Spoil, Steal Or Stream: Why Is TV In Australia So Behind The Times?

TV has become one of the most inconvenient cultural products to access legally in Australia. Why is our industry so out-dated, and what can be done about it?

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As the new frontier of long-form audiovisual narrative launches a thousand thinkpieces about the end–or new beginning–of TV, Australian networks are only just catching up.  While fast-tracking is finally starting to catch on, the local industry’s inability to match the speed and convenience with which content can be accessed illegally shows they’ve learned nothing from the record industry sagas of the last decade, and forces sites like Junkee to ignore Australian programming schedules to keep our coverage in step with what our readers are actually watching and when. Here’s an in-depth look at where the US is at, and why we’re much further behind.

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Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover. Remember fondly the wood-paneled TV your parents had when you were born and had to ditch when you broke all the channel buttons; the piercing death-keen of the fading cathode ray tube as it narrowed into a dot. That thing had more in common with the set Sally and Bobby Draper watch The Andy Griffith Show on than the cheap and cheerful LCD or fancy plasma in your living room now.

By the time the Simpson family finally upgraded their beloved CRT to a flatscreen, TV as an art form, a shared cultural experience, a mirror held up to society, exploded. Somewhere in between Twin Peaks, DVD box sets and Game Of Thrones, almost everything about how we watch television–except maybe the mindless surfing of the hungover or recently dumped–has changed. No longer does everyone just watch what’s on, when it’s on, and chat about it at the water cooler the next day. What we still insist on calling television is now “broadcast” through a huge variety of distribution methods, including, possibly most importantly, illegal downloading. Episodes are watched at whatever pace the viewer chooses; entire series are available at the drop of a hat, and are tackled with the commitment and determination that used to be reserved for brick-sized classic novels. (“We’re going to start Treme this weekend!”) Production values continue to skyrocket, the urgency and communal experience of live viewing is mainly restricted to singing contests and Q&A, and all-in-one-hit “series” like the Netflix Original House Of Cards, starring Serious Actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, are apparently the next model – one that doesn’t sit quite right with the term “TV” considering how many people won’t be watching it on one.


Consider, for example, Netflix. Founder Reed Hastings has spoken about the end of what he calls “managed dissatisfaction” – the old, familiar feeling of “But I want more!” when the latest episode ends and you have to wait a week, or when the teaser trailer looks AH-MAY-ZING. Hastings built his business out of delivering DVDs right to people’s doors in an unbroken stream of glorious entertainment convenience; when he re-introduced Netflix as a streaming service (with DVDs on the side), it combined the huge range and convenience of illegally downloading movies and TV with an even bigger range of rare and hard-to-find content that was now available legally as well as immediately. So what better than to create your new favourite show and make it–all of it–available to binge-watch straight away? That’s what they’ve done with the smart one-two punch of two relatively sure bets to properly launch their in-house content: House of Cards–based on an acclaimed UK series, directed by David Fincher and starring big names in prestige drama, with two guaranteed seasons in which to stretch out its nastily Shakespearean machinations–and Arrested Development, whose next ten episodes (even the word “season” feels inaccurate here) are so highly anticipated I expect to hear any day now that the stress has literally killed someone.


The Arrested Development story is a great one because it shows what the new models can do for shows with niche appeal. Say NBC puts Community in the shredder after this (so far unimpressive) season – surely in this brave new world, half a decade of legal wrangling and an internet petition or nine can get Dan Harmon back on board, the Chevy-less cast assembled and a deal sorted out to produce and distribute #twomoreseasonsandamovie? Anything from on-demand services, to webisode-only (which is not such a handicap anymore as it once was) to the plain and simple Louis CK model (as the no-middleman, direct-pay-and-download concept has become known), could see shows with disparate and download-savvy fans thrive on their own steam. (I’d pay serious money for a handful of new episodes of Party Down, provided Adam Scott had time to do both that and Parks and Rec for the rest of recorded history.)

At the very least, the model removes the pressure on a show to maintain ratings in order to justify (i.e. fund) its own existence, which can also help inure them against classic, art-ruining mid-season compromises like stunt casting, Poochie-style pandering to the lowest common denominator, and sweeps-week twists. House of Cards was guaranteed two seasons, so has been able to pace its story carefully (glacially) over its first season, leave us on a note with intriguing possibilities for a second-season unravelling of all the careful machinations we’ve seen so far, and not have to maintain interest and viewers over its run. No more season’s-end cliffhangers eternally without resolution (you feel me, Deadwood and The Hour fans?), and conversely, probably fewer good shows drawn out far beyond their natural lifespan because they rate well (looking at you, How I Met Your Mother).
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Of course, most of this is theoretically irrelevant to Australian viewers – because none of this groundbreaking new era in the history of long-form audiovisual narrative is legally available to us. Now, Netflix is not a human right, and it’s well documented that the first season of Buffy is only now reaching parts of Eastern Europe. But we do, you know, have the internet down here.

