Game of Clones: online streaming is killing quality TV

Online video services are broken. Consider the case of Eureka, a fantastic science fiction show about a silly town full of super scientists, which is being canceled like most quality SF because it could never find an audience on broadcast TV. If you want to watch Eureka online, you’re in semi-luck, it’s on Hulu (Plus). However, there’s a catch:

For Syfy scripted television, the first four episodes of every season will be made available online the day after they air. Every episode after the initial four will be available 30 days after air.

5 episodes will be available at a time.

This is an entirely arbitrary limitation that means that I won’t be watching Eureka even though it’s online for at least a month – a month in which newer shows might come along and eat into my limited availability for watching new and exciting television – like Game of Thrones. This, in a nutshell, is why online streaming is no saviour of quality television: because the content is still slaved to broadcast economics. And for the purposes of this discussion, anything on basic cable might as well be broadcast TV. Unless we get true a la carte pricing on cable (which will never happen), this will always remain true.

Erik at Forbes wrote a deservedly widely-linked piece lambasting HBO for refusing to make GoT available outside a premium subscription, pointing out that the restriction has only encouraged rampant piracy. Later, Erik called for HBO to at least allow folks to subscribe to HBO Go as a standalone service, only to later realize that this is untenable from HBO’s perspective due to their business model. In a nutshell, piracy isn’t a threat to HBO’s ability to create quality TV programming – online video services, however, are a mortal threat, especially “cord cutting” (as an excellent rebuttal by Trevor Gilbert at Pando Daily also made quite clear). It’s also worth reading HBO co-president Eric Kesseler’s thoughts on the matter.

The problem is that quality TV is expensive. Great shows like Awake, Terra Nova, and Eureka are all lost, while nonsense like Lost gets renewed for a milion years and people actually were fooled into thinking that’s good television. Once in a while you get something great like Battlestar Galactica that survives barely long enough to tell a story in depth and in full, but these are rare events built on the fertile ground of corpses of superior concepts like Farscape and Firefly.

The rush to the web means that most content companies are reactionary – they grudgingly put the shows online, but they do it half-assed (as in Syfy’s case with Eureka) with inane restrictions that hamper building a viral audience. Netflix doesn’t have any current television at all, the only game in town is Hulu or buying videos from Amazon or iTunes, which rapidly makes even the expense of cable television seem like a bargain. The end result is that the video go online (at significant engineering and overhead cost) but they fail to generate any viral interest – and cannibalize broadcast views, which hurts ratings.

Yes, Nielsen supposedly does count DVR views towards ratings now, but it’s doubtful that’s equally weighted as a faithful viewer sitting down at the annointed timeslot. But even using a DVR is like flying the space shuttle compared to ease-of-use of online, given that every device in your family room has an internet connection now: Wii, XBox, Playstation, smart TV, Roku, Apple TV. All of these support Hulu and/or Netflix or both and most support Amazon video. DVRs are dinosaurs in comparison.

But if DVRs are not counted as equal to a traditional view, then surely Hulu etc is even less. It’s trivial to ignore ads on Hulu by opening a new window and checking your email, or laying the iPad aside and goofing off with your phone for 30 sec. Hulu is very helpful in even giving you a countdown for how much commercial remains.

No matter how you argue yourself an an exception to the rule, it’s a no-brainer that online viewing of television means less ads, less engaged consumers, and lower ratings. And that hurts good TV across the board. It’s harder to persuade a studio to take a risk on a new concept because they know that even if it’s good, they can’t sell as many ads as they used to so the cost-benefit calculation is going to be worse than it was a few years ago, and will get worse further still ahead.

There’s only one alternative for quality television, outside the Clone ARmy of online streaming services, and that is premium television. If SyFy were a premium channel we would be watching Firefly season 5 by now. As long as we circle around the drain of online streaming we are going to see fewer and fewer shows outside that paywall worth watching, and the few that do make it will be short-lived. The cancellation of Awake really burns in this regard – a show that had an incredible idea but just didn’t have the time to mature. Look at the difference between Encounter at Farpoint and Yesterday’s Enterprise or The Offspring, for example. We don’t get to see that kind of maturation anymore because teh economics of ratings has driven it into the ground, and online streaming is the bloody shovel.

The techsphere is all agog over everything mobile, streaming, real-time, immediate gratification, and cheap. But that’s a formula for dren rather than quality. This is why we can’t have nice things.

renting bytes: the case for digital non-ownership

Cutting off the DRM nose to spite the reader's face?
In the course of my search for free ebook content, I found an advocacy group called Librarians Against DRM. I found the existence of this puzzling, because if not for DRM then the free-lending program of ebooks by libraries wouldn’t exist. In fact note that Macmillan, which is among publishers that refuse to give ebooks to libraries, is one of those moving to DRM-free ebooks. These facts have a powerful relationship to each other that I think is being ignored by most of the DRM activists. The knee-jerk reaction to DRM (it’s always bad! cheer it when it’s gone!”) misses the point on how its absence might have negative consequences of its own.

