First House of Cards, then Arrested Development... with Netflix now making its own shows for direct download sale, a complete season at a time, I've been reminded of some thoughts that I had back in 2009.
I said at the time that I had mixed feelings about the jail terms and fines passed by the Swedish courts on the operators of the Pirate Bay filesharing setup. I reckoned I'd have had more sympathy over the sentencing if the guys in question weren't such clanging assholes.
Piracy is, by its very definition, a parasitic act, and the successful parasite is the one that doesn't damage the health of its host. The parasite that taunts, defies, derides and generally abuses what it feeds on is an evolutionary dead end. If you cause pain when you feed, you'll get swatted. If you dance around, hooting and flicking V's, you can be sure you'll get swatted first.
And a kind of evolution is surely what's happening here. Not so much in movies, where the ripping and redistribution of DVDs is hard to defend as anything other than freeloading. But with TV... and TV drama especially... I believe the pirates have set up a genuine model for the future. It's really just a question of the industry catching on to the fact that, just as the pirates stole product from them, they can now steal something back in the form of some free R&D.
Broadcast TV is only good for soaps, news and reality now - background stuff, stuff you can keep one eye on while you do something else, stuff you can dip in and out of, stuff you can talk through. The truly ephemeral stuff with a 24-hour shelf life, or no shelf life at all.
Drama, being immersive in its nature, struggles to thrive in that environment. And, sure enough, it isn't thriving. Even the best dramas don't get ratings these days, because no one wants to settle in for that long, or focus that much, at a time that doesn't necessarily suit them. There's always going to be an appetite for TV drama, but people have definitely lost their taste for being scheduled.
A few short years ago, I can remember celebrating because ITV shifted News at Ten and made all of its nine o'clock dramas ninety minutes long. As a writer I thought that it was going to be a great move - every script would be a feature!
But I was wrong, and it wasn't great. As a viewer, I hated it. Even the slightest story had to be a seven-act marathon. Night after night after night. Imagine if every single meal had to be Christmas f***ing dinner in five courses. The only person who'd be happy would be that mad guy who shows up on the news each December for celebrating Christmas every day (and, frankly, I'm beginning to think he only does it for the attention).
Imagine if the pirates' distribution model was the legitimate one. It's already open to all, but finding and downloading material requires a smidgen of geekiness that excludes the majority. Imagine a global TV market, with fresh product coming in all the time, and with a legal, user-friendly, micropayment-driven interface where you'd pick your shows from a searchable menu and download them to watch, ads-free, at a time of your own convenience. A new season of your favourite show begins... you buy it from the source, right away, for buttons. What's not to like?
That's how it's got to go, I reckon. I'd tolerate a sponsored logo or watermark in the corner of the screen, if that were the only way to monetise the copying and passing-on of downloaded files. But the point of micropayments is to make it all too cheap to bother. I reckon that network TV showings will serve the same function that used to be served by hardcover publication in the book trade, where the hardback would sell very few copies but give the book a profile which would pay off in the paperback edition. Indie stuff will be offered straight to market, with no network involvement at all, and live or die by its merits.
You know, once I would have thought it scary. That the reliable, steady stream of broadcast product from the BBC or my regional ITV station might not always be a part of my life. That it might be replaced by a mosaic of my own choices, continually refreshed and revised. But now I can't wait.
And at last we'll be spared the apologists for piracy, with all their talk of Fat Cats and corporate greed and how much they're being ripped off.
For that alone, roll on the future.