It was hilarious to witness Americans’ hand-wringing over why PBS couldn’t broadcast Downton Abbey as soon as ITV screened the episodes in Blighty, instead of four months later. “How hard could it BE?” they wailed. “There are SPOILERS on the INTERNET, doncha know!” We Antipodeans have long suffered the indignity of TV series being broadcast months or even years after their original US air date. (The West Wing was about two full seasons behind at one point, as Nine and the ABC tossed it around like a critically acclaimed hot tamale). Is it any wonder that now, as over half the English-speaking internet goes crazytown bananapants over every episode of everything–breathlessly tweeting major twists, churning out thinkpieces with half an episode’s story in the title, spreading new memes faster than a freshly-severed head can roll down rough-hewn steps–that the delay seems even more inexplicable, even more unjust, than ever? Why should we devote our time and emotional energy to these shows when we can’t tweet about our coffee without discovering that the entire Grantham family has died of dysentery, and all of Parks & Rec was just a dream Jerry had after some bad chicken cacciatore?
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Whereas US viewers can pay $8 a month for Hulu Plus, the televisual and cinematic equivalent of Spotify (distressing thought: how long were Pandora and Rhapsody around before we could access music streaming services?), we are limited to a few proprietary services like Xbox and Bigpond, and the sad little “catch-up” services run by the TV channels themselves – which mostly house a wealth of renovation and cooking shows (no doubt in-show product placement makes up some advertising shortfall), decent backlogs of local scripted series, and three or four episodes of the US sitcoms they’re running months behind the States. The ABC and SBS have excellent streaming services–not having to monetise them helps to keep the focus on usability and fast turnaround for new content–but as a whole, the Australian TV-streaming landscape is deeply fragmented and limited.


Quickflix, Netflix’s unabashed, unaffiliated local incarnation, which is struggling to find an audience despite a $10 million investment by HBO last year, announced yesterday that it would be dipping toes into the streaming, uh, stream. It will reportedly chase deals to offer international content on an iTunes-like Season Pass model, rather than a subscription-smorgasbord model like Netflix. Under that model, depending on costs, it’s likely most viewers might pay for a couple of their favourite shows but still download others. But if we had access to a broad Hulu Plus or Netflix-like service, available from both TV sets and laptops, for somewhere between $15-$30 a month–the cost would reflect the usual discrepancies in US and Aussie pricing, but the higher price could be shared in most households–for access to the whole catalogue, well, then we’d have ourselves a ball game. People would be paying for all the shows they want to watch with their money instead of their attention to ads, but they would be paying.

Of course, there are two sides to the issue. Networks pay big money for first-broadcast rights to big shows, because they bring in big ad money, which can then be used on Australian content. Low ratings across the board lead networks to start dumping expensive local productions for cheap sitcom reruns and reliable juggernauts from the US, and can get by the quotas with unscripted and contest shows. (Check out this petition to see exactly how dire it might get.) Viewers who are indignant that our nation–which has one-fifteenth of the population of the States and even less clout in the international content distribution market–doesn’t get everything within half an hour of some guy in Bumfuck Idaho having it are entitled and impatient, say the networks, and their Veruca Salt tantrums about needing it NOW should be ignored while the grownups do the grownup thing and watch TV like grownups.

People are impatient and will find a way of watching their stories, either for free or by giving money to people who aren’t networks and their advertisers. Seven, Nine, Ten and Foxtel need to take a lesson from the music industry and work out a way to cannibalise illegal downloads with an easy, reliable, cheap, convenient, portable alternative.

The other side is that the Australian TV channels’ business model has been rendered hopelessly outdated by a globalised internet, whether they like it or not; people are impatient and will find a way of watching their stories, either for free or by giving money to people who aren’t networks and their advertisers. Seven, Nine, Ten and Foxtel need to take a lesson from the music industry and work out a way to cannibalise illegal downloads with an easy, reliable, cheap, convenient, portable alternative. But they seem so out of touch. Seven head Tim Worner last year shrugged off the need to tackle non-TV based distribution (which, as that linked TV Tonight post points out, is easier to do when your main audience is a little less au fait with torrents and unblockers). House Of Cards’ crotchety newspaper editor Tom Hammerschmidt says in ‘Chapter 5’ of that show, maddened by the untameable ways of his star political blogger: “Twitter. Blogs. Enriched media. They’re all surface. They are fads.” He says it like a man who has no earthly idea that the old model has had the foundations eaten from underneath it; it’s a wrong-side-of-history joke, the kind used in time-travel movies, spoken by characters who confidently put all their money into New Coke or tell The Beatles that guitar music is over.

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TV has always been “free”, the remuneration model far less direct than music or film, and a lot of people who are broke, cheap, lazy and/or impatient will always head straight for Pirate Bay without the weight of guilt that might accompany music downloads. But there’s also a significant number of Australians who are desperate to support their favourite shows and keen to have a fast, reliable way to access them without exposing themselves to legal issues, malware and Russian girls who are CRAZY about Western men. In Australia, we’re coming up with ever more nifty tricks (read: minor fraud) to access Hulu, BBC iPlayer and other streaming sites. Geoblock-evading programs and services are rife, and some run on a subscription service: Australians are paying people to get around geoblocks, when they could be paying streaming services and thus distributors and creators! Other people are even going to the trouble of purchasing US iTunes gift cards, and using them to pay (on faked US iTunes accounts) for shows to watch on their Apple TV.

Or, armed with a computer, a decent internet connection and a free torrent or geo-unblock program, you can grab the new episode two hours after it airs on the East Coast, and watch it when and where you like, ad-free. You might then go buy a bunch of Troy and Abed In The Morning mugs from the NBC online store to show them you care, but you also might not. You might buy the DVD when it comes out, and you damn well should, but most people don’t.

In 2013, we expect our TV to come to us, not the other way around. The idea of “appointment TV”–the term used in the first years of this Golden Age of Televisual Arts, when the Downward Spiral Of Paying For Shit was a few years off–is deader than your favourite character in that show you haven’t finished yet. The only art form ever to be sent into our homes for free has slipped down the hierarchy to become one of the most inconvenient cultural products to access (legally) in Australia, in the context of how the media landscape looks now. All we can do, though, is hope that networks and distributors can help Australia catch up to the new world order sometime before Don Draper starts shilling for Betamax.

Caitlin Welsh is the acting Assistant Editor of Sydney streetpress The BRAG. She has also written for Mess + Noise, FasterLouder, Cosmopolitan, The Vine, Beat, dB, X-Press and more.
Illustrated by Matt Roden.