Answer: the animal that is the General Public has a tendency to either turn round and snap at you... Or ignore you completely.
Something I've increasingly observed is traditional media publishers' apparent unwillingness to come to the realisation that the value of their productions to consumers just isn't as high as it once was. Here's two examples I've come across just this week:
- Sky's Sky Player (a DRMed download platform technically quite similar to the BBC's iPlayer service, except Sky sell a lot of the content available on both a Pay-Per-View and Download-To-Own basis), and
- ComedyDemon.com, a new UK-centric web site offering comedy, entertainment and animation, which is part of the RDF Media Group and also produces for TV and radio.
However, this is where my love affair for Sky ends. The series is listed as Pay-Per-View, and each episode costs £1 (€1.50 for ROI viewers) each time you watch it. No rental download, no download-to-own. This means if you want to watch each episode once, and maybe a couple of eps twice, you're talking about a £25 bill. The Sky TV 'Mix' which includes Sky One plus all the other basic entertainment channels is only about £8 a month!
Sky also have Battlestar Galactica Seasons 1-4 up too (as far as Season 4 has aired, anyway), again as PPV, but also with the option to 'Buy to Own'. Pricing is slightly different here: "£2.00 / €3.50 for Sky TV customers with Variety Mix" to 'Buy to Own', or "£1.50 / €2.25 for Sky TV customers with Variety Mix" to rent PPV-style.
This is per episode, of course.
So, on top of your Sky subscription, we're talking £20 for just the ten aired episodes in Season 4 so far, with the bill for Season 3 (at £1.50 per episode) clocking in at £30. How is this possibly good value? You're paying a hefty chunk of money for nothing more than DRMed Windows Media files, and the bitrates aren't outstanding either. But oh wait, how much is the BSG Seasons 1-3 DVD boxset? Currently the 16-disc, 53-episode boxset is only £52.98 from Amazon, working out at £17.66 per series, or (conveniently) £0.99 per episode.
Now, someone kick (or twitter) me if I'm wrong, but I thought the digital revolution was supposed to mean digital content is not only easier to acquire, but it's cheaper too. I fully understand about studios' ever-present desires to recoup and then turn a profit, but when your only legal sources of TV shows in digital format are seemingly actively trying to price the same shows' DVD sales out of the market (and failing miserably), you have to wonder exactly what the studios' long-term strategies are going to be. No wonder torrenting TV shows is so prevalent. Fans of TV shows are known to be obsessive about collecting each episode, but they're not cash-wielding idiots.
In the States, Fox already has their Hulu-based Fox On Demand player, where you can watch oodles of stuff for gratis. Not entire runs of seasons, but a good fair chunk of enjoyable material is available, 24/7, for free. They're obviously using the VoD aspect here as a loss-leader, but it definitely works.
Even if Sky priced each episode of a show at 50 or 60 pence (75 or 80 pence for a high bitrate, high definition copy), I think they would in the vast majority of cases still make more money from someone watching that one series than they would from one person's entire month-long Sky subscription! This is something the studios need to bear in mind - why aren't they running their own online outlets? Because the aggregators, like Apple's iTMS, and the select few international broadcasters with any kind of online retail presence, are holding up the market's development. £1.99 per episode on iTunes? Don't make me laugh. Don't get me started about the proprietary nature of the distribution platform AND the proprietary format the episodes come in... And that's not even counting the DRM slapped onto the file for good measure.
If we look at the BBC, a broadcasting establishment I regard to be almost without compare, save for a few exceptions (NHK in Japan and the joint organisation of German broadcasters under the name of ARD)... Well, their whole iPlayer system makes a rolling seven days' worth of TV and radio programmes available for FREE to all licence payers! I know it's not quite the same, as we have effectively all paid for this service already, but it's a marvellous incentive to watch more of the BBC's programming - and then watch their linear channels more, and even buy their DVDs and other merchandise at subsequent dates. This approach works, and works well, incentivising the viewer and keeping them hooked - unlike most other current pay-to-download schemes.
