Download or wait

Australians appear to be big downloaders of television. I have said this before but this is hardly surprising given the delays Australians face in the airing of new television episodes. An article in The Register (UK) today confirms that along with some interesting other statistics.

According to a survey based on a sample of 119 current or recent free-to-air TV series’, Australian viewers are waiting an average of almost 17 months for the first run series’ first seen overseas. Over the past two years, average Australian broadcast delays for free-to-air television viewers have more than doubled from 7.9 to 16.7 months.

A survey of TV programmes found that while some aired very close to their US air date, many popular programmes were significantly delayed.

Average broadcast delays were shortest for TV series’ on the Seven and Ten Networks, at around nine months. The average delay for TV series’ airing on the Nine Network was 22 months, while TV series’ on ABC and SBS aired on average 23 and 30 months behind the US.

Actually the ABC figure was unfair because they show few US shows and the sample is skewed by The West Wing which they took from Nine.

So why Australians appear to big downloaders of television is hardly a mystery. The mystery is why this situation persists. After all, there are no technological impediments to broadcasting television close to when it is aired in the US. Indeed, that occurs for some reality television and tonight’s Oscars will only be a few hours behind. No one will be downloading that.

Let’s look at the winners and losers. Setting aside its potential illegality, Australian viewers are the winners from being able to download television. They are better off than had they had waited. Another set of winners are internet service providers. And I think they know it. Telstra’s Bigpond has a section to download software. A big part of it is the ‘Peer to peer file sharing’ section which makes easily available BitTorrent, KaZaA, Morpheus, eMule and a number of others. So they are making it easier for their customers to find these solutions.

And what of the losers. First off the rank would be the owners of the copyright on television programs. Each downloaded product is potentially a lost customer — whether it be from broadcast royalties or from later DVD sales. Second would be Australian broadcasters. Each downloaded program is a lost eyeball for advertising revenue.

But should we weep for them. Only so much. Let’s face it, they could solve this problem tomorrow by broadcasting US programs right away. If there is a lag of a few hours or even a couple of days that would dramatically kill this market. After all, what is driving Australians to download is not just the fact that they like television but that they like it sooner. Are those the customers broadcasters would care about losing? One would have thought so but their behaviour belies that.

And what of the copyright owners? Well, they don’t have to hand over exclusive rights to Australian broadcasters. They can insist upon quick broadcasting or else go to cable. They could offer legal downloaded programs through iTunes. Indeed, they could do that immediately, charge for it and then charge broadcasters for the rest. It would surely only increase their profits compared with the current situation.

To be sure, both these groups would prefer not to have to think about illegal downloads. But, in reality, it has exposed a situation where their customers actually like their product. Why not sell to them and make rather than lose money?

8 thoughts on “Download or wait”

  1. There’s also another possible downside for viewers who download in advance, legality aside; a bizarre sort of tragedy of the commons.

    If viewers download pirated versions of the TV shows before they air, then the show naturally doesn’t rate as well, and is more likely to be axed.

    Take the new Aaron Sorkin series Studio 60, which airs in Canada a day earlier than in the states. It’s a heavily downloaded program, and ratings in the US have been particularly poor, such that the show appears to be on its way out the door. There’s no real way to know whether there are enough downloading fans to have made a difference if they waited to watch it on TV proper, but it’s an interesting thought.

    And while this might not be a major factor for Australians, it’s certainly one way in which asynchronous screening and the capacity to download can turn viewers into losers. And if networks have no incentive to buy expensive shows like the West Wing or the Sopranos (or if they have purchased them, to treat them well) because much of the audience has already seen it, then it could become quite a vicious cycle.


  2. “Each downloaded product is potentially a lost customer — whether it be from broadcast royalties or from later DVD sales.”

    I’m not sure that this is necessarily true. Of the people I know, those who download TV shows on a regular basis generally have the largest dvd collections, and a large selection of the dvds are shows that were originally downloaded. The same goes for music collections.

    There’s a lot to be said for being able to try before you buy.


  3. Personally, it drives me insane that we have to wait so long for popular overseas shows to make it to our shores. I’ll happily admit to downloading the odd show and just as happily admit that we then purchase the DVDs when they become available, but generally from overseas as they seem to take just as long to make it to Australian shops, online or otherwise. If more people did that then there’d be fewer issues in terms of shows being cancelled due to reduced income through advertising, etc.

    Whomever markets TV content needs to begin to understand that audiences are no longer dependent on TV stations to share the content with them, and they have to change the way they approach providing the content. I’d be just as happy to shell out $5 for each episode of BSG or SG1 to download it online (yes, I am a sci-fi nerd but we’ll blame all that on my husband) if they provided me with that avenue. I’d rather get it on DVD and have the spanky boxset though.


  4. I know this is a bit off-topic, but I am a producer for a potential new Australian TV show, and I have to tell you that dealing with the commercial networks here has been a joke. We have liaised with all the networks, and seriously they just have no clue what the audience is looking for. We will be told that they aren’t interested in our show, then we will see an inferior, similar program from overseas being shown in prime time!!!

    The conclusion we have almost come to (giving the networks just a couple more weeks to decide on us) is to put our show on iTunes. We will get a small commission for each subscriber, Apple will get a cut as well, our show gets “out there” to an audience and we will draw a revenue to continue making episodes.

    Conclusion: Commercial TV is dead – and none more so than Australian commercial TV!!!!


  5. “And if networks have no incentive to buy expensive shows like the West Wing or the Sopranos (or if they have purchased them, to treat them well) because much of the audience has already seen it, then it could become quite a vicious cycle.”

    But they DO still have the incentive – if they air the show promptly, Australians will view it (and their ads) rather than downloading it.

    The problem is entirely of the broadcasters’ own making.

    Frankly, there should be a “use it or lose it” element to copyright law. After all, we (via the government) are granting them a monopoly. If they’re going to squander it and treat us with contempt, why should we continue to help them out?


  6. At least in Australia you get the shows in their original version, which is not the case in Old Continental Europe, or elsewhere, probably… I started downloading not only because here we get most of the shows with 1 or 2 years delay (when we get them at all…), but then they are dubbed! Do you have any idea how bad Tony Soprano or Chandler Bing sounds in a French version?


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