How to stick it to The Man. Step 1: Display a complete ignorance of how media companies work.
Boy, do I feel foolish! For two years now, I’ve been paying anywhere from $60-$90 a month to a satellite TV provider, for hundreds of channels I don’t ever watch. I’ve been doing it to pay for the shows that I do watch, and I just had no idea that there was a better way.
Fortunately for me and millions of stupid people like me, M.G. Siegler’s got it all figured out. There are these things called “torrents” that let you download television programming from the internet for free, sometimes even before it’s broadcast in your area! All you have to do is:
- Download a BitTorrent client for your system.
- Find the torrent file for the show you want to watch.
- Tell yourself that you’d be perfectly willing to pay for the show if those damn media companies would only let you.
- Download and enjoy.
- Don’t put any additional thought into it, apart from rationalizing it on the internet.
Siegler’s devoted a lot of deep thought to this moral quandary:
The problem is that I’m not an HBO subscriber. Believe me, given the quality of their programming, I would love to be. Unfortunately […] You cannot give HBO your money directly. They will not accept it. They are fully in bed with the cable companies and are not going to get out of that bed anytime soon, because of what they get paid to perform their unnatural acts in that bed. A lot of money.
Because of the aforementioned naughty cuddling deal HBO has with the cable companies, they also cannot (or will not) offer up their content via a legal means, such as iTunes, in a timely manner.
Clearly, it’s HBO’s fault. They’re wallowing in cash from their dark dealings with the cable and satellite monopolies, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to give up any of that profit just for the sake of Doing the Right Thing.
It’s a tough decision, and Siegler is being extremely bold by being the first person on the internet to admit that he’s pirated media.
It brings me no great pleasure to do it, and I’m not technically sure that I’m allowed to say this, but I’m going to because HBO has left me no choice: I’m going to be pirating season 2 of “Game of Thrones.”
I’m going to be forced to scour the shady underbelly of the Web to find the show.
Again, I’d gladly pay for it. But I have no way to do so, outside of forking over an obscene amount of money on a monthly basis to a cable company, and/or waiting a year. I’m just not willing to do that. My hand is being forced.
And when someone posts a link to the webcomic The Oatmeal that said exactly the same thing as his blog post does, and which was forwarded to the Facebook and Twitter feeds of every single person on the internet a few weeks earlier, Siegler makes it clear why he’s writing: it’s “worth putting it into words again and again and again and again, until something changes.”
It’s clear: there is no other option.
Except, well, being patient and waiting for it to come to iTunes. Like adults without an over-inflated sense of entitlement do. That’s basically the approach that Andy Ihnatko suggested, in his post “Heavy Hangs the Bandwidth That Torrents the Crown”. That was one of the most perfect articles ever written about the topic. At least, it was before Ihnatko felt the need to qualify it with an addendum about how media companies force people into piracy. Apparently the notions of personal responsibility and “two wrongs don’t make a right” are too nuanced for the internet to be able to process.
Oh right, I forgot that there is one other option: paying for it with cable or satellite service and a subscription to HBO, like millions of other people do. But Siegler thinks that’s outrageous:
Why would I pay upwards of $100 a month for something I have no interest in? I just want HBO.
When I watched the first season of “Game of Thrones” this past week, I watched it through iTunes, where I happily purchased the entire season for $38.99 (in HD).
So as he repeatedly makes clear, Siegler is perfectly happy to pay for his television programming. Well… up to a point, anyway.
Let me see if I can piece together the terms of this transaction: it has to be less than $40 for the entire season. He has to be able to download it to his computer and watch it anywhere. And he shouldn’t have to wait any longer than HBO subscribers in any time zone in the world in order to watch it. If profit-hungry HBO doesn’t agree to those terms, the only recourse for the consumer is to download a torrented version.
Why is HBO being so damn unreasonable?
At The Onion’s AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff posted an article called “Patience and piracy: Why helping yourself hurts good TV.” It’s got more rational thinking and insight than a hundred Oatmeal strips stacked end-to-end. But, because of all those troublesome words and ideas, it didn’t go viral. (And because it didn’t have “Piracy” and “Game of Thrones” in the title, like Siegler’s post, it didn’t do as good a job of link-baiting. “I’m being forced to pirate Game of Thrones against my will!” is a much more internet-friendly title than “A Winter of Piracy is Coming.”)
Here’s where things get a little tricky. And speaking as someone who watches a lot of television, I have special insider knowledge of how media corporations do business that Siegler, a partner in a venture capital firm, couldn’t possibly be privy to. So excuse me for getting technical here, but bear with me: an epic fantasy series consisting of dozens of hours of footage filmed in various locations with several prominent Hollywood film stars is not an inexpensive production.
