Bill Wyman (no, not him) just wrote a good piece in Slate about how the movie/TV industry is about to make all the same stupid mistakes the record labels did ten years ago. Obviously this subject should have Tessa and me concerned, since nobody likes to be clutching the grand piano as it sinks a hundred yards from the Titanic – but our m.o. has always been to hunker down and do good work and not sweat the larger picture.
Still, it’s as if the major media corporations learned absolutely nothing from the debacle called “popular music sales after Napster”, still playing out on a teenage bittorrent client near you. Like we’ve said since the beginning, the internet views censorship (in this case, your ISP throttling your speeds) as a virus and builds around it. If Time Warner thinks you’re pirating movies and slows you down, someone will invent a system that culls from all the ISPs. Or uses bandwidth from neighbors’ idle connections. Or whatever.
Wyman says the whole issue comes down to one sentence: The easiest and most convenient way to see the movies or TV shows you want is to get them illegally. I would disagree with him, actually. I think it comes to this: In the long run, any attempts to punish your biggest fans will backfire.
What I do worry about, in private moments, is that The Powers That Be will create an online environment so punitive and illogical that people who love the long arcs of visual stories will simply say “forget this shit” and stop caring. They will replace their love of narrative with the quick fix of reality shows (sorry, LFMD) which don’t need big screens or high resolutions for their poisons to work.
The biggest fans will become the most scorched-earth, and download the shows illegally even if they’re streaming on Netflix, just out of spite. And of course, the hoarders will download every show in existence because the contraband nature of the product gives them inherent value.
That said, I think Wyman’s wrong to call illegal downloading “most convenient”. Maybe I’m a crusty old fart who only pretends to stay relevant, but it’s still fairly difficult to tell someone how to get, say, the movie Source Code illegally. You’d have to have the following:
• a computer
• a bittorrent client like Transmission or Vuze
• a pretty fuckin’ fast internet connection
• the knowledge of how to use the client, and wade through malware or shit you don’t want
• sometimes an hour of two of waiting for it to download
• making sure it’ll actually play on your computer
…and, if you want to watch it on your big TV screen, you’ll need
• a proprietary cable adapter, like “mini display port to HDMI”
• and a longer-than-you-think HDMI cable.
If and when you get the sound to work (which is not always intuitive), it will almost invariably be pixelated and the action sequences will look like shit.
Now, sure, there are those of us who take that list as second nature, and blithely do it because we really want to see “Source Code” and there’s no other way to do it (don’t even get me started on watching the early rounds of the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament). But for 96% of America, even the sexting tweens, it’s WAY TOO MUCH FUCKING TROUBLE.
Just think: we spent the years 1954 to 1983 with four channels, but you only had to wait for the tube to warm up and you were good to go. After that, we had a remote control, and BAM! Instant on. With a DVR, we don’t even need to be around.
I fully realize there will be a day when we will be able to instantly download an illegal movie or TV season straight to our 1080p television with one button. It will be so easy that any tired American with a beer will do it the same way they click on Monday Night Football. We are nowhere close to that day yet, and judging from our embarrassingly slow internet speeds (we’re below Malta and Slovakia) and plethora of video codexes, it seems as distant as a Mars landing.
You have to stay flexible, though. Remember that the only true victors of history are the ones who did a little planning and made themselves elastic. The real question is this: assume the one-button illegal download comes to fruition. Also assume that the Media Conglomerates get their act together and offer all TV shows and movies in one online place for instant download at a really reasonable price.
What would Americans choose? Would there be any sense of guilt that would make them pay for the shows?
If they didn’t pay, and after five years of hemorrhaging money the studios started shutting down their movie and TV departments, would there be a collective decision among viewers to start paying again to bring it back?
In essence, what do you think America would do if (or perhaps, when) legal and illegal choices reached their perfect state?