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TV 101: An open letter to TV executives about why you should stop worrying and learn to love PIRACY

by Jay Black, posted Dec 10th 2008 11:03AM
Oh, you went as me for Halloween? How creative.Hey TV executives, it's me your good pal Jay Black. Maybe you remember me from my one man "Bring Back ALF" letter-writing campaign? If not, that's okay. I'm just happy that we're talking like this and not through Yvonne Strahovski's lawyers like last time.

As you can probably tell, I spend a lot of time thinking about you guys and your tough job of coming up with so many creative shows. I don't envy your having to sort through pile after pile of successful European reality shows trying to find one uncomplicated enough for American audiences. I don't know how you do it!

I'll be honest with you, I'm worried about the future of your industry. I know you're worried too. You think that if you don't act fast to counter all those people pirating your content that you'll wind up like your good buddies over in the music industry. I don't want that to happen to you, so that's why I'm writing this letter: TV, you can save yourself if you don't fight piracy, but rather embrace it.

Listen, we all know that pirating any copyrighted piece of entertainment is technically stealing. Just like online pornography is technically cheating on your wife and doing 75 MPH in a 65 zone is technically putting other people's lives in danger.

The problem is that none of those things feel illegal, at least not in the same way punching a puppy does. If you see someone punching a puppy, you feel compelled to do something about it; if you see someone downloading a TV show, you feel compelled to make popcorn. No amount of clever PSAs is ever going to change that.

What's worse for you as TV executives is that people became conditioned to stealing music first. A lot of people don't view stealing music as a crime at all, on any level. Because, for as much as Lars Ulrich wants to complain that illegally downloading the new Metallica CD is worse than Pearl Harbor, Dresden, Nagasaki, and Kath and Kim all put together, Metallica can still make money from its live touring.

People are coming out of this music-stealing mindset, then, blinded to the fact that TV has no other revenue streams. No one is going to go see Two and a Half Men on Ice! A pirated show, because it's almost always without commercials and almost never counted in official viewership numbers, earns you nothing, no matter how many people watch it.

Sadly, because the philosophy on downloading was shaped by the music industry, it won't be long before illegally downloaded TV shows become as commonplace as illegally downloaded music. The current situation is like a skinny Oprah: it's only a matter of time before the whole thing blows up.

TV Executives, here's what not to do: don't panic. Don't form an anti-piracy wing like the RIAA and start suing housewives who were just trying to catch up on the Grey's that they missed. Don't start making lame-ass PSAs using TV stars to try to make us feel like criminals.

Don't do any of those things. Piracy is not to be feared, it's to be embraced.

See, because what do you care when or how people watch a show, so long as you're getting your eyeballs on the right set of ads? I mean, between you and me, it's never been about the art, right? No one is making Double Shot of Love because they have a burning desire to tell the story of a pair of bisexual twins who are trying to find love, it's because, to quote Kiekegaard, "boobs + bisexual = $$$"

Thus, it becomes clear what you need to do to ensure that the revenue keeps flowing while still embracing the reality that people are going to steal your content:

1. You need to change the way Nielsen does its ratings. People don't gather 'round the TV at the scheduled time of their favorite shows anymore. They time-shift, they place-shift, and they porn-shift (that's when you watch something on your computer other than pornography; rare, but I'm told it happens)

Since you're going to be embracing non-traditional viewing, Neilsen needs to update its methodology to make sure that every form of viewing, from TiVo to Hulu to LimeWire is accurately counted. Abritron, the people who measure radio ratings, just unveiled Personal People Meters that attach to a person and figure out what they've listened to all day. Why can't TV have the same thing?

Pressure Nielsen into doing this. If you can't think of a good way to do it, contact me. My wife's family is Italian and they have some friends who might be able to look into the situation, if you catch my meaning.

2. You need to give your product away. Hulu is a good step in this direction, but I would go further: make every single show you produce a) downloadable and b) immediately available (and in high quality!) online the same second it broadcasts on traditional TV. You don't have to serve it -- that's a lot of bandwith -- just release it into the wild and let the P2P networks handle it for you.

