TV, TV, TV.

6 Jun

It’s safe to say that television has been undergoing something of transformation over the last few years, what with the introduction of insta-content providers such as Netflix and LoveFilm. Pay a low cost monthly subscription and one has access to a vast array of television shows and movies from which to choose. It’s pretty bloody marvellous when you come to think about it. The irony, however, is that the one thing you need in order to use it is the one thing that is also doing it and the medium serious harm: technology, or to be more specific – access to the internet, resulting in piracy on a huge scale.

Television made today (particularly that which is made in America) is enjoying a creative and critical boom. It is taking more risks artistically and thematically than cinema has in years, and viewers the world over are reaping the benefits. From television that makes deeply cutting statements about the US War on Drugs and the American Dream (The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos), to shows that can tackle the most epic and sweeping fiction that cinema only wishes it was capable of rendering whilst staying relatively faithful to its original source (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead), television has really never been more rewarding.

How we can access these shows is set to go through another change, or at least that’s what Microsoft would like you to believe. Their intent for Xbox One is now well known – that the Xbox One will be the tool through which we access all television, whether it be live broadcasts or subscription-based – and has seen the company widely condemned for ignoring those who got them to their current position in the industry – the gamers. With E3 happening in a matter of days they could yet prove us all wrong. But perhaps the most significant announcement of the entire Xbox One reveal was that of a live-action Halo TV show, notable for having Steven Spielberg as an executive producer (or in other words, he was paid a huge amount of money to have his name above the title to help lend credibility).

Now clearly Microsoft saw what Netflix did with House Of Cards, and more recently with the return of Arrested Development, and are understandably keen to replicate that success. They believe that the Xbox One can not only play host to great games (whatever they may be) but high quality exclusive television content and be able to increase the numbers of those subscribing to Xbox Live. Microsoft may well be barking up the wrong tree.

As of the end of May, Netflix has acquired a total of over 36m subscribers. 29m of those are within the US. 2m of those were attributable to the success of House Of Cards and with Arrested Development’s recent release those numbers will no doubt increase and then some. So hypothetically we’re looking at approximately 40m total subscribers. What Netflix cannot stop, however, despite increasing numbers of paying customers, is piracy, and there is a slim chance that the technology that underpins it could possibly put a cap on how many more customers it hopes to gain.

Now, ignoring the gulf between the US and Europe in terms of quantity and quality of available content, there is actual logic to this. Game of Thrones is widely known to be the most pirated show currently being broadcast in the world. One recent episode was downloaded over 4.25m times, more than the number of people who watch the show legally. Now there is no getting away from the fact that HBO has poured resevoirs of money into GoT’s production and would prefer to make money from those who either subscribe to HBO or pay for other broadcasters’ subscription services in order to watch it. People are happy to pay for this, but in a lot of countries around the world, broadcasters cannot show GoT until sometimes months after its initial air date in the US. Other broadcasters simply cannot afford to pay the cost for broadcast rights at all. This leads to the inevitable.

I won’t lie, in the past I have torrented material I should have paid for. My reason for doing so was due to cost. Mainly of a having a bloody great dish drilled to side of my house and the resulting subscription cost that would entail. In the UK, Sky have a monopoly on quality drama and charge through the nose for it, but many of us live in rented housing and therefore cannot legally stick an oversized dinnerplate to side of it. However, what many don’t seem to think about is the sheer ease with which one can obtain this kind of content. Two other very important factors are thus: firstly, internet speeds have increased so downloading a standard definition episode of, say, The Following may take less than ten minutes. Add to this the increased fidelity of shows being broadcast, and HD content is available for free, within minutes of being broadcast, and is downloadable within twenty minutes or less depending on your internet package.

There has always been the misconception about piracy amongst those who, to their credit, obtain all of their entertainment legitimately, that it’s some kind of super high-tech network of gangs and hoodlums who download these shows. It is anything but. It’s the person sat next to you on the bus, serving you a pint at your local or someone equally as normal and unassuming.

What also leads to many downloading TV shows is the simple fact that no one has much money. Some do not have access to the internet. Shelling out for a boxset of a show they have never watched is a big risk for many, so they will get friends to bring over downloaded copies. Yet conversely, American television shows are hugely expensive and their production costs are rising. Each episode of Breaking Bad costs an average of about $3m to make. The pilot for Game of Thrones cost $10m and each episode thereafter an average of $5m. Boardwalk Empire blows even Thrones out of the water, with its pilot reportedly costing $20m to make. Staggering numbers I’m sure you’ll agree.

But with high production costs there must be a premium charge in order to watch it, and it is here where the clash occurs. As the TV we watch gets more elaborate and pricey to produce, the current economic climate dictates that we spend our money on things that matter, such as rent, food, water and electricity bills etc. With that, TV companies are spending more trying to persuade viewers to drop their money on their latest extravaganza, and people simply cannot afford to do so. Bear in mind, I’m only referring to the subscriptions people must pay in order to access it. Hardware hasn’t factored into the equation yet. Until now.

Microsoft are expecting people to shell out for an expensive piece of hardware, subscribe to their online service in order for them to access their TV subscriptions and access the content they already enjoy through far cheaper means. To then expect people to buy an Xbox One in order to watch a Halo TV show smacks of ignorance regarding the current economic and  internet climate. It borders on arrogance. Of course there will be the brand loyalists who will buy anything Xbox related, and more power to them. I would not be surprised, however, if the Halo TV show is pirated by more people than will watch it on Xbox One. In fact I’d go as far as to bet my right arm on it. Microsoft currently project an attitude that says, “people who bought a 360 will instantly jump on board the Xbox One train“, overlooking people’s need to save money, and this hubris may come back to haunt them.

I am not for one moment trying to justify piracy, but merely explain many people’s reasons for doing so. Most people who pirate TV tend to end up buying the resulting boxset anyway so TV companies don’t really lose out. Microsoft have far more to lose, from their overall reputation (which has already taken something of a battering), to their marketshare in the console space, to their credibilty as a provider of high quality content.

By introducing such a high financial barrier to access what people already pay for, Microsoft may find Xbox One is lost at sea and its treasures plundered by pirates.

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