From the Small Screen to the PC Screen: File-Sharing of TV Programmes & Movies on the Increase

According to the BBC and research conducted by Big Champagne ahead of their address to the Edinburgh Television Festival, millions of internet users are increasingly using the web to illegally download TV programmes and Movies, in many cases mere days after they have been broadcast on TV or released in the Cinema.

Whilst online music piracy has been dominating headlines over the past week in the wake of Lord Mandelson’s plans to toughen up recommendations in the “Digital Britain” report by cutting off persistent music file-sharers, Big Champagne’s research suggests that illegal downloading is becoming a bigger problem for the Film and TV industry.

It’s worth noting that the figures quoted in Big Champagne’s findings are nowhere near as bad as the situation in the music industry, and that most of the traffic in filesharing of BBC properties such as Top Gear is actually coming from America rather than the UK, presumably due to the huge success of the iPlayer and the fact that many BBC shows tend to air in the US later than in the UK. Most of the major UK TV channels are ahead of the game here by offering much of their programming for free or via subscription as legal downloads over the web, and Sky now allows its subcribers to watch anything that they broadcast over the Sky Player, cutting down the need to download illegally.

If you take a closer look at the figures the major casualties of Movie and TV Piracy are American dramas such as “Heroes”, “Lost”, “24” and “Prison Break”. All of these shows are made by major American networks who also have a movie production arm and who release these series on DVD or Blu-Ray shortly after they are shown, usually generating huge profits. This is a major source of revenue, especially important considering the fact that most major American dramas now have very high production values and feature major Hollywood Stars such as Tim Roth, Glenn Close and Keifer Sutherland. This will mean that they get more and more expensive to produce, making DVD and Blu-Ray revenues a vital source of income and a way to break even on production costs much more quickly.

This is obviously going to be seriously affected by the shows being downloaded illegally, and the networks have already taken action against YouTube in the US to ensure that entire series are not made available for free. Viacom, the parent company of Paramount Pictures, MTV and Nickleodeon, famously sued YouTube for $1 Billion in 2007 for what it described as “massive international copyright infringement”, with 160,000 clips of its programmes allegedly being shown without permission and after a sharp drop in its share price. The BBC followed suit, as did the Premier League, each demanding that clips be taken down from the site. Disney, however, have now reached a landmark agreement to create new “channels” on the site.

The arguments over the industry being the cause of its own downfall are similar for the Music, TV and Film Industries. However, while we’ve always had to pay for music and films, TV has usually made its income through advertising revenue. This all changed with the introduction of pay-per-view and subscription services and the phenomenal success of TV properties in the Home Entertainment market with the introduction of DVD as a viable format. The sheer size of VHS tapes meant that buying whole series was very expensive and unpractical, but these days entire runs of programmes such as 24 continue to generate huge revenues for studios, usually due to discounts on retail prices after their initial launch. This is now a big business for the TV industry and a much easier way for them to be profitable in a time when advertising revenues are generally down. Whilst the problem isn’t as bad as it will probably get for the world of the small screen, it’s certainly now very much on their radar.

The situation is far worse, however, for the movie industry due to the fact that it’s driven solely by ticket sales and the home entertainment market. The average Hollywood blockbuster is now becoming far more expensive to produce, with Terminator 2’s record budget of $100 Million in 1991 now a distant memory. Many releases now depend upon DVD and Blu-Ray revenues to become profitable and many movies now reach their audiences much more easily on the small screen rather than in cinemas, such as this year’s “Watchmen”. Budgeted at somewhere around $130 Million, the film made around $185 million internationally and was considered a minor “flop”. However, it has already made an additional $50 million in the US alone, is currently the number 1-selling Blu-Ray of all time and was the number 1 downloaded movie on iTunes on release. The chances are that it will turn out to make nearly much as it did in cinemas, but the flipside of these figures is the fact that “Watchmen” is also currently the most-pirated movie on the Web, being downloaded over 16 million times. If each of these represented just one legal download on iTunes, lost sales could be in the region of around £160 million.

Whilst this figure is way lower than the 54 million downloads for “Heroes”, the movie industry is now taking piracy very seriously, particularly following the leak of 20th Century fox’s summer blockbuster “Wolverine” in a DVD-quality form in April this year, which many claim led to a good but worse-than-expected performance at the Box Office. Cases have already been fought and won in the US against large-scale AND individual filesharers and, given Lord Mandelson’s new harder stance on filesharing, it surely can’t be too long before the first cases make their way into a UK Court.

At the end of the day, whether or not it is deemed socially acceptable, the law says that downloading Music, Movies and TV is an infringement of Copyright which can lead to both a civil claim from the owners of the material or a criminal prosecution, whose maximum fine will now be increased from £5000 to £50,000. Movie and TV producers are already making much of their content available legally, and as such the argument that they are behind the times doesn’t stand up quite as well. Whatever the case, if it’s worth copying, it’s worth protecting. Downloaders and Filesharers need to be very much aware that Movie and TV properties will now probably be protected much more fiercely.

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