Whew, sorry to blow your mind with all that jibber-jabber. Let me dumb it down a shade:
We all know how TV works — you watch it for free or download a season pass for around 40 bucks on iTunes or Amazon. But then, this isn’t TV. It’s HBO. And over a decade ago, HBO responded to the decreased demand for their feature-length movie schedule by putting the spotlight on well-produced, innovative, quality original programming, and also Hung. And it’s not just the case that they produce “tentpole” series like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome — television series with feature film budgets. They also produce stuff that probably wouldn’t be feasible elsewhere, like Deadwood, Bored to Death, and even True Blood. (Which isn’t an epic production like the others, but still straddles the line between lowbrow enough for broadcast TV but still too raunchy and too niche for broadcast TV).
That model isn’t cheap. And I’m sure that HBO appreciates the thought, Mr. Siegler, but your generous contribution of 40 bucks before Apple’s cut isn’t quite enough to cover it. For that matter, your $15 a la carte subscription to HBO wouldn’t cover it, either. What covers it is that “naughty” relationship HBO has with the cable companies. It’s kind of like that $600 smart phone you bought for $300 plus a cellular contract.
Except there’s even more to it than that. HBO can afford to produce shows like Game of Thrones because HBO has established itself as a company that can produce shows like The Sopranos (and Rome, Deadwood, etc). People will pay for HBO because of the programming that they can only get on HBO. That exclusivity is baked into the value of the company, and therefore into the cost of its programming. They’ve sneakily hidden this fact into their shady deals with unscrupulous cable providers and by making it the tag line of an entire marketing campaign: “Only on HBO.”
If you can spend $2.99 for an HD copy of the latest episode of Game of Thrones at the same time as a cable subscriber who’s paying over $95 a month for his cable and HBO subscription, then there’s no incentive for him to keep subscribing. And then there’s nothing to separate the digital release of Game of Thrones from that of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, even though two of those series are subsidized by advertising and one isn’t. And there’s no incentive for HBO to keep funding weird, original, expensive, commercial-free television series.
None of this is really all that complicated.
But in this case it’s different, because Siegler and others like him really want to watch Game of Thrones and nothing else that HBO offers. Well, a couple of years ago I really wanted to watch True Blood and nothing else that HBO offers. What I did was I torrented an episode, and I felt like an asshole about it. Then I paid $20 a month for an HBO subscription. So please don’t anybody try to present a confession of “I didn’t feel like an asshole about it” as a battle cry of “I’m taking a stand against Big Media!”
Would I prefer to pay $40 or less to get a season pass of just the series I want to watch? Of course I would. But I was cursed with a conscience and the nagging tendency to think about things for more than a half second. And I quickly realized that paying for the stuff I don’t want to watch helps pay for the stuff that I do want to watch. And that the stuff I watch for “free” has been paid for with advertising.
(Incidentally, the next time I read anyone suggesting that digital versions of print media like books, comics, and magazines should of course be cheaper than the print versions, because the cost of printing has been removed, I’m going to devote all my energy to perfecting my slap-someone-over-the-internet technology. Don’t say you weren’t warned).
And am I suggesting that DirecTV and HBO are just barely scraping by with subscription fees and DVD sales? Of course I’m not. Both NewsCorp and Time Warner are doing quite well for themselves, last I checked. But I missed the day of ethics class where they told us that it’s okay to take stuff without paying for it as long as I was taking it from rich people. And unfortunately for me, their financial success doesn’t obviate my personal responsibility.
Personal responsibility is what it all comes down to, because that’s the part we actually have control over. Marco Arment, someone I usually agree with about everything except coffee, wrote a post (with diagrams!) called “Right vs. Pragmatic” in response to the Oatmeal cartoon and Ihantko’s blog post. And for most of that post, he’s right. The response to piracy from “big media” has just been bone-headed. All the litigation and legislation against piracy on behalf of the RIAA has been a failure both financially and in terms of PR, and now the MPAA is making all the exact same mistakes. The DMCA sucks. And it’s stupid to hold onto an outdated business model when there is still plenty of money to be made providing content through more accessible channels like iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, etc.
But in that entire post, there’s one very important point that Arment fails to emphasize: Responsible, grown men should not be throwing their fucking trash on the floor in the first place.
If you want to really make a stand, instead of just talking about it to make yourself feel better, then actually take a stand. Don’t buy TV from HBO if you don’t like the way they do business. Don’t help advertise it, either, by posting big pictures from the series on your blog and using the title in your post title and talking about how the show is so great that you’re willing to steal it. And if you like the show and would like it to be available on iTunes, then buy it on iTunes. If you want the show to be available on iTunes sooner, then buy a show you like that’s already available, and make it clear that there’s a demand for television through that channel that’s greater than what they’re seeing from cable or satellite subscriptions.
HBO execs have about a 0.0000% chance of reading a post on your website. They have a slightly higher chance of seeing your download of the torrent file in the logs of a pirate website years from now when the site gets threatened for shutdown. They’re guaranteed to read the income statements from Apple.
All that said: everyone should check out that Oatmeal comic one last time, and give him the final say. Scroll to the bottom of the page, after the big chunk of ads that help pay for his bandwidth, and read the last three words.
“Please don’t steal.”