Free TV? Television File-Sharing, Media Convergence and Cultural Status

Update November 2, 2011: The longer and peer-reviewed version of this essay has been published online in Television & New Media, DOI 10.1177/1527476411421350. If you want to quote or cite this, I recommend the TV&NM publication.

I gave this paper on Saturday at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in New Orleans. It's an elaboration of some ideas I wrote awhile back in Flow. I have been researching this topic for a couple of years and the 2011 conference gave me the opportunity to turn it into something more substantial; there's a longer version soon to be submitted to a journal. This is work in progress, and your comments are welcome.

Television has always been free, and the cultural status of television—despite shifts in recent years—endures as a product of the over-the-air model. Free TV is of course commercial, and we pay indirectly, but in the digital age a new kind of free TV has emerged which is removed from the commercial circuit. Television shared as files among peers using BitTorrent and other online means, making TV freer, in some ways, than it ever was. P2P TV is one of many developments in our era of convergence prompting a renewal of television’s place in the popular imagination. Thus my title is meant in two ways. P2P TV is free to the consumer, but it also promises to free television from its identity, from old modes of viewing rooted in earlier technologies. By considering its conflicted cultural implications, my aim today is to understand TV file-sharing as one term in the negotiation of television’s value during the era of digital convergence.

Much has been written about file-sharing over the past decade. [For starters I recommend Lessig, Vaidhyanathan, Gillespie, Litman, Strangelove, and Green & Jenkins in Holt & Perren.] By and large, however, this work has focused especially on music and movies, the two forms of media that appear to be most threatened economically by the disruptions posed by file-sharing. Much of this writing is premised on media industries selling to the consumer. Record labels and movie studios can claim lost revenue if sales of CDs or DVDs are replaced by free P2P circulation. Television shows, unlike recordings and films, are not most often sold directly to the audience. Despite the widespread file-sharing of television content, then, and despite an evidently high degree of concern in the TV industry, the place of TV in analyses of piracy has been marginal.

I see three ways in which file-sharing challenges conceptions of television, rooted in the era of network broadcasting.

First, file-sharing is part of the legitimation of television. In its traditional identity rooted in the network era, television’s cultural status was as feminized mass culture, as a threat to intellectual culture, childhood development, and social cohesion. In some ways the introduction of television into P2P networks, alongside other technological developments, bespeaks the high value of some forms of TV to media consumers eager to locate and select episodes and to devote time and resources to their acquisition and experience. The availability of TV series alongside movies and music is a factor in the rising legitimacy of TV, now seen as equivalent to other media at least in the context of some forms of convergent distribution. The kinds of television shared in P2P networks tends to be the aestheticized, scripted prime time comedies and dramas. Users of P2P networks might come in all shapes and sizes, but the practice is typically linked to youth, masculinity, class, and technological sophistication. One seldom finds the less legitimate and more ephemeral forms of television, feminized and devalued genres such as daytime talk shows and local news, circulating in P2P networks.

File-sharing is further legitimating by transforming the audience for television from supposedly passive viewers into active users. The ability of users to program their own viewing rather than being “slaves to the schedule,” and the possibility of watching television shows purged of commercials, function to legitimate television. Sharing files of episodes is one means of the viewer becoming an advertising-avoiding television programmer. Thus the P2P distribution of television is one among a cluster of technologies of agency, making TV more culturally respectable by masculinizing it, articulating TV with activity and discernment rather than the more feminized and passive characteristics that earlier defined it.

[Aside: TV's legitimation during the era of convergence is the topic of the book I wrote with Elana Levine, Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status. It should be in print from Routledge by the end of the year.]

Second, file-sharing is located in a space of transition from television’s status as a public good to a private good. The culture of file-sharing associates television content with the broadcasting model of distribution, wherein the television text has no price. In some ways file-sharing confirms the value of television as ephemeral and disposable even as it arrests “flow” to make possible sharing TV shows as files. One contradiction of television circulating for free among P2P networks is that this form of distribution at once denies and affirms the value of the text. On one hand, like broadcasts, the shared text is a public good which no one buys or sells. On the other hand, the television industry sees this form of circulation as a potential crisis of lost revenue. The use of P2P networks for television file-sharing reveals an instability in the valuation of TV as it shifts from being a public good, freely available to anyone as it was during the network era, to a private good, available only to audiences who actively choose to enter into terms of commercial exchange.

A third way in which file-sharing complicates traditional conceptions of TV is by extracting the circulation of television content from local or national communities. Media corporations are still defined by national intellectual property and regulatory regimes. The availability of shows from one country in another was once a matter of licensing agreements between firms. Now viewers interested in seeing series from abroad have fast and easy access, and online fandoms congregate as global communities. This new availability has awakened and attuned audiences to the temporality of transnational media flows. Discourses of P2P TV communities reveal a sense of entitlement to television and a frustration with structures that slow or forbid transmission of American shows to viewers in other countries. The transition from local/national to global distribution of TV requires new conceptions of television’s value, thinking of it now as a cosmopolitan transnational culture.