Now, you might be having a heart attack right now. Don't. The reason why you do this is simple: because it allows you to keep the commercials intact. Since people will trust an official file over, say something uploaded by SCROTUMWRANGLER1138, the majority of the people will be watching your feed, and your feed will have commercials (and thus, be making money for you).

3. That said, you need to understand that the old commercial paradigm -- 2 commercial breaks of 3 minutes a piece every half hour -- is as dead as Michael Richards' career. Anything more than one 30 second commercial per half hour (and really, 15 seconds is the ideal) and people are going to start looking elsewhere.

4. You can make up for this loss in commercial time by fully integrating your commercials into the content. Product placement is only the tip of the iceberg. Go further than that. It shouldn't be NBC presents The Office, it should be Sunoco Presents The Office. Sell the whole show! Hell it worked for The Texaco Star Theater, why wouldn't it work today?

Further, try to make the sales-pitch part of the entertainment. Jimmy Kimmel Live is currently doing this with their Klondike Bar ads. Because Kimmel is involved and because the ads are funny and because it's hard to tell where the show ends and the pitch begins, people are much more likely to watch them.

Don't just present shows with commercials grafted onto them as an afterthought; this is only a temptation for the computer savvy to strip those commercials out. Create shows with commercials organically woven into them so that the revenue stream is intrinsic to the entertainment. Then, it doesn't matter who distributes that entertainment, because it makes money for you no matter what.

(And don't worry about people grumbling that this is "selling out" or "compromising the art." You're TV for chrissake, compromising the art is the art.)

I know this is hard for you to accept. After all, the current distribution system has been a winner for you for 70 years. But the days of a monolithic TV empire controlling when a person watches a show and how many commercials that person will see during the course of it are long gone.

Every time you want to exercise that old control, remember what Princess Leia said to Grand Moff Tarkin: The more you tighten your grip ... the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Tarkin, of course, didn't listen, and wound up as vaporized dust orbiting Yavin. So, you know, think about it.

If anyone else has ideas about how the TV industry can make money via piracy, please add them in the comments!

Jay Black is a comedian and writer best known for his pioneering work in adapting Blu-Ray to the laser-hair removal industry. You can catch one of Jay's live shows by visiting www.jayblackcomedy.com.

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I agree with the general sentiment. One thing that really hacks me off is how short sighted and stupid the networks are about current season reruns online. Lets say I just discovered a show like The Office and how awesome it is. I can rent everything on DVD up to last season. But if I want to catch up to current so I can start watching live (ok, on DVR after the kids are in bed), contributing to ratings, show popularity, etc, I have to watch online. Most networks make this very very difficult. I can only assume they'd rather me NOT be watching the episode live, generating to their ratings, and thus advertising revenue, that the money they make from me not watching is SOOOO much more.

Some will make it available through iTunes for a small fee. My wife tried that with Grey's anatomy, but Apple has the worst codec imaginable and wouldn't run on anything less than a Cray supercomputer. Seriously, compared to the same video on the P2P networks which is only 350Mb and runs fine on a 1 GHz processor and visually seems just as good as the video from iTunes that requires a 2 GHz processor minimum. What the hell are they doing with that CPU? Calculating the 5 billionth digit of Pi??

Anyway, we couldn't even do the iTunes option. I refuse to pay Apple for content they didn't create especially when they can't find an efficient codec that I can watch at a FPS rate above 2. I'd be happy to watch the forced commercial if the networks would make all the episodes for the current season available on their site, not just the last 2-3. Oh and as an aside, I haven't come across network hosted shows that require the same Cray supercomputer to decode their stream. If NBC can do it, surely APPLE could too.

Anyway, I honestly don't understand why networks would put up so many barriers to me catching up so I can watch the current show and contribute to their ratings.

....Speaking of which, that little Nielsen problem. Why can't the DirecTV/Dish/Cable work out a deal with Nielsen to step into the 21st century? How about DirecTV et al offer a small discount to have TV watching habits (anonymously) be collected and provided to Nielson?? If I watch a show 2 times because it was so great, that is 2 views that can be counted. After all, ads should be paying for eyeball views, not raw people. Problem solved.

