Via this babble thread on the new Battlestar Galactica semi-season, I came across this article on television piracy and its future effects on television production. The problem is that many very popular shows are now available for free over the Internet via bittorrent sans advertising. The author correctly notes that given the nature of television and the very distributed nature of bittorrent, this is not going to change any time soon, but nevertheless, we have a problem: how to fund cool expensive shows like BSG. This is a particularly immediate issue since Canadian channels are showing BSG months late, and impatient fans are simply downloading it in advance, preempting broadcast companies' business decisions.
A lot of what the author says is interesting, but I disagree with him on a crucial point:
Widespread piracy of television programming has short-circuited this process, connecting the producer directly to the audience. As yet there are no viable economic models connecting the television producer directly to the audience. Industry pundits talk about audiovisual downloads through some system like Apple's iTunes Music Store, and perhaps we'll see something like this in the near future, but this works against the simple fact that people do not expect to pay for television programs. People will pay for movies, when they choose to pay for movies, but they won't pay for television programming. Not if they can get it for free. The audience is not at all involved in the economic value chain of television production; that's been the rule for a half-century. It's reasonable to presume that any attempt to change the economic behavior of the audience is doomed to failure.
I find that the author is simply too pessimistic about viewer behaviour regarding expectations from television. Not only do we have (as the author acknowledges) the example of movies---people still rent movies and go to the theatre even though they also download them---but we have an even better example: books.
Popular books have been "pirated" since forever, if you think about it. They are available for almost-free at the public library. Yes, our taxes go into purchasing a small number of copies, but then often (for the real hits) they are enjoyed hundreds of time. Just as a small number of people watch a show, convert it into an advertisement-edited video file, and distribute it as a torrent. So how are the authors making much money?
Thing is, I still buy books, including popular science fiction books. I buy them from authors that I want to support. SF authors in particular often have quite close relationships with their fan base. I know that some of my favorite authors need to eat in order to feed my own habit, so while I can get all their work from the library, I spend money on some of them to ensure that they can continue to afford to write.
I can quite honestly say that while a lot of TV is dreck---which I don't watch anyway---there are a few bright spots here and there that I would, in fact, be willing to pay a subscription fee to download directly from the producer as it appears, avoiding the costs of distributing physical media and so on. And at least in the SF world, this phenomenon has been to some extent already observed, particularly with the popularity of the Firefly series and its spinoff movie Serenity, to whose coffers I have already contributed money and which, as I understand it, was mostly dependent on individual spenders rather than advertising money.
However, shows like BSG still require the current distribution chain to even make it to the market, so it's unlikely that the producers will be allowed to catch up to their viewers any time soon. Still, it'll take a while for Mark Pesce's ideas to come to market anyway.