I want to consider these tensions of value between low and high, public and private, and national and global by looking at practices of P2P TV consumption as represented in the online discourses of TV file-sharing communities such as message boards, which frequently make arguments in favor of file-sharing in self-consciously value-laden and often ethical terms. The practical ethical theories of P2P users offer evidence of ways of thinking about television and its cultural status as convergent technologies introduce problems and possibilities never before faced by television consumers.

P2P users might reason that it is ethical to download content not otherwise or legally available. Many believe downloading is justified when one has paid for the content in another format. Some rationales might justify TV, music, and movies alike. But users also establish specific norms for television. In a nightly.net forum, a commenter explains, “I personally don’t hold a lot of guilt for using BitTorrent to download shows. Everything I’ve downloaded…is something I’ve technically paid for in my satellite bill.” Sharers also insist that DVR recordings and downloads ethically equivalent. The difference between recording a show oneself using a VCR or DVR and skipping commercials and downloading a commercial-free file via BitTorrent is regarded as ethically insignificant. In the same comments thread, a user responds, “If you pay for cable and have DVR, then downloading a cable show is no different from recording and skipping through the commercials.” The nature of broadcast television’s business model makes sharing different from music or movies, especially when considering network programming. As one Digg user explains, “The networks BROADCAST their shows, sending them out FOR FREE into the air all over the country. How can they claim that I am stealing if they are giving it away for free?”

Avoiding the cost of cable or satellite subscription or even of owning a television might be paramount. There might also be value found in having a way to watch TV without some of the traditional cultural associations constructing television as degraded and feminized. A reddit discussion on the question “How many redditors don’t watch TV?” inspired a number of telling confessions from community members. The legitimation of the convergence era has opened up new opportunities for television appreciation while distancing a new conception of TV from its old cultural construction. Consider these statements:

-I don’t watch TV but I do download some TV shows.

-I watch a few TV shows but I mostly download them so you could say I watch Laptop.

-My TV is called Pirate’s Bay.

-I was going to ask if torrents of TV shows counted.
No waiting for the local station to pick up a program
No loud annoying commercials
You can download an entire season at a time.

The television reflected in these comments is clearly a residual conception rooted in the technologies of an earlier period. The superiority of new technologies is given as self-evident and as distinguishing a youthful, masculine, and technologically adept community from the mainstream. Many qualify that if they watch TV shows it is not really watching TV. By this logic, file-sharing ameliorates some of television’s basic problems. Within the community of file-sharers, overcoming these issues is good, indeed, doing so has the potential to recuperate television from its low status and make watching TV more legitimate.

Even with DVRs and other legally legitimate technologies, there are obstacles standing in the way of some consumers accessing TV content on their own terms. Shows are not released in all countries simultaneously, and in many countries some content is not available at all. Legal downloads are encrusted in DRM, inhibiting portability and archival value. Media companies release their content in “windows;” DVD content is offered at a later window than transmission on broadcast, cable, or satellite. Webisodes and streaming video are routinely geo-blocked: some sites will work only in some territories. Users abroad trying to access Hulu are greeted with a “not available in your region” message.

File-sharing is thus especially prevalent in countries where access to American shows is limited by windowing and geo-blocking, especially in English-speaking countries such as Canada and Australia. Canadian television viewers have been motivated to start Facebook groups like “TV Fans Against Hulu’s Geo-Blocking Policy” and blogs like “I Hate Hulu.” A reddit thread inspired one Canadian commenter to exclaim, “Fuck Hulu! Bittorrent lives!”

The rationales for geo-blocking may not be evident to users who feel deserving of access to popular culture. A Hulu vice-president claims that “Canadians consider it their ‘birthright’ to have access to Hulu." Geo-blocking is one among many forms of Canadians’ deprivation of popular culture, and whether in the name of IP agreements or cultural protectionism, the experience of Canadians can be characterized by frustration and resentment over the inability to share a common culture with those beyond their borders.* File-sharing ameliorates this sense of being wronged by cultural institutions. Insofar as it finds ways around the legally legitimate obstacles to access, then, P2P file-sharing in Canada and elsewhere is constructed as ethically legitimate because of a sense of justified entitlement to popular culture, as well as a sense of the illegitimacy of this access’s denial. This returns us to a sometimes lost sense of popular culture as culture belonging to the people rather than the corporations who produce and disseminate it. Preserving the people’s access to their culture in the face of corporate and state interference might be a more ethical gesture than preserving intellectual property rights in the name of profits and national sovereignty. By framing TV as popular culture in this sense, rather than as disposable trash or commodified mass culture, the communities of TV fans downloading their shows express a valuation of television.

Because of Australia’s geographical distance from the Anglophone countries, pre-Internet, Australians waited many months or even longer for foreign shows to be seen there, and many series or seasons are still not available Thus one Australian commenter on a tv.com forum asserts, “If your local TV stations don't want to keep up with the latest episodes of whatever it is then shows deserve to be downloaded."