It’s an article of faith that DRM is bad and that when you buy something, you should own it in the digital realm just as we do in the physical. Ebooks are probably the most vibrant front in this war against Big Content and the End User. And I have to admit that I do prefer it this way, in an entitled sort of way. The idea that I’ve have to pay $9.99 every time I wanted to read my digital copy of Reamde is of course utterly absurd and offensive – I should be able to read it whenever I want, precisely because I paid so much for it. Ditto the MP3’s and videos I buy on Amazon or iTunes.

And yet there’s an assumption here that we do reuse our content. Obviously with music, we do – and that’s facilitated by the low price of the media. MP3 tracks don’t cost $9.99. But what about books and video? How often do we really rewatch or reread? The answer is, it depends. I don’t think I’m ever going to re-read 90% of the books I physically own, and that percentage will only increase for digital copies. For video, especially long series like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica, the main experience is watching it without foreknowledge, and the value of rewatch is low (though there are exceptions, such as Farscape or Firefly). Movies have the lowest rewatch of all, apart from a handful of favorites (Star Wars, LOTR, Princess Bride etc).

It’s worth noting that the rewatch potential is inversely related to the price. But as you move up the chain from music to ebooks to video to movies the production cost of the content also goes up, which is why cost of ownership of that media also increases (obviously, not all of these forms of digital content are truly DRM-free such that we fully own them outright).

So, let’s factor in the rewatch potential, and ask ourselves, is ownership really useful to us? Are we getting our money’s worth? I don’t really think so. As a consumer, what if I had more choice, and paid accordingly?

The scheme I propose is just a starting point for a thought exercise of course, but imagine if (using ebooks as an example) we paid significantly less for “first read” and then paid a little more for each reread until some threshold after which we “unlocked” the content. So instead of paying $9.99, what if I paid only $1.99, which earns me one complete read through. The second read through would cost $1.07, and subsequent read throughs would be $.99 each, until I’ve read the book 9 times at which point the book unlocks to unlimited further reading – and I’ve paid $9.99 total.

The advantage of this is that the barrier to purchasing a book is much lower, such that publishers will see more sales. Not of the individual title, perhaps, but of more titles overall. It wouldn’t be hard to do some numerical estimates based on reasonable assumptions: suppose that number of people purchasing a book scales with price according to a Zipf distribution for example.

The bottom line is that maybe we as consumers should stop focusing on theoretical rights and instead focus on actual expenses and cost-benefit, the same way we do for toilet paper and cereal, when it comes to digital goods. If we think of them as consumables rather than goods, it would be more in line with our actual usage.

Feeling Blu, more on SOPA, DRM, blah blah blah

It looks like VLC media player will soon support encrypted Blu-rayplayback. This seems relevant to the discussion started by Pete and continued by J (hardware) and Steven (software). I’d just like to add that AnyDVD HD should be legal to own in the US as far as I know, since it allows you to backup discs you already own. I should get around to doing exactly that, in fact, because all our Disney DVDs are getting scratched to heck.

Actually, its probably illegal to download a torrent of a DVD you already own but is too scratched to view, and using the torrent to burn a new DVD copy. But it shouldn’t be, which is why I return to my rant about DRM and the huge wasted opportunity that was SOPA activism.

Speaking of SOPA – great article at Big Think going against the grain, titled “Hooray for SOPA!”. I think it’s a great point to make, especially about how small content producers get screwed by piracy – just look at the state of plagiarism on Amazon’s kindle store. And also an Ars article about the recent takedown of filesharing site Megaupload, asking “if we can take down Megaupload under existing US law, why do we need SOPA?” (Ars is more diplomatic. My answer: because SOPA was never about domestic infringing sites, and thus was never a threat). Mark also had kind words for my earlier screed, and I wholeheartedly endorse his archived post about DRM and Intellectual Property – a must-read.

it’s SOPA day on the Internet

Google's doodle for SOPA Day
anyone else see any irony in this? Google.com, Wikipedia.org, WordPress.org, and hundreds of other websites large and small are going all-out against SOPA. Google has the logo censored by a black bar, and Wikipedia is actually offline. Lots of other sites and blogs are following their example. The idea is to symbolically register dissent against censorship by using self-censorship.

When you click the link from Google’s homepage, you are taken to a cool infographic which states:

Fighting online piracy is important. The most effective way to shut down pirate websites is through targeted legislation that cuts off their funding. There’s no need to make American social networks, blogs and search engines censor the Internet or undermine the existing laws that have enabled the Web to thrive, creating millions of U.S. jobs.

I think I disagree with all three statements – first, fighting online piracy is NOT important. Piracy will always exist and will always stay a step ahead of measures to prevent it. In fact those measures ultimately end up facilitating casual piracy – look at Napster, deCSS, and now Bitorrent. All were solutions designed to evade piracy and which in the end ultimately made even more piracy possible.

Second, the LAST thing we need is “targeted legislation” that “shuts down funding” for websites of any type. Besides OBVIOUSLY being a First Amendment issue, such legislation would represent a precedent far more damaging and capable of leading to true censorship than SOPA (which is targeted at foreign websites and DNS).