Oh, and the whole I worked to so my magic act and videoing it steals from my revenue. It is actually the opposite. If your viewership is limited to only those who happen to walk by, you won't make much of a living. The video actually helps you by getting your work out to a wider audience. If you are good, it will lead to bigger venues, more money, etc. Free advertising. If you are bad, I can see how you would complain about lost revenue, because you have one shot at getting money from people before they realise it wasn't worth the money in the first place!!

January 12 2009 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd gladly download official tv shows with commercials over unofficial versions as long as the quality was great. Bring on the bathroom breaks! How I miss thee. XP

December 11 2008 at 9:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Since l left LA to Europe l tried everything to watch my favourite shows but legal online viewing was impossible from overseas and the US shows are broadcasted years later here. l want to avoid downloading but:
l couldn't buy on itunes anymore or amazon.com: l hacked my dvd player to make it compatible with US DVDs.
l couldn't watch networks websites or Hulu due to copyright restrictions:l hacked my own laptop to avoid the restrictions.
l can only watch the Daily Show and Colbert Report and l don't mind the commercials, l want this shows to stay in business.
The audience is here, waiting for the networks to really adapt.

December 11 2008 at 8:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is so much common sense here that I hope some executives actually read it. I live in Sweden, and shows are about three months behind US on average, with some never being shown. My main reason for pirating US shows is that it is so easy to be spoilered if I wait until they are shown here, and it can be a pain in the lower region to dig up older reviews and remember when the interesting shows airs. I do, however, try to buy some DVDs as that is one way to support a show that anyone can do.

Some people will always do what you want, and some will never pay for TV shows, but those are the exceptions. Most of us will choose between piracy and legality based on a few parameters. The easier it is to find a legal alternative the more will use it. More operating systems it works on, means more potential customers. Internet and piracy is global, this far legal services isn't. Do you want international customers? The music industry is starting to drop DRM, take a lesson. Why? DRM locks up the use, and are more cumbersome than piracy, why pay for an inferior product? I mean you can either trust your customers as basically honest or as people that would scam you if they got the chance? Which attitude do customers respond more positive to? Just like being forced anti-piracy messages and forced ads when you buy a DVD. As for revenue, obviously a lower price or less commercials will make more customers choose the legal alternative, but exactly what is the optimal spot I don't know. Yes, "anyone" can edit out commercials from an AVI-file, but those that do it, are probably the idiots that wouldn't pay for the show no matter what you would do.

December 11 2008 at 8:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I hate this idea of "let you pay once" or "pay a small amount." TV networks make money through ads, that doesn't need to change. Anyone from any country can watch torrents while only Americans can use Hulu. Jay's idea is perfect.

December 10 2008 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joey Geraci

I can't say I agree about the pervasive product integration. In certain cases, when the script involves products and makes sense, showing the brand unobtrusively is fine. But anything more than that is just distracting, and will eventually make me stop watching.

What they need to do is let you pay something like $100 a month, for everything. All the movies you want to watch, all the TV, present, past, and future. Online streaming, download, or broadcast in HD. I don't want to have to go to 10 different websites, I want it all to be available in very good quality in one place. I'll even watch some commercials! (Not more than 10 minutes an hour)

December 10 2008 at 2:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gus Jenkins

I'll gladly wait for someone to download the "official" network torrent, strip out the commercials, and upload it as a new torrent :)

December 10 2008 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Well, something certainly has to change. I have no problem watching programs online through the network website, but ABC 'upgraded" their player, and I have not been able to access it once. Not on two different computers, with two browers each. So, I download torrents if my DVR fails to catch it. Not my fault.

I have Dish Network. I have no "on demand" - what programs I DO have on demand I must pay for. WTF? I miss it on Monday and must pay for it on Tuesday? That's ludicrous. Networks need to work something out with Dish. If I could watch on demand, even if they forced commercials, I'd be all over it.

Commercials are too damned loud. If I could watch, for example, FOX, and the volume from program to commerical didn't change by 200%, I wouldn't mind watching live TV, commercials and all. But instead I have to have my hand on the remote constantly for volume control, so I might as well just DVR it and use the remote for better purposes.

