Channel Seven decided to prolong the showing of the season finales of both Desperate Housewives and Lost by showing re-cap episodes. This is much the same as Channel Nine did with the final episode of Friends. All that has happened is that they have annoyed their viewers. But more important, many viewers have gone online to download these shows via Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks.
When Channel Seven airs the season finales, they will discover what Channel Nine did, that these people would not be tuning in, as they will have already seen the episodes.
What has made this possible is the DivX file format and the wide adoption of broadband. DivX is to movies and TV shows what MP3 is to music. DivX allows you to compress a high definition one-hour TV show (less adverts) to around 350 megabytes with hardly any loss of quality. As a comparison, you can fit 11 or 12 episodes of Desperate Housewives onto a single DVD. Also, at this size and depending on how many sources there are, you can download an episode overnight. There are now emerging onto the market DVD players that will play the DivX format.
It is amazing what is available to download. There are the latest release movies, but these are of the video-in-hand in movie theatre kind and the quality is inferior and neither worth the time nor effort to download. Other types of latest release movies are pirated. Both kinds are illegal to download. TV shows that are available online are recorded straight from broadcast and are generally of high quality. These too, under existing copyright laws are illegal to download, but it remains to be seen if these can be classified in the same way that a recorded TV show to videotape is. It may surprise you to know that under current copyright laws, it is also illegal to videotape a TV show.
One of the reasons why many are downloading TV shows here in Australia is that people are sick of the long delays from when they are released overseas to when they are shown here. For example, take season seven of Star Trek Voyager. It was released in 2000 but not shown here until this year, and then very late at night. Not to mention the show being taken off for weeks at a time. Then there is the last season of Stargate, where some episodes were simply not shown. Many have complained of the long delays between showing the new season of the West Wing.
Channel Nine is about to show Steven Spielberg’s TV show Taken, even though the boxed DVD set has been available for purchase here for some time. Eager fans will not wait unnecessarily for the local TV station to air their favourite show when it can be accessed elsewhere. The movie industry has understood this and now has worldwide releases. This more than anything has reduced the amount of piracy of movies.
People have also complained of the increasing amount of advertising being shown on TV. Add to this the constant pop up adverts and scrolling announcements, no wonder people have sought refuge. Shows downloaded via P2P have all the advertisements edited out. People are also flocking to non-commercial stations where advertisements are not shown, except at either the beginning or end of the show. In 1983, the commercial share of free-to-air TV was 86.6 per cent and non-commercial share was 13.4 per cent. In 2004, commercial share had fallen to 78.6 per cent and non-commercial had risen to 21.5 per cent (source Australian Film Commission). There is a steady movement away from commercial stations.
This is a worrying trend for commercial free-to-air stations where advertising revenue is determined purely on the number of people tuning in. Add to the equation that more people are spending time online, playing electronic games and watching DVDs. You would think that the commercial stations would be doing all they could not to annoy viewers, who are now no longer waiting and are downloading instead.
It is possible that we may see the closure of one of the commercial stations in the next five to ten years because of falling audience numbers and as advertisers look elsewhere. In this timeframe, TV stations will not be run the way they are now. To survive, they will need to look for new revenue streams, such as selling their content via P2P. In part one, I stated that this was the time of the personal play list. This will extend to our viewing habits as well as our listening habits. Commercial stations will have to adapt to channelling their content to their audience when they want to watch the show, not when the TV station decides it wishes to broadcast (and then they often don’t keep to their time schedules).
The technology is here now to do this. The opportunity to do so was missed when the commercial stations forced the Federal Government to implement a severely restricted High Definition TV policy, which has turned out to be an absolute disaster with a public not interested. If the government thinks it can turn off analogue broadcasts within the next couple of years, then it will have a revolt on its hands. At this stage, the only way to make the current policy work is to give all analogue users a set-top decoder, as happened to get people off analogue mobile phones. It was a wasted opportunity when the government elected to ban multicasting and streaming TV-style content via the internet.
With the government about to readdress the cross media laws, it needs to go well beyond the concept of how to divvy up the existing cake between existing players. Much more creative concepts need to be looked at if commercial stations are to survive, otherwise they risk being run over by technology that consumers are keen to adopt and which give them greater control over their viewing schedule. But at the heart of this are the existing copyright laws, which are in dire need of revamping. This will be discussed in my next article.
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