Comedian Louie CK made the statement above as part of an interview with an American radio show recently. And, interestingly, even though he’s someone whose material is high on the list of things being illegally accessed, he’s on our side.
Australians are apparently the biggest television pirates in the world. And, as Louie explains it on a piece selected via The Guardian’s Australian site (transcribed by me):
“When I was in Australia everybody told me that they watched my show. And I figured that they must be getting old versions because it doesn’t air there. But they’re actually getting it the week before, because the whole country pirates there. Here [in America] weirdos kind of pirate, there’s not that many people that pirate here. But in Australia Mums and Dads pirate because we’re not letting them buy it, we’re keeping it from them.
There’s shows that have been on the air here for three years and if they’re given the option, like everybody in the world is like ‘take my fucking credit card and let me just have the thing’. But if you [the distributor/creator] are going to be a pain in the ass, then fuck you, steal all of it! So the whole country of Australia rips TV.”
Is Louie right?
Here, as in life, Louie isn’t 100%, but he’s well in the right ballpark. I double checked if Louie does play in Australia, and we will get it. Season four which aired in May in the US comes to us in August.
Australians do have a piracy problem, but the problem is not the piracy itself.
The problem is the lack of equitable access that pushes us to the downloading without paying. Piracy is a symptom, but not the cause. And I say ‘downloading without paying’ because Louie’s right about there being limited legal options on this side of the pond.
The issue has been raised repeatedly, not just by the ‘weirdos’ that Louie notes in the US, but in mainstream press here. In 2011 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a feature with the headline “Culture vultures forced go pirate”, where journalist Michelle Griffin argued “Australians are still third class citizens in the worlds of book, DVD and film distribution but now … It’s tyranny of distance compounded by the tyranny of scale. If 80 per cent of purchases come from 20 per cent of the stock, most retailers in Australia will only import that mass-market 20 per cent. The challenge for them is that the customers now realise what we’ve been missing all this time.”
Key to Griffin’s piece was the problem of stocking physical materials on Australian shelves – DVDs, Books, CDs. Now, a couple of years later the restricted distribution model has changed, so physical distance should no longer matter. However Australians aren’t getting our digital shelves stocked, either.
Part of the problem is region, distribution and syndication rights. To make a product valuable you make it scarce – you only make it available on one channel or via one market so as to draw audiences to that outlet exclusively. But if that outlet doesn’t deliver a good service in good time the consumer may lose interest or go elsewhere.
Some case studies of really bad service in really bad time
A little while ago I got a semi-regular gig as a ‘new media’ contributing editor for an Australian industry/academic publication. They’re great people who trusted me, but may have been slightly surprised that one of my first efforts for them was a piece on television as new media. Because given the lag in delivery, it we may as well be new.
In that piece I lamented the problems with accessing some key pieces of international programming (read: programs I’d been eagerly waiting for and was annoyed I’d been denied unreasonably).
Top of the list were new episodes of Doctor Who and the BBC’s Sherlock, and these were top of my list not only because I was an existing fan of various personnel for each (actors, writers, etc), but also because my ‘new’ media was regularly telling me exactly what I was missing out on. Tweet by Tweet. Status update by Status update. Spoiler by spoiler in ‘real’ time (someone else’s prime time on the other side of the world).
It started with Doctor Who, which has always had something of a delay here. In the bad old days, we were years behind, but when a Christmas special makes it to us in Easter as it was doing in the late 2000s, it’s not only unseasonal, it’s just rude.
In response to the issue the ABC took steps to try to meet ‘pirates’ in their own playground, releasing episodes online first via its streaming service iView. It still took a couple of seasons for the penny to drop in terms of timing, but eventually the broadcaster started delivering first immediately after the UK screening, and then at the same time for the show’s Fiftieth Anniversary Special in November last year. I got up at 5am with my fellow geeks to drink champagne and have popcorn for breakfast, happily tweeting along with my international fan friends as well.
The Sherlock story hasn’t been quite so rosy for Australian Cumberbatchers or Martin Freeman Fiends, though. When the show’s second season screened in the UK in early 2012 we heard about it via the Sydney Morning Herald’s choice to run international reviews, even though there was no local release date in sight. A similar lag was still in place for the much anticipated 2014 return, and while our free to air network Channel 9 were running ‘coming soon’ adverts by the time the BBC showed their new eps, we still had no specific air date.
I tried to resist, I promise.
But when you get Facebook status updates from the Radio Times (which I follow for work as well as for general fangirlieness) it’s hard. I knew, without having to look for it, about Holmes getting shot, Watson getting married, and Moriarty coming back.