I love integrated commericals. I know everyone crabs about them, but for crap's sake, I tell people about products I love all the time! Why should Bree tell Susan how much she loves Pillsbury frozen pie crust (shhhhh). I don't find it distracting. I find someone drinking "beer" distracting, because I spend the entire scene trying to determine what label they are imitating. Stupid, when a real product could make money.

It would be great if you could pay a small fee for a season ($15 per free television show per series, saves on their production cost of DVDs, so the price is more than reasonable) to have a special place to watch it online, for free, the day (or week) before it airs, and to be able to download and keep it. Toss in some promotional content, and that would be even a bigger win. Another bonus would be for them to email me a reminder that the program is up and ready to be downloaded.

December 10 2008 at 1:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great Ideas Jay...too bad TV Network Executives are about as smart as a brain-dead Monkey with a bottle of Vodka.

I will say this: If it wasn't for my illegal downloads of Season 1 of Dexter and Season 1 and 2 of Weeds, I would not have paid to order Showtime. I now pay a monthly fee to Showtime so I can watch those shows in 1080p on my 42" Flat Screen. I DVR my NBC shows, but on Mondays I have to download at least 1 hour worth of TV because of Scheduling conflicts. If NBC/CBS made a FAST download site where I could put the show on my hard drive PERMANENTLY, I would surely go that route instead of my illegal routes. Watching on Hulu is not the same because it's always loading, getting frozen and having other issues. Simply put, I'll never stop downloading shows, been doing so for a decade and will continue to do so until a better way comes about. The networks might as well embrace it. First we had Napster, then iMesh and Scour, then Morpheus, then bittorrents, there's always going to be a way because hackers are smarter than Network Execs.

December 10 2008 at 1:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would buy season passes for shows I really love to be able to have them on demand for the entire season, and then it wouldn't matter if I'm watching ads or supporting the companies advertising. Dollars would speak much more clearly as to the amount of people that like a program than viewership would. And it wouldn't even have to be exclusive, you could offer digital HD streams for folks who suscribe to the show commercial free (a la Netflix "Watch Instantly") and then still air the shows at their normal timeslots with traditional advertising.

For example, I would purchase (in the realm of $15 - $30 per season) Sarah Conner Chronicles, but not anything else on Fox. So even if my DVR viewership isn't factored in when deciding whether to keep the show, my actual vote will be my cash and then they have the whole show to sell me products, just traditional-commercial free.

Studio 60 might still be around, along with Swingtown. And maybe According To Jim would have been yanked long ago.

December 10 2008 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Eddie's comment
Tuna Oddfellow

Coincidentally, I am a magician. I have spent many years and lots of money honing my skills. I also spent many years street performing on the streets of Boston, Cambridge, New York and New Orleans refining my skills performing my show.

On the streets the audience pays after they have seen my show, what they can afford or what they think it worth. I am also hired to do shows for private parties and events. Many people have have even filmed my show.

Many outside factors that have effected the economy have changed how I do my show. In fact over the past 3 years I developed an on line show which is making me money using the technology found in online virtual worlds.

My show is offered for free twice a week in the virtual world of Second Life. People again tip me during these shows, and also companies and individuals hire me to perform for them as a result of my free shows.

As an entertainer, I embraced the new technology and learned to make a living doing it. That being said, I also find many opportunities to perform at in the old fashioned show venues like festivals and street shows & cocktail parties.

If I was supported by a sponsor, I would feature the product in my show, and the person who films it would spread that through viral marketing. Also there are over 20 videos of my online show available for free by looking up my avatar's name or me online. This does not stop people from hiring me for my virtual show or my magic show. viral video marketing helps my name known all over the world. This gives me more opportunity not less.

As a side note, you can look up how magicians do magic tricks on the web, too. that does not stop magic from being desired.

Of course, this all relates to television in that they need to adapt with the technology that is unfolding around them. This is not the newest and hottest magic act, it is a old machine that needs to adapt to new way of performing a very old and loved act.

How the TV industry embraces a time when information is so easy to get through the magic of the the internet will ultimately determine whether they can spin gold out of the changing times.

Magically Yours,

Tuna Oddfellow

December 11 2008 at 12:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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