How Aussie TV networks can hold back the torrent tide
What can our commercial TV networks do to stop us from reaching for the mouse and downloading torrents of our favourite shows?
We've been running a few polls recently to see why you, our dear and loyal readers, torrent TV shows.
The top two responses to our poll were "poor/erratic scheduling" and "long delay to Australian screening". Let's deal with these two issues in reverse order.
There are many reasons why US and UK shows take their sweet time in hitting the airwaves here.
Firstly, American dramas and comedies generally start at the back end of September and end in May. This ties in nicely to the seasons in the northern hemisphere, as things start to cool down in autumn, the days shorten, daylight saving ends and people are far more likely to be at home, watching the TV.
The reverse is true in Australia, with the prime viewing months generally falling between March and November. Consequently, our ratings season stretches from the middle of February to the end of November. It's important to note that the free-to-air ratings agency, OzTAM, collects TV viewing data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 (or 366) days a year. However, for the purposes of setting advertising rates, not to mention bragging rights, only ratings that fall within that February to November time frame are taken into account.
The upshot of all this is that Australian commercial free-to-air networks are unwilling to begin airing a new season of CSI or Modern Family as our ratings season is drawing to a close. Typically, networks will begin rolling out new seasons in February or, more likely, after Easter, as there's a two-week official ratings hiatus around that holiday.
This worked fine in the era of VCRs and dial-up modems, but in this broadband age when shows begin appearing on torrent websites the night after they air in the US, this is a big problem. If you just can't wait for the latest episode of Fringe or want to be up to speed on the latest goings on in Survivor then salvation is but a few clicks away.
So what can the networks Seven, Nine and Ten do about this?
In the past, the networks have attempted to "fast track" episodes from the US within a week or so of their airing there. On the face of it, this sounds like the perfect solution. Unfortunately, it's fraught with a number of problems. Firstly, scheduling in the US is not always guaranteed, and networks or stations may replace a scheduled show with an important event, such as a presidential speech, or a sporting fixture. This can lead an Aussie network to schedule a repeat or another show; either way, the show's flow is ruined and viewers are left scratching their heads as to why the network would do this to them.
Fast tracking may work for established shows, but it's a game of chance when it comes to new series. When Channel Nine tried it with Viva Laughlin it bombed badly, with negative press from the US affecting its debut locally.
To help fast tracking along the networks that own the ratings agency OzTAM should abolish the concept of official and unofficial ratings weeks. This might provide some incentive to keep pumping out fresh episodes of US TV shows during the summer. It's possible that the viewers lost to the extra hours of sunlight would be recouped by those who no longer see the need to torrent.
In the spirit of trying something new and different, the networks here could try an experiment that's already occurred in Singapore: show TV shows live or near live in the dead of the night, with a repeat showing in prime time at the network's leisure. Conveniently, 8.30pm on the United States' east coast translates to 12.30am here in Sydney.
This way torrenters have access to a legal way of watching their favourite shows in better than SD DivX quality. For the broadcasters, they enjoy bringing the torrenters back into the fold. Sure, the vast majority will be recording the shows on their PVRs and skipping through the advertisements, but if they're anything like myself, they'll stop and rewind if they zoom past an ad that catches their eye.
As for the other popular option in the poll, "poor/erratic scheduling", the networks just need to treat us with a little bit of respect.
If a pre-recorded TV show is going to run for 78 minutes then put that in the TV guide and EPG. This way PVR users won't fume when their recording of Masterchef is cut short of the final verdict on the dishes by pugnacious Pete and loveable Lizzie.
We understand that if a show doesn't rate well, it has to go and live somewhere else, be it a new, later timeslot or on a digital-only channel. But wouldn't it be nice if networks gave us some information. All it would take to make me happy is a simple message — "Tonight's episode The Shire won't be seen on Ten; the show is moving to 7pm every night on Eleven" would suffice — at either the beginning of the show or via a ticker at the bottom of the screen.