Thanks to file-sharing, Australian fans of shows like Battlestar Galactica are able to participate in fan communities as episodes air in the U.S. This has allowed Australians to overcome some of the distance previously felt from foreign cultures. But when official BSG webisodes are geo-blocked, viewers feel the same frustration as the Canadians. This is especially troubling to viewers avoiding spoilers. The global circulation of media makes simultaneity more imperative to passionate audiences, and this too drives P2P sharing as an ethical imperative. Because spoiler-avoidance functions as an ethic of fan communities, distribution infrastructures denying global simultaneity are effectively spoiling not only the plot, but also an ethical contract among media companies and fans. This helps explain why Australia has more P2P TV sharing per capita than any other nation. (For more on the Australian example, see Tama Leaver, "Watching Battlestar Galactica in Australia and the Tyranny of Digital Distance".)

This consideration of TV file-sharing reveals a number of new positive valuations of television in the context of digital convergence: as more culturally legitimate than it had been, and as a form of global popular culture which finds a hospitable site of community cohesion on the Internet. At the same time, however, the residual reputation of TV as a form of low culture, and the efforts of media corporations to extract revenue from every experience of media, also inform the valuation of television evident in the case of file-sharing.

Because television, unlike movies and music, has long been an example of a public good, because—iTunes aside—the TV consumer is not in the habit of paying per show, the online sharing of television also is marked by distinctions of value which are less flattering to TV, and which in some ways are inconsistent or contradictory with those more positive formulations just considered. The best illustration of this is the sense among file-sharing participants that TV sharing is more ethical than movie or music sharing. In other words, the value of movies and music is constructed in distinction to the value of TV, but in this instance value is monetary rather than cultural or communal. Nevertheless, cultural hierarchy is evident in such judgments.

The gadget blog Gizmodo offers one clear formulation of this relative valuation as a “Pirate’s Code of Conduct” for file-sharing, prescribing formal ethical norms for its technologically sophisticated, masculinized readership. (As a “Pirate’s” code, it is crafted in a stylized lingo.)

"TV is to be downloaded, movies are to be attended when a man returns to shore. If ye aren't a Neilsen family, what you watch doesn't matter for ratings anyway. Since advertisers pay by rating, it's a theft-less crime. Movies, on the other hand, do see profits of gold and jewels. So support independent/foreign film in the theaters, and save the action flicks with high production values and many beautiful explosions for the big screen, too. Hollywood romantic comedies? They are for plundering (in secret)."

The gendered and classed conception of media makes for a set of downloading distinctions keyed not only to ideas about media economics, but also about the relative value of genres and formats depending on placement on the cultural hierarchy. It also strategically ignores the profits sought by TV studios and networks from DVD sales among other ancillary windows, as well as cable subscriptions.

A nightly.net commenter claims to feel no guilt from downloading TV shows, as he skips commercials while watching using his DVR. But movies are different: he will only download them “in the rare case it’s not playing in any theaters in my location.”

Similarly, a Don't Make Me Steal manifesto circulating lately sets clear values for television and movies. The point of this online petition is to encourage practices for media corporations to follow to make legitimate alternatives preferable to file-sharing. Among these is reasonable pricing of media products: making a television series cost 1/3 the price of a film, insisting that content be advertising-free. As we have seen, the conception of TV as free of charge has a strong effect on the ethical calculation involved in P2P sharing of television. Users find it hard to accept downloading of TV shows as free-riding or stealing, and often view advertising-avoidance in positive rather than negative moral terms.

I have argued today that television in this new context of media convergence is contradictory and unstable, caught between its traditional and emergent identities. The network era might have given way to convergence, but the medium is understood in the popular imagination according to terms drawing from both periods. Old ways of knowing cannot be cast aside as quickly as old technologies and industrial practices. The file-sharing of TV content is thus a practice and discourse wherein television’s cultural value can be contested and reassessed as the medium’s identity is renewed.

*My discussion of Canadians' experiences of geo-blocking draws from Ira Wagman and Peter Urquhart, “This Content is Not Available in Your Region: Geo-Blocking Culture in Canada,” in Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creative Canadian Culture Online, ed. Rosemary Coombe, Darren Wershler-Henry, and Martin Zelinger (Toronto: U of Toronto P, forthcoming).

1 comment:

Olli Sulopuisto said...

"One seldom finds the less legitimate and more ephemeral forms of television, feminized and devalued genres such as daytime talk shows and local news, circulating in P2P networks."

This is pure conjecture on my part, but: there might be a demand for it, but there isn't a supply. Even though p2p networks are by definition decentralized, capturing, encoding and releasing tv episodes on Bittorrent et al. is a somewhat difficult proposition, and therefore not many engage in it.

I'm also basing this on the hunch that movie downloading and mp3 sharing doesn't discriminate against gender. Maybe it's easier – you only have to do it once, whereas with a tv series it's at least 13 episodes of record, transfer to computer, encode, and share.

Obviously other factors must be in play as well, but I still think this one is rather significant.