I might as well critique RDF's ComedyDemon.com, because when compared with Sky, they're a far worse offender! Potentially, they're sitting on a goldmine. Thanks to RDF's buying ability (and the fact they created some of the shows), they currently have rights to classic series like Black Books, Banzai (one of my faves), Blackadder and Spaced. Prices for the episodes seem to hover around the £1.80 mark. They've also got a fair crop of radio shows for around the £10 mark, including the last ever episode of The Goon Show (a true classic) - but they want £7.79 for that episode alone!
How is this good marketing? They have a few token clips from classic shows like Harry Enfield And Chums, which aren't even the best ones, for free. Right, and this is supposed to sufficiently entice me into handing over my money? Er... No. RDF, in their haste to get as much money as possible as quickly as possible, has fallen into the classic trap: 'if you sell it, they will come' does not always hold true. If they sold their episodes for 50p or 99p each, people might buy a couple of episodes on a whim. A dozen times £1 is still more than one or two times £1.80!
This may be partly due to factors beyond their control, but they should negotiate lower prices, and that means negotiating with actors, royalty collection agencies, and other contract holders, so that repeat viewing fees are reduced and people won't expect so much money back per purchase. We should be heading towards near-micropayments for content in this day and age, and half-hearted attempts to sell back catalogue of any kind in a manner such as this are only doomed to failure. They also only serve to delay the true development of the legal digital media market for months or years.
To put it bluntly: ComedyDemon is a weak attempt to monetise by any means possible - and that means ignoring the true market value of such back catalogue material. When you can buy entire series of Blackadder or Spaced for £10/15, there's absolutely no incentive to hand over your hard-earned cash for digital video files which will be awful quality in comparison AND most likely locked to a single machine with some form of DRM. When will rightsholders learn?
People wonder why P2P downloading and sharing of TV shows is so high... Well, this may go some way to explaining why. Consumers can't just be milked daily like unwitting Fresians. Using myself as an example now... I may be slightly atypical in my tech knowledge (I am an out and out geek) but these days, downloading a file via BitTorrent is remarkably trivial. There's many how-to guides on the web, easily accessible via Google, which instruct the user on how to choose and download a BitTorrent client, and most of them play very nicely with most network setups. Then, it's a quick stop to Google again (or a torrent site of your choice, depending on if any of your friends have recommended favourites) - I like EZTV for its quality and comprehensiveness.
What sets them above other trackers or collections of TV series torrents is that they are now roling out .tstream progressive-streaming of torrents, using the P2P-Next Swarm Player. It works remarkably well for recent episodes of most of the popular shows - I sometimes use it to watch The Colbert Report or The Daily Show if I've missed them on TV, because they're shown at stupid o'clock on FX and Paramount Comedy respectively (and I have better things to do with my time these days than to sit and wait for a show to start on linear television!)
Now to confess my fan credentials: I'm a massive Stargate fan, both of SG-1 and Atlantis, and BitTorrent keeps me current. I can download the 720p HD copies of each week's show less than 24 hours after they air in the US. and likewise I am a big fan (although not quite as devout) of Battlestar Galactica. I've used BitTorrent to watch these, and a fair few other shows (in no particular order: Firefly, Eureka, Family Guy, American Dad, The Unit, NCIS, Star Trek [before it was cancelled], Farscape... The list goes on). Many of these shows are either shown in corrupted forms on UK television (not shown in widescreen, shown out of order, shown much later than in the US, not shown in sync with US airing schedules, or one of any number of other things). We subscribe to Sky at home, and I am an awful one for boxsets - if I like a series, I'll buy its boxset(s), often without considering the financial consequences! I think I've spent (literally) hundreds of pounds on Firefly and Serenity licensed merchandise and DVD releases, including paying a true premium to import exclusive, limited edition versions (of boxsets I already have) from Australian retailers... Most recently even going so far as to buy an Xbox HD-DVD player and hacking it to work on my laptop (not hard) so I could watch the Serenity HD-DVD I'd bought six months prior to that!
