I don’t see me having a time any time soon to work this up into a formal journal article, so here is the text of the conference paper I gave at BU at this conference. I’m not much of a “written out” conference paper guy, so as much as there is a full text here (so it could be sent to a discussant), I more spoke to this. I still feel this is an interesting provocation, and I’m hoping to take this a lot further in my subsequent work.
Is Piracy Still the Future of Television in a Streaming World?
In 2010, Gail de Kosnik published a white paper
through the Convergence Culture Consortium, based in the Comparative Media Studies department at MIT. The paper was provocatively titled “Piracy is the Future of Television”, and very clearly laid out the benefits that piracy in its different versions offer to users over the traditional sanctioned modes of access. Today, I’m here to bring my own provocation, taking De Kosnik’s ideas, and reassessing them in light of the changes and shifts of technologies and practices in the past 7 years. The question is, is piracy still the future of television, in an age of television streaming?
De Kosnik laid out the possibilities offered through both Subscription and Transactional VOD, looking at providers such as iTunes, Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, discussing pricing structures and how each provider allows users to access. At the point that she wrote it, the major players had been running for 2-3 years, and were still developing their own strategies and practices. However, De Kosnik does note that all the streaming offerings she describes are georestricted to the United States.
De Kosnik goes on to lay out the unsanctioned ways that television content might be accessed, focusing on BitTorrent and sites with host unsanctioned streaming, naming YouTube as an exemplar. Then, critically, she continues in order to describe the “several reasons why a single user might find pirate downloading superior to legal downloading and streaming options” (5). It is from these specific reasons that my argument today is formulated, questioning whether these desires are still best allowed for by unsanctioned forms of access, and whether new desires might have developed in the interim 7 years which are better provided by one mode of provision or another.
The first benefit that De Kosnik raises is “Single Search”. As she notes, in 2010, “no one legal site makes available all popular television programs”. She highlights how any fan of a given genre will need to access two to three sites, sliding between streaming and downloading, in order to access major series in their preferred style. In contrast, De Kosnik highlights the fact that pirate sites do not differentiate by network – on a standard torrent site, a single search engine will provide access to major content from all the US broadcast and cable networks, as well as some from the UK and other sources.
In addition to this, De Kosnik also points out the benefits of “Simple Indexing”. This refers to the fact that torrent sites can usually be filtered by media type, such as “TV series”, and also usually will offer the most popular and/or the most recently uploaded files first, meaning that a user can look at a single page in order to determine the available files most likely to be of interest.
“Uniform Software and Interface” is the next value-added proposition offered by unsanctioned television access, according to De Kosnik. Given that those accessing television through unsanctioned means do so regularly, the process is almost identical no matter which torrent site is used – the user has already gone through the process of setting up their system to be able to download using the torrent files, and to play the subsequent video files, then the actual process of finding and utilising the torrent files is remarkably similar, even if the user moves from one torrent search engine to another. In contrast, De Kosnik notes the different unique apps which must often be used by individual sanctioned in order to maintain their own DRM requirements and the smoothness of the interface. In order to be able to access even just a small number of series, it is conceivable that a user might need to at least two or three different applications, which all operate differently with a different feature set. There are also significant roadblocks in place depending on the type of device or operating system that is being used, with Android devices unable to use Adobe Flash Player, and a number of sanctioned sites not having working applications or interfaces for less common operating systems, such as Linux.
“File Portability” is a key element for De Kosnik – the ability to watch content in multiple spaces, on multiple devices, an attempt to replicate the portability that was seen to exist with physical copies of audiovisual content, such as DVDs. De Kosnik notes the limited potential that does exist for files to be transferred between approved devices and, in some cases, to be stored in digital lockers, but clearly highlights the limitations that exist compared to pirated files which are lacking in DRM and which usually conform to one of 2 or 3 file types and codec specifications, allowing them to be played by most devices and on most systems. For De Kosnik, piracy frees the user from the necessity to own a television set at all. Content availability also plays a key role in this section, as she notes that the limited availability of content on sanctioned services is often dwarfed by the availability of entire series through unsanctioned sources.
“Access to Global TV” comes next – referring to the fact that most non US content was not available within the US through sanctioned means, but also that non US viewers were beholden to content windows before US series were available to them. De Kosnik describes piracy as “a global enterprise”, highlighting the irrelevance that national borders play in the transnational flows of data.
A crucial point raised by De Kosnik is that of “personal archives”. She highlights that television has long been seen as an ephemeral medium, but that now there are some users who desire to keep their own archives of television content in digital form, just as they might have on VHS or DVD previously. She notes the benefits that digital storage has over these forms, however including ease of back up, enhanced portability, limitless replicability, improved potential for cataloguing, and greater protection from damage or loss.