Now that it was out of the bag, I had to know how.
Ok, some of these are spoilers that are decades old via the original book series, but come on –give a girl a break!
When in the UK I bought a copy on my iTunes so that I could watch it at home. Guess what? They took my money for the phone download overseas, but Australian iTunes wouldn’t download it to my computer at home a few days later. Giving and then taking away. Nice.
What about when they market tries to catch up?
Take a big international TV release, with big international hype, like Game of Thrones. It was effectively simulcast in the US and UK (with 2am screenings in the latter for those diehard fans) – and that seemed to work for them.
In Australia was still tied to an overpriced, still highly restricted (physically and financially) pay TV service. While they were promising to deliver access swiftly and with relative ease (that is, online as well as on cable), it still wasn’t enough.
Not long after episode one aired Australian marketing industry commentators were giving us our crown again, “Australian Leads the Way for Illegal Downloads of Game of Thrones.”
Beyond the commercial world though public service broadcasters have regained their influence. Doctor Who was screened or made available legally on-demand with early local simulcasts (often 5am on Sunday mornings), but this drastically lowered piracy. Is this a model that commercial media can support? Maybe not. But what they’re doing now isn’t working, either.
Are Australians just a bunch of tightarses?*
*Dear reader, just a note of explanation if you haven’t come across this term charming local colloquialism before. A tightarse is a type of scrooge who holds onto their money, a scrooge in the worst sense. They are unfair with their funds. In Australia, the very worst version of this offence is to not get your round in when it’s your turn to buy the beers on a Friday Night.
The thing is, there’s still a large number of local viewers not willing to pay Foxtel for Game of Thrones, be it for restricted price reasons, access reasons, or a combination of the two. This isn’t to say that we don’t want to pay for subscription television though – as, for example, there are a huge number of ‘illegal’ Netflix subscriptions in Oz, with somewhere between 20,000 users and just ‘a significant number’ being offered and discussed in the mainstream press.
Meanwhile, the crowd funding movement here is also growing steadily, including local site Pozible. According to a report by The Australian’s online media editor Lara Sinclair, the site has raised some $20m as of April 2014-06-08.
The support shown for these startups show that Australians are hungry for new content, and we’re willing to put our money behind it when there’s a deal that keeps us in the loop rather than behind the rest of the audience. That’s right, we’re even willing to pay for something that’s not been made yet if we think the terms and conditions are giving us equal respect.
Problem? What Problem?
A big part of the problem is that audiences feel they, and their needs, are being ignored. We aren’t being listened to, therefore we feel wary of even entering into conversation.
Issues like our government review wanting to crackdown on piracy clearly shows that those making those decisions aren’t across what’s at stake.
The current Federal Arts Minister and Attorney General, Senator George Brandis, is presently pushing for legislation against audiences who are trying to jump ahead of industry agendas by engaging in ‘illegal downloading practices’. When quizzed in parliament about the issue his position was clearly on the side of content creators and how they are being ‘compromised’ rather than how the market might be served better or more efficiently. When asked directly ‘where are you getting your information from, to inform your views’ (around 3mins 30 s in the video below), Brandis wasn’t so great with his distribution model, either.
If you’re wanting a little context, Brandis is a pretty black and white guy generally. Earlier this year he got caught up in a debate about freedom of speech and the Australian constitution, where he sported an individual’s ‘right to be a bigot’, even if that meant inflicting racial hatred on someone.
How can the Pirates come aboard to talk to the Ship Captains?
Getting informed conversation about the issue out into the mainstream is a big part of the problem. Recently a colleague and I approached a significant local publisher to contribute to its ongoing series of small monographs on ‘current issues’. After an initial scoping pitch we were invited to try to put the whole issue down in a very short space (400 words), only to be told that ultimately the board felt that there wasn’t enough in the topic of Australian television piracy to sustain a whole volume. Maybe we weren’t the right people for the job, but surely there’s something in it.
One notable attempt at dialogue can be seen at the “The Future of Television in Australia” blog hosted by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Including links to key data and examples, it at least got different players together to start something of a more nuanced chat. However, this seems to be have been relatively inactive in recent months.
Maybe the problem is how quickly things change on television, and certainly, online. Or maybe it’s that naming the issue and sitting down to nut out the nuance might actually force more people to Louie’s perspective.
Australia may be ‘a whole country that rips TV’. But that doesn’t mean that we have to stay that way.
Dr Liz Giuffre is a lecturer and researcher in Media, Music and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Her work focuses on music and television in particular, including audience studies, fandom, cultural history and cultural industries in transition.