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Opinion

SciFriday: Want To Stop Illegal Downloads? Provide Options

Premium cable channels like HBO, Showtime, Starz need to embrace paid downloads


The premium cable channels in the United States have a major disadvantage to the broadcast networks (and even lower-tier cable channels): They can’t create revenue from advertising.

Sure, that allows them to be experimental (and groundbreaking) in the type of television programs they produce, along with a healthy dose of bad language, nudity and sex. But it also ties their hands in terms of making sure they get a great return for their investment.

So it makes sense that if you want to watch shows like “Game of Thrones” or “True Blood” on HBO, and “Torchwood” on Starz, that you pay to get those channels, sometimes running as high as $20 each month. The influx of subscribers to those channels pay for these shows, as there’s nothing else to do it (outside of future DVD sales), so the premium cable channels depend on these shows to bring in paid subscribers.

Because of that, however, you won’t find programs from HBO, Showtime, Starz or anywhere else available on iTunes the next day, the next week or even the next month. You won’t even find it on Netflix, at least until the next season of the show is about to come out.

That definitely pushes people to plunk down the dollars to watch what is definitely some of the best-quality television shows available. But it also opens up a dark market of illegal downloads — a market that really doesn’t have to exist.

Don’t get me wrong, making shows available on iTunes — even at a higher price — will not wipe away piracy. But it would certainly reduce it. You’ll always have people who will turn to piracy no matter what, but then you also have people who would be willing to pay a fee for each episode just for the chance to watch it the way they want.

And I’m not just talking to hear myself speak here. It’s been proven time and time again: Provide options for people, and piracy drops considerably. Start with music.

A decade ago, the best way to get music outside of trekking to your local music store was to log in to Napster and steal the music you wanted to hear from there. Millions, if not more, songs were exchanged, with absolutely nothing going to the record companies who refused to make the leap into the digital age (or just couldn’t figure out how to do it).

Their tactic was to threaten pirates with lawsuits and criminal charges. That didn’t work too well, either, except make the pirates look like Robin Hoods, and themselves like some greedy mega-corporation that no one wanted to be around.

Then came iTunes Store from Apple Inc. Charge 99 cents for a song, and people will be willing to pay for it.

And Steve Jobs was right. That’s exactly what they did. Some 10 billion downloads later — all paid — there is very little talk about music piracy anymore.

When “Battlestar Galactica” in 2005 decided to broadcast its first season in the United Kingdom first instead of in the United States because of a production agreement it had with a satellite operator there, Americans learned that piracy was not just for music, it was for television, too. The number of downloads of “Battlestar Galactica” in that first season were so large, showrunner Ronald D. Moore pleaded with fans to stop, because it could cost the show its future.

No options really existed at the time, although iTunes was moving toward releasing individual episodes of television shows, including “Battlestar Galactica.” But they were not available in the United States until they aired on the then SciFi Channel first.

BBC felt that as well with “Doctor Who.” When the series was aired on Syfy, it would take months between broadcast times. Americans weren’t willing to wait, and piracy hit huge highs. BBC took an interesting route, however — it decided to find ways to broadcast episodes within hours of each other. Piracy dropped considerably, and fans were happy that they didn’t have to be too patient.

But now focus has moved to premium cable shows. It’s not clear how much piracy can be resolved through options, especially since a lot of the piracy takes place overseas where options available in the United States might not be available there. But it can make a difference.

Think about it this way … charge $3.99 for an episode of “True Blood.” A little steep? Maybe. But there are still more people who, if given the choice between piracy and paying $4 for an episode would choose $4 for an episode — even if in the long run they are paying each month as much as they would for HBO in the first place.

People just don’t think about how much they are spending in smaller amounts. They only think about the bigger numbers you throw at them. So telling someone they can get an episode of “True Blood” for $4 an episode, they don’t even think that four episodes would cost them $16, about the same amount they would’ve paid to just get HBO. It’s a slight of hand, but one that is effective.

But the biggest thing is that you’ve allowed people to watch your show where they want to and when they want to, from the comfort of a mobile device. You don’t need live viewers on HBO, there are no commercials to watch. But you do need to make back the money you invested in a show, and while it might not translate into HBO viewers, it could very well turn into quite a lucrative enterprise for a cable channel — this time with far less piracy.

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