In the globalizing media world, illegal media piracy is running rampant. But, a new band of pirates has arrived in the village – the TV pirates – and quite possibly they may be pretty good guys. Now, media piracy is illegal and I’m not promoting criminal activity here! What I am suggesting is that the flagrant practice of TV piracy reveals an insight which gives appreciation for positive emerging relationships between global media and global cultures. In ‘capturing’ television for unrestricted viewing by eager national (and increasingly, global) publics, TV pirates are repurposing the medium to the fast-moving and quickly assimilating global media space. Even more, TV piracy is opening doors for a new modality of cultural sharing crossing borders, time and space. It presents interesting possibilities in the future study of global cultural exchange.
Lisa Parks’ perspective helps to appreciate the opportunity. In Falling Apart: Electronics Salvaging and the Global Media Economy, Parks presents a compelling case for more reflective scholarly study of rapidly aging technologies on our hi-tech planet. Her chapter identifies risk and reward in managing cast-off tech hardware at the end of its useful life, and also much to be learned in the mining of old media caught in the tailwinds of the volatile digital era. To demonstrate a global imperative for the residual nature of old media, Parks reviews several examples of repurposing old technologies. This includes the management of: creative capital (re-using e-waste components as junk art); economic capital (avoiding human and environmental damage in disposing of hazardous e-waste); and cultural capital (of which TV content, like the program Junkyard Wars, shows merit to raise awareness for a salvage mindset). She notes, “Junkyard Wars reminds us that ‘television’ itself, as a mode of production and an object of study can and should be constituted in different ways” (p. 45). In connecting television to materialism, Parks concludes television is irreducible and we should “reassemble its parts in new ways that will help us insinuate and materialize it within debates and discussions about new media” (p. 46).
This brings me to a lovable Disney pirate, Jack Sparrow. In the worlds of fantasy and reality, there are not-so-bad pirates (like Sparrow) and very bad pirates (think of the movie Captain Phillips!). The global media world is no different. New forays of Internet practice and digital applications have given birth to consumer media piracy… which is unauthorized copying and circulation of media products. Media piracy is a growing concern in the entertainment industry that is difficult to contain due to the free range afforded by the Web. It is illegal due to copyright infringement, and particularly jeopardizing economic models for music and motion picture sectors. This is where the bad media pirates roam.
Enter the TV pirate – a slightly different breed. TV pirates are not trying to cheat the media system in quite the same way. Unlike music and cinema, television has long-carried the social imaginary of a ‘free‘ public medium. Consequently, TV pirates are to a large extent reclaiming something they already feel is theirs. As television began a journey into Internet broadcasting over recent decades, TV content was disembodied from the TV set. Legal services for downloading and streaming TV content online (e.g. On Demand, Netflix) were made available to online subscribers for a fee. It changed TV’s fixture from a broadcast apparatus to an abstract of a particular sort of content. It wasn’t long before the convenience of anytime, anywhere viewing precipitated an underground of illegal/unpaid download options – TV pirating. In time, underground services ventured above ground, and today sites like Project Free TV and Let Me Watch This are thriving enterprises (funding themselves through online ads, made viable by massive viewership). These ostensibly illegal sites give instant, free access to all the latest episodes of TV shows without the hassle of personal recording devices.
Yes, TV piracy has some negative impact for television network economies. Many times, though not always, commercials are edited out of pirated programs. Broadcast TV exists on the flow of advertising dollars to media network conglomerates, and if producers fail to demonstrate ongoing return, declining ad revenues potentially compromise long-term sustainability (in terms of production quality, inventory range, and affordability to produce more new, high-quality content).
However, academics are seeing other positive gains. Abigail De Kosnik’s Convergence Culture Consortium paper at MIT, Piracy is the Future of Television, highlights ways in which piracy is preferable to buying legitimate online TV options. TV pirates in the U.S. can download episodes of popular international shows soon after episodes air in home countries. Similarly, TV pirates internationally have access to a healthy menu of U.S. shows, without having to wait months for native networks to buy and broadcast a select few.
Specifically, De Kosnik notes, “while most legal services for downloading or streaming TV currently make available some British television programs, and iTunes also offers some Japanese television content (through agreements with distribution companies like Anime Network), the vast majority of non-U.S. television shows cannot be accessed legally by television viewers in the U.S. Conversely, TV viewers outside the U.S. cannot legally access U.S. television programs as they air, but must wait, often a year or more, for popular U.S. shows to be broadcast in their own countries” (p. 10).
So, effectively what TV pirating has done is offer portals to make television a global media village. TV pirates are satisfying unprecedented demand for global TV viewing online. It is well-recognized that TV is a site of cultural expression, and piracy unleashes a new interface for global cultural experience. This is where I believe it converges with the salvage opportunity suggested by Lisa Parks. For many TV pirates, they watch not only because shows are free but because piracy creates better TV alternatives – easier, simpler and more feature-rich ways of accessing TV online. De Kosnik’s message is a call to global TV industries to incorporate more of piracy’s benefits in considering new economic models – so we’ll have to see what the future holds.
In the meantime, this case suggests to me that television – as we know it – cannot only be effectively repurposed but, by optimizing forces of global attraction, it creates new possibilities for various global cultures to share in the fruits of each other’s cultural capital – rather than keeping them apart. For the moment, I think that makes the TV pirate a pretty good guy.
Should illegal TV piracy be reframed from a social harm to a social good?