Monday, 13 May 2013

Fragmentation of TV Audiences and Illegal Downloads

Think back to a time before the internet, and the vast take up of multi channel TV. Then go back a little further, to a time before there were video recorders. If there was a TV programme that you wanted to watch, you had to watch it when it was being broadcast. There was no possibility to record it to watch it later, nor catching up on iPlayer if you missed it. It would be rare for it to get a repeat later in the week. You either watched it when it was on, or not at all.

This model of consuming TV programmes also has another effect – not only would you have to watch it when it was being broadcast, so would everyone else who wanted to watch the same programme. Everyone watching a particular programme watched it at the same time, as one audience.

If it was an especially popular programme with various talking points, everyone would then be able to talk about them at the same time, without fear of spoiling anyone who hadn’t seen it yet and was planning to watch it later. For example, take the shooting of JR in “Dallas”. It was a cliffhanger that everyone was keen to see the resolution of, and they all saw it at the same time, and could then discuss it at work the next day with everyone else.

Such moments are now rare. With the rise of video recorders (and their successors) and the internet, for many programmes we no longer have these large audience moments, and there are always risks of having plots spoilt, especially if you choose not to watch a programme as it is being broadcast.

Even if you do watch a programme as it is being broadcast, there are still risks of having plots spoilt. I watch the first UK broadcasts of “Dexter” on Fox (formerly known as FX). However, being an American show, “Dexter” gets it first broadcast in the States. Unfortunately for us UK viewers, there was a large gap between the US and UK broadcasts. As well as watching the show, I had also liked its official page on Facebook. This page would often post news about the show, but news that was aimed at the US audience. As the UK was about to start broadcast of the fourth series, in America they were about to start the fifth series. To promote this, their Facebook page was posting about the show – and in doing so, they revealed the surprise twist ending to the fourth series. The fourth series that hadn’t yet been shown in the UK. And so any UK fans of the show who were following this page had the ending of the series spoilt for them.

People having plot twists spoilt for them in this manner come about because of something that I refer to as fragmentation of audiences – instead of everyone watching a show at the same time, different parts of the audience watch it at different times. Season finales become less of an event.

Going back to the shooting of JR in “Dallas”, this too would have been shown first in the US. However, few UK viewers would have had their enjoyment spoiled. There was no Facebook then. In fact, there was no World Wide Web. Whilst Americans would be talking about the show amongst themselves, they would have been having few conversations with UK fans about it. UK fans also had to wait for it to be shown in the UK before they could watch it – there was no possibility of illegally downloading it to watch shortly after the US broadcasts.

Today things are very different. Within hours of a popular show being shown in the US, copies of it appear on the internet. Many international fans of a programme then scramble to download copies of it so that they can see it as soon as possible. However, there will be other fans (like myself) who, for various reasons, will wait for it to be broadcast in their country before they watch it. And even then, they may not watch the first broadcast as it is being shown – they may record it to watch it later, or watch it on a +1 channel, or a repeat later in the week, or via a legal online catch-up service.

I now want to focus in on the issue of illegal downloads. Why do people do this? For the most part, it is because they want to see a programme as soon as possible. But sometimes it because they don’t want to pay to see a programme. What used to happen with popular US programmes in the UK (e.g. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and later “Star Trek” series) is that they would first be broadcast via a subscription channel such as Sky One, and then, some months later, they would be broadcast on a free-to-air terrestrial channel such as BBC Two. Everyone who wanted to see a programme would get to at some point.

However, that isn’t the case anymore. Whilst subscription channels used to just buy the first UK broadcast rights to a show, they will now often purchase exclusive UK broadcast rights. For example, the BBC bought the (first broadcast) rights to show the first two series of “24” in the UK. The show proved popular, and built up a large audience. This caught the attention of Sky, who, from the third series onwards, acquired the exclusive broadcast rights. Any loyal BBC viewers of the show who wished to carry on watching it legally had to either subscribe to Sky One, or wait until it came out on DVD and either pay to rent or buy it. Either way, everyone had to pay to watch it legally.

Many people do not wish to do this. Sky currently has the rights to show “Game of Thrones” in the UK, which they show on Sky Atlantic – a subscription channel. Whilst some early episodes have made their way onto their Freeview channel Pick TV, anyone wanting to see the show legally as soon as possible has to pay. But many choose not to, choosing instead to download the programme illegally. In fact, “Game of Thrones” is now one of the most illegally downloaded shows of all time.

This is a further case of audience fragmentation. The audience for shows like “Dexter” and “Game of Thrones” will largely fall into three broad camps: US viewers watching the first broadcasts; illegal downloaders; and people who watch the first broadcasts in their country. (Each of these camps, especially the first and last one, will be further fragmented by people recording a show to watch later etc.)

Illegal downloading also leads to lower audience numbers – viewing figures in the UK for “24” plummeted after the show moved to Sky.

So, what can be done to dissuade people from downloading a show illegally, and to build viewing figures up again (so that, for commercial channels at least, shows can be funded via advertising revenues rather)? As already stated, there are two main causes for this: people wanting to watch a show as soon as possible (part of which is to allow them to keep up with conversations about the show on the web); and people who don’t want to have to pay to watch a show – they want to watch their TV for free (or, at least, for no more than the TV license fee). How can these causes be tackled?

The first one already is being tackled. Sky Atlantic shows episodes of “Game of Thrones” the day after their US broadcast, so anyone who subscribes to Sky Atlantic won’t have to wait long to see it. Broadcasters are increasingly becoming aware of this. On Fox there will no longer be nearly a year’s wait for episodes of “Dexter” – the eighth and final season of “Dexter” will have its episodes broadcast in the UK about a week after their US broadcasts. This gap may still be too long for some, but it’s a definite step in the right direction.

The second cause, unfortunately, hasn’t been tackled. Whilst some popular shows do make their way onto free-to-air channels, some are still stuck behind pay walls. Whilst they stay there, people can and will download them illegally so that they can watch the shows themselves.

So, here’s what I would personally like to see happen. I’d like to see audiences become less fragmented so that popular shows become more of an event. This has been happening with “Doctor Who”, which gets its international broadcasts not long after the first UK broadcast (on free-to-air BBC One). I would like to see this happen to all popular shows. I would like to see them broadcast throughout the world within a short period of their first broadcast. And I would like to see them brought out from behind pay walls. Both of these things will build up audience numbers, helping commercial channels fund the purchase of these shows (and make their profit). It will also help bring what are now global audiences back together again. If all of this could happen, then I feel that it would nothing but good for the world of TV programmes...

Next Week: The only way is onwards, there is no turning back!

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