How TV Could Make Money Distributing Shows Online

Italian television, now almost totally under the control of prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, has gotten so bad that I can’t bear to watch it. It’s embarrassing; the ads are better than the shows. Our building has an antenna with outlets in every apartment, which we eventually got around to hooking up in Rossella‘s room (she watches MTV and nature shows), and, only recently, the living room. I am so uninterested that I have yet to tune the TV in the living room to receive anything.

We could get satellite or cable TV, which would give us some English-language channels, but they’re expensive, and I hate being forced to watch the shows that I like according to someone else’s schedule (if I were in the US, I’d have a TiVo).

We do use the television a lot, along with the DVD player and VCR, to watch movies and TV series which we buy on DVD. But shows are released on DVD well after their US airdates, and there are a few that we enjoy enough to want to see the latest episodes ASAP. One reason to keep current is the critics’ (and others’) distressing and increasing habit of giving away major plot points in reviews, spoiling important surprises and lessening their dramatic impact. If you have to wait a year or more to get a show on DVD, it’s hard to avoid being “spoiled” before seeing it.

The ideal solution, to my mind, would be the ability to purchase shows online and download them on or soon after their US airdates. That way I could watch them at my convenience, and keep them for future viewing (just as if I had recorded them to videotape). Considering that we paid $35 for 18 episodes of “Sex & the City” (Amazon UK | US) on DVD, it would seem reasonable to pay about $2 per episode for this priviledge.

Will it ever come to pass? Not soon. DVDs have region codes because Hollywood wanted to be able to control release dates around the world; American movies used to hit foreign markets months after their US releases. Nowadays, Internet publicity is seen worldwide, and creates worldwide demand for certain films. The Internet also provides a channel by which films can be distributed worldwide, illegally if need be. The film industry now tries for simultaneous worldwide release on some blockbuster movies, because pirated copies start circulating online the same day a film is released (if not sooner), and eager fans will download what they can’t see at the local cinema.

I suppose the Italian distributors thought they could afford to delay the release of “The Return of the King” because the pirated versions available are not in Italian, and relatively few Italians use the Internet. They should consider that the really geeky fans are often literate in both English and Internet, and have probably already downloaded the film. But these people will also go see it at the cinema; it’s a bigscreen kind of movie.

For TV, there are international broadcasting issues which probably make my ideal unworkable. American TV shows generate revenue for local TV stations worldwide, airing well after US airdates, often dubbed into local languages. UK fans of some shows are avid downloaders, because they don’t want to wait six months for their local stations to catch up with the US schedule. I doubt that they bother to watch the shows again when they are finally aired in the UK, so Hollywood and the UK stations are losing revenue from these people. Simultaneous release could solve this problem, too, and it’s a mystery why the UK channels don’t simply broadcast popular shows in sync with the US; after all, their language is close enough to American than subtitling is rarely needed.

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