (or grab an episode if you missed it).

  6. chaos says:

    you are all missing a very important point. bittorrents and the like are available around the globe. unlike american tv channels.

  7. Darren says:

    Its good to see the industry waking up.

    Here in Australia we have a difficult situation in that a show shown in the US very often doesnt screen here for upto 18 months after it was broadcast in the US. Whilst a couple of the network buyers here have finally woken up and screening the show within 48 hours after its on the US Networks (which has caused a drop in Australia US Net Traffic) its good to see that happening.

    Typically getting a torrent wont distract from a good show as from all the people ive worked with will download it, but still watch it when it is broadcast, if the show is rubbish they will watch a few minutes of the downloaded version and change to something else.

    Weeds was a good example of what actually happens, the network here picked it up BECAUSE it was seeing a number of people downloading it and decided to buy the rights on that reason. Otherwise it probably would not have been bought and that network timeslot instead to go to a late night game show. We only have 5 non paytv networks in Australia, One Governent backed Network (the ABC) which has great quality but non commercial programs, SBS multicultural channel, and 7, 9 & 10 (the commercial networks) of which mostly is filled with …. US network shows mainly.

    Its these three channels that finally are coming to their senses.

    Darren

  8. Aaron A. says:

    It’s great that unlike movie studios, tv studios are realizing that torrents fill a huge void and can definitely be used to estimate the success of a show. i understand that movie and tv studios have different revenue models but torrents work in the advantage of tv studios. I feel that ripping a tv show or d/l’ing a torrent isn’t really illegal. sure, there’s the copyright thing, but there’s no argument on lost revenues. You pay for cable access (or not in the case of channels freely broadcast over the air) but the shows are essentially free.

    I started with torrents during the first season of Heroes when my co-workers all were watching but i couldn’t since i didn’t have cable or schedule time to watch a show. Having access to everything on tv via torrents is awesome. I can catch up on shows or watch new ones. I just finished the SciFi miniseries “Tin Man” this way. Again, since the revenue model for tv is different from movies and the gap to dvd release is so long, seeing the big networks look at torrents as a positive measure of their industry instead of a force to be destroyed.

  9. Gareth says:

    Wow, what a great article. Other than Weeds, lets not forget the Sarah Chronicles, which has been on bit torrent for some time. And what about another Showtime production Dexter which had its first two episodes and last two episodes ‘leaked’ on to bit torrent. It also is consistantly in the top 100 content combined downloads at the Piratebay. Go Dexter!

  10. b0b says:

    Only problem that I see is the advertisers will be pissed off. One of the reasons that I have downloaded shows from the internet (bt/etc) is because I am just sick to death of all of the adverts. I hate adverts. TV shows from bittorrent have the ads cut out. It’s great.

  11. beach says:

    Recently, quite a few celebrities were said to appear on the millionaire luxury club “Meetrich.com”. OMG!!! Are these famous guys fond of internet dating for now?? Maybe they are indeed so rich that they feel boring sometimes to need new things?

  12. you are all missing a very important point. bittorrents and the like are available around the globe. unlike american tv channels.

  13. Sicaine says:

    Yeah it is really nice for german to see tvshows, there are not at air. But you have to see this way: not every german person can understand english. So if i talk to a friend and say “hey heroes is ueber” then he says: “okay and where can I see it?” and i say “oh mh how is your english skill” and he will say “oh bad bad at all. I cant watch movies or tv shows in english” then i say “hey okay no problem. Wait 4 weeks and you can watch the first sesson at rtl2″ and he will say “oh thank you a lot!”

    We are the cheap way of advertisment :>

  14. Terrific article and I couldn’t agree more. Execs do need to start paying attention to the fact that internet viewers are here to stay and are only going to multiply over time. With technology these days, I truly can’t believe how behind the times we are with this…

    Regards,

    Mark G.

  15. Aaron A. says:

    It's great that unlike movie studios, tv studios are realizing that torrents fill a huge void and can definitely be used to estimate the success of a show. i understand that movie and tv studios have different revenue models but torrents work in the advantage of tv studios. I feel that ripping a tv show or d/l'ing a torrent isn't really illegal. sure, there's the copyright thing, but there's no argument on lost revenues. You pay for cable access (or not in the case of channels freely broadcast over the air) but the shows are essentially free.

    I started with torrents during the first season of Heroes when my co-workers all were watching but i couldn't since i didn't have cable or schedule time to watch a show. Having access to everything on tv via torrents is awesome. I can catch up on shows or watch new ones. I just finished the SciFi miniseries “Tin Man” this way. Again, since the revenue model for tv is different from movies and the gap to dvd release is so long, seeing the big networks look at torrents as a positive measure of their industry instead of a force to be destroyed.