Can Free Broadcast TV Really Be Napsterized?

By Richard Menta 2/21/05

Far, far more people tape their favorite TV shows than acquire them online through file sharing. That's to be expected as the Supreme Court ruled home taping was acceptable use back in the 80s. It goes on every day. The end result of file sharing these programs is no different than taping them from home, it just offers another form of time shifting in a format that is a little easier to store. It also offers these shows in a lower quality form, a form that is also not as immediate as taping because you have to wait until someone posts it online first.

So why do I keep seeing articles calling file sharing a threat to broadcasters? These episodes don't hit the Net until after the show runs at least once (and after millions of us have already taped it for later viewing). The programming is available free to consumers to both view and record.

Richard Menta

There is also no evidence that file sharing harms later DVD sales of these programs, which makes sense because years of home taping hasn't hurt sales either.

I remember when the Family Guy was first taken off the air. It was a hit in its first season so Fox decided to move it directly against Friends on Thursday night. A big drop in ratings followed and so Fox decided to play the time slot merry-go-round until it lost a good piece of its audience (and still managed OK ratings). Fox then pulled the plug.

The Family Guy is not the only show to undergo this seeming self-sabotage activity of Fox. The PJs, Andy Richter's Universe, the brilliant Firefly, and Greg the Bunny all went through this.

All were eventually cancelled as if no one was interested in them.

But this wasn't true as the Family Guy proved. There was a lot of interest. Furthermore, all of its episodes were available online shortly after its cancellation and - for a good while before the announcement that there would be a DVD - were traded heavily by the same fans Fox claimed did not exist.

For those who don't know the rest of the story, when the Family Guy DVD came out it became the number one selling DVD at the time and eventually the biggest selling DVD of a TV series ever. It's success rewrote the rules on television shows and the aftermarket for them. It got the reruns of the show a spot on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim where it became one of the most popular evening programs. The post-cancellation success of the Family Guy was so great Fox revived the show, which will begin new episodes in May.

With all of this success, can you honestly say that file sharing damaged the market for the Family Guy? Of course not.

As far as Fox was concerned the Family Guy was discard. A show that failed and was no longer of use to them. The popularity of the DVD sparked a re-evaluation of the show. Why doesn't it spark a re-evaluation of file sharing within the copyright community?

File sharing of the Family Guy significantly preceeded the DVD. It very well may have helped build enthusiasm for it as the DVD's recordings are of higher quality than the rips floating around on KaZaa and other file sharing apps. It obviously did not hurt sales as the DVD far surpassed the minimal expectations from the industry.

And why should it hurt? Is file sharing really all that different from the activities we perform with our VCR?

Broadcast TV makes most of its money from the first showing of an episode (the regular season repeat did not exist until the late 70s. Before then a full season meant 32-36 episodes, with no reruns until the summer). Time is the key revenue issue here and file sharing rarely violates this in the US, one reason why ratings remain unaffected.

In all fairness to that argument, it turns out that the Brits are downloading favorite American programs like Desperate Housewives. Where these shows are usually taped only a few weeks prior to broadcast on American TV, many are not released in England until many months or even years later. I don't know for sure if this will negatively or positively effects the ratings on the British isles, but I suspect when Desperate Housewives hits the UK broadcasts the ratings will be strong. It certainly bears monitoring.

My biggest problem here is not broadcaster's concerns that file sharing may have a negative effect on revenues. Change caused by technology is rarely all good or all bad, all black or all white. Some of these concerns are quite valid.

My problem is that few in the media industries wish to do honest research on the issue, or more important, honest interpretation of such research. The goal should be to identify the true negatives and find ways to limit their effect, while taking advantage of the positives and generating new income streams.

Destroying the technology is not the way to control the negatives as it destroys the positives too. Many of these positives, like the case of the Family Guy described above, take time to appear which most likely means there are other positive effects yet to be identified.

The TV and Film industries cried that the VCR meant the death of their industry. Time has proved the VCR to be a boon as is its successor the DVD.

The Family Guy is just a recent example of how pre-conceived notions, not disruptive technologies, are the real hinderance to growth. Those notions include the one once held by Fox that no one liked the Family Guy.


The iPod Shuffle is available on Amazon

Other MP3 stories:
Movie Industry Sues File Traders Again
The Digital Media Winners of 2004
The Digital Media Losers of 2004

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