Finally, while I agree we don’t want to force American blogs or websites to censor themselves, the implication is that SOPA would do this, which it does not do. SOPA is explicitly targeted at foreign websites. US-based websites (and this includes all .org and .net domains as well) are not affected by SOPA at all.

(Read the actual SOPA bill here – PDF)

I’m a big supporter of network neutrality (unless the network operators are willing to forgo their government subsidies), but what we have here is basically SOPA Theater (analogous to the Security Theater we have for airline travel).

Looks like the DNS provisions in SOPA are getting pulled, and the House is delaying action on the bill until February, so it’s gratifying to see that the activism had an effect. However, that activism would have been put to better use to educate people about why DRM is harmful, why piracy should be fought not with law but with smarter pro-consumer marketing by content owners (lowered prices, more options for digital distribution, removal of DRM, fair use, and ubiquitous time-shifting). Look at the ridiculous limitations on Hulu Plus – even if you’re a paid subscriber, some shows won’t air episodes until the week after, old episodes are not always available, some episodes can only be watched on the computer and are restricted from mobile devices. These are utterly arbitrary limitations on watching content that just drive people into the pirates’ arms.

All that priceless real estate on Google and Wikipedia could have been used to educate millions of people about these issues, and instead it is mostly wasted on a pointless battle that’s already won. The real battle is being lost.

Addendum: Color me skeptical of Google’s commitment to free speech, by the way. Here’s a question for them: If SOPA were to pass, would they comply with takedown requests that don’t meet the safe-harbor provisions of the DMCA? (The argument is that SOPA would lower the bar for claiming infringement, but that’s vague in the bill). Would Google fight SOPA and be willing to go to court if their users were unfairly targeted, say for example by using a snippet of copyrighted music in a personal Youtube video? (the stark scenario that Tom’s Hardware painted last week)

UPDATE: vigorous discussion at Shamus’ place, but as one commentor puts it, full of “fashionable anti-Americanism” and chest-thumping about “freedom”.

disc-free Netflix on Wii at last

great news, you don’t need the disc anymore to stream content fron Netflix on the Wii!

Starting today, Netflix customers in the US and Canada can instantly stream content through their Wii consoles without the need to fire up a disc first.

Netflix says members who have a plan starting at $8.99 a month (or $7.99 in Canada), a Wii and an Internet connection can now instantly watch movies and TV shows by downloading the application from the Wii Shop Channel.

The new channel is available at no extra cost.

I am finding netflix streaming to be a great way to sample some of the older anime fare in particular that I have missed out on.

torrenting with no fear

I’ve become markedly more paranoid about bittorrent in the past few months, with all the news of systematic, widescale lawsuit shakedowns and the craven willigness of ISPs to hand over private IP address data. This is a perfect case study of how not having anonymity and privacy can lead to outright persecution, even if you are totally innocent of any copyright violations (fair use or not).

I don’t use BT for much beyond catching up on anime and various TV shows. Netflix doesn’t always have what i want, and even if it does I have to compete with the rest of my family for slots in the queue. And trying to catch things when they are broadcast is essentially impossible (no DVR, either). Ultimately I have to either be able to time shift or not watch at all; and paying more money above and beyond the cable TV and netflix subscription is just too high a barrier.

Unfortunately, the threat posed by the copyright tyrants is no longer negligible. So I do watch less and less TV nowadays (and play more Warcraft, read books, etc*). Though I did just discover CastTV which was indispensable for catching up on Doctor Who Season 5…

What I want is a way to torrent without losing my privacy. I did try PeerGuardian, which is a constantly updated realtime list of suspicious IP addresses to blacklist, but it never worked for me – the blacklist just doesn’t download from their server. I suspect the load is too high for a volunteer open source project to handle. The more compelling solution seems to be a paid proxy service, such as BTGuard, which is surprisingly affordable. If I understand BT correctly, even using a private tracker like BakaBT won’t protect your IP from the Bad Guys, so I am pretty sure I am going to have to bite the bullet on this one. BTGuard is intended primarily for torrenters, but I might as well also start using proxies for my casual browsing as well. There’s also the TOR project which purports to protect your web traffic from being intercepted… not sure I entirely understand that yet, but worth looking into.

I guess I’m not really sure how paranoid I should be. But the present system of just blindly and openly surfing and torrenting doesn’t seem sustainable.

*all these hobbies of course are competing for the tiny sliver of time I have late at night to myself, since my waking hours are dominated by family and work.

the battle for the box

The Set-top Box Wars continue. Amazon is offering $20 in video download credit to anyone buying a Roku XR or Roku HD until March 31; the Popbox is due to be released in a few weeks (here’s a hands-on demo at SXSW); and now Google is getting into the act with hardware built by logitech and running Android and Chrome. Oh and don’t forget Boxee.

It’s starting to feel like that scene in Moscow on the Hudson where the guy collapses while trying to choose coffee (one of only two scenes I remember from that movie). Just like cell phones, I’m basically paralyzed by (as yet unreleased) choices. I do have my Netflix Wii disc preordered (which was free, admittedly).

Incidentally, I’m still waiting for a Certain Otaku to review his Popcorn Hour. You know who you are 🙂