Finally, De Kosnik points out that piracy is low cost and commercial free, in that users do not usually pay for unsanctioned access to specific content, and instead the costs involved are usually for hardware, or for specific services which broadly allow for more convenient access etc.
So, that lays out where De Kosnik saw things in 2010, making recommendations to the television industry that they needed to adapt to the model established by piracy, or risk finding themselves increasingly made obsolete by the improved flexibility offered by the unsanctioned access model. And where do we find ourselves in 2017? Have De Kosnik’s predictions been borne out? Have industry risen to the challenge?
I will address the key elements of her argument point by point again, in order to best paint an accurate picture of whether a can still see piracy as the future of television in the age of streaming.
De Kosnik’s first point, Single Search, is probably the most problematic factor still remaining in 2017. Here, the situation has actually become notably worse, as the sanctioned media spectrum has seen increased fragmentation. As companies like CBS pull their content from Hulu and begin to offer their own streaming services, users required a suite of subscriptions just to be able to access the currently streaming content, and probably several more in order to have access to the back catalogue that is available. Sites such as Netflix are beginning to contract their own offerings as the licensing market becomes more competitive, meaning that users not only must pay more for access, but they frequently have to spend considerable time hunting in order to find the service offering the content they desire. There have been rumours over recent years that a company such as Google might offer a global search engine to display where specific content might be available, and to play it if the appropriate subscription is owned, but these have yet ti come to fruition. Sites such as CanIStreamIt do offer a third party option, but the range of sites which they catalogue is usually limited.
Uniform Software and Interface is another point worth reconsidering in 2017. However, while the interfaces for the major TVOD and SVOD services are all unique, I would argue that they have mostly adopted the interface practices of common websites – ways of access content will usually be relatively clear to anyone used to accessing a variety of web-based services. In addition, most systems are also designed to work for some sort of remote control-based interface, not just a mouse & keyboard or touchscreen interface, which often simplifies the user experience.
File Portability represents another area where the unsanctioned access still easily outstrips the official channels. It is a contractual requirement for almost any new provider of TVOD downloadable content that it be restricted via DRM, in order to prevent easy sharing. However, the effect of this is also to prevent portability in ways which could be completely legal, were it not for the technical restrictions imposed by the DRM.
Access to Global TV continues to be an issue in many ways for the television industry, although one for which some providers are seeking solutions. Georestrictions are still significant barriers to access to Global television, with blocked access to Hulu outside of the US or to BBC iPlayer outside of the UK serving as two ideal examples. These restrictions can be avoided through the use of VPNs or IP-spoofing software, leading the site to believe that the user is actually based within an acceptable locale, but I would contend that this should still be considered unsanctioned access, another reason that I prefer the term over piracy. In addition, the restrictions which continue to exist mean that even the offerings of a global provider, such as Netflix, differ dramatically from country to country, meaning that much global content is still completely inaccessible through sanctioned channels, and reducing even further the predictability of from where content might be available.
Personal archives continue to be a benefit offered by unsanctioned access that is not offered by traditional means. While TVOD services do, on the surface, appear to offer this potential, their offerings are frequently limited to certain types of television, and they are still burdened with DRM, meaning that should the provider cease to operate, or choose not to offer the system which authorises their decryption, then the archive becomes obsolete. Given the financial outlay which can accompany these traditional archiving practices, and the fact that the DMCA makes it illegal to break TPMs even if you have the rights to access the content, this can be of significant concern to those for whom maintaining an archive is important.
The final point is that of the content being low cost and commercial free. This is where current sanctioned services have, to an extent, responded to the threat posed by piracy. The offerings of any given SVOD are usually relatively reasonable on a monthly basis, probably comparable to the sorts of extra costs that those making use of unsanctioned forms of access might be paying for some of the additional services to facilitate the practice. In addition, sites such as Netflix avoid the need for advertising, and even Hulu has recently introduced an advertising-free model. The difference still remains, however, in how many different subscriptions a user might need in order to access all the content that they would want to watch, especially given that the offerings may well not remove the need for a continued live television package.
Gail de Kosnik’s work seven years ago was certainly a provocation, speaking boldly to the television industry about the pleasures and potentials that piracy offered over their systems, and challenging them to meet the offerings or to risk losing market share. Seven years on, her work seems to have been almost prescient, as the industry has continued on down similar paths, and specifically television piracy has continued to be a small but significant percentage of the audience. Ease of access and the cultural ubiquity of sites such as Netflix do offer a relatively easy venue for access for those viewers who just want to hang some content available, but for viewers who designed a broader range of content, specific content, or more timely access, the options become far more complicated. The offerings available from unsanctioned sources still provide almost all the benefits highlighted by De Kosnik, in ways which traditional sources still do not compete with. Gail de Kosnik’s 7 year old work proves to still be just as relevant in in developing televisual landscape, and will continue to inflect further work into the unsanctioned access to television content and the choices made by users in how to access that content.