What TV studios, and broadcasters, seem to be either unable or unwilling to realise is that while the Long Tail is there, and wagging furiously, nobody will pay the premium for digital video files when they can own a physical product for the same cost or less - and with no doubts as to the legality of whether they truly own that copy, unlike digital video files. DRM further devalues digital video; no kid wants to ride their bike with the stabilisers on when they're a fully competent rider, yet that to me is what DRM feels like to the consumer; "oh, no, I know we can trust you, but we're going to make sure, just in case, because you're still quite new to all of this". Stop being so condescending! Strip out the DRM and up the quality of the files, and maybe people will start buying the content - but only if the price is roughly half of what it currently is.
I don't care how broadcasters or content owners appease the rightsholders with these new parameters, but they'd better work something out (both the rightsholders and the organisations who turn out the content in the first place) because otherwise, nobody is going to earn anything from the digital media revolution - except the fans, who'll keep on downloading and sharing their favourite shows for free.
While I'm on a roll, here's an idea: why not pay the release groups who already do a truly excellent job to legally record, encode and release the content over BitTorrent, then work out some kind of marketplace scheme, based around a private tracker solution, where you pay a SMALL amount either per series or per episode and get a unique hash to connect to the tracker and download the file? I'd happily pay 75p per episode for a 720P copy, 35p or so for a standard definition version. The files would continue being encoded and released in the same manner: in open standards such as XviD and x264, allowing true interoperability across standalone and PC playback platforms. The only 'DRM' would be on the mechanism used to allow customers to connect to the bittorrent tracker in the first place to complete the download.
Regular P2P rules would still apply: if you constantly leech without seeding, you get barred from the tracker for a period of time, so it still encourages true P2P distribution, just as we all benefit from today, yet it means there's a controllable way for the content producers to recoup. It might take longer, but it'd be more fan-friendly. Another idea to retain the customer base would be to provide bonus credits, exchangeable for free or subsidised episodes - these could be accrued by simply 'seeding' the content they have already downloaded for a time after they have downloaded the file. This again is similar to how some private trackers currently operate, except the bonus credits can be swapped for 'upload credit' (thus improving their download:upload ratio). All the biggest private trackers rely on users continually sharing the majority of the content they've downloaded from others in order to keep the pool of available material available to the most users as fast as possible, and they are 'rewarded' for their continual seeding. Faster internet connections help, but the generosity of users towards fellow users is what keeps these private trackers going.
Why not capitalise on the P2P mentality many Internet users already have, and simply adapt the existing mechanisms to benefit everyone? Why - well, because companies are scared, and at the moment the Long Tail is wagging the dog in the wrong direction.
To the content creators: accept the truth that you will earn more by getting thousands of customers to pay a few pennies, as opposed to a hundred or so paying a hundred pennies or so. The commoditisation of digital content instantly knocked a huge slab off the perceived 'value' of anything you try to sell, and in truth you only have yourselves to blame for that. There will always be somewhere else to find your content, and often that alternative will be cheaper - or free... And while no fan of a TV show wants it to die out because the studio has run out of money, almost no fan will pay over the odds for a collection of 0s and 1s if the physical, comparatively unencumbered equivalent is available to buy for a much more reasonable price.
As long as DVD boxsets of my favourite shows are available, I'll buy them when I have the cash - but in the meantime, until I can download XviDs via BitTorrent for 50p each, legally, I'll still build up my collection of XviD AVIs, courtesy of the P2P community and the shows' loyal fanbases.
So - hurry up and get with the plan, online retailers! You're missing your golden opportunity! Just experiment a bit and I'm sure you'll find most of the hard work has already been done for you... Be brave, go on, just a little bit, I'm confident that you'd soon find more than enough people almost falling over themselves to 'go legit' (myself included)! With the current state of play however, that won't be happening any time soon - and we consumers won't be the ones to concede first in what is fast becoming a modern-day war of attrition.