Piracy and the Media: who really watches TV anymore?

Convenience is everything. We want fast, we want high quality and we want instant. An article in the New York Times estimates that the average American watches 4 hours and 39 minutes of television every day. Television is a business, a VERY successful business as is evident by the paychecks for the stars of some of the most popular shows. However with more people using DVRs , declining ratings and many people fast forwarding through commercials, are we slowly witnessing the decline in television? If video killed the radio star, did the internet kill the television star?

How do you measure TV viewing?

I will admit, it stills boggles my mind how networks can measure TV views. Are live views the only ones that count? Do DVR recordings have an effect? Are the ratings measured in a specific geographic location? And how do you keep track of it all?

Many of us have heard of Nielsen ratings, these are the statistics usually quoted in various articles and are used to measure TV ratings week by week. Nielsen ratings are used to measure audience size and demographic; the system was developed by the Nielsen Company, a leading global provider of information and insight. Nielsen is used in 100 countries with headquarters in New York, USA and Demain, Netherlands.

Which members of a household are watching which shows? What shows do they watch together? Does income or education have an effect on the types of shows people watch? These questions are all part of Nielsen’s very detailed analysis which makes use of consumer behavior as well as demographic.

Nielsen ratings make use of set meters and people meters, which are devices that are connected to televisions in selected ‘Nielsen family’ homes. They measure what is being watched and when. And can also tell advertisers who and how many people are watching. Nielsen also makes use of paper diaries which are a key component during ‘sweeps.’ Sweeps is defined as a duration of time in which Nielsen ratings are recorded. During sweeps, 8 day diaries are used to keep track of what is being watched and by whom. Sweeps takes place a couple times a year, typically in November, February, May and July. You might notice that these months are typically when television shows have their major story arcs, these ratings provide key information for advertisers so networks want to entice you to watch their programs.

A typical Nielsen rating box

The Technology Effect

There is no lack of demand for entertainment. With the use of smartphones and tablets on the rise, people like having their entertainment on the go. It is estimated that 145 million people watch television online versus the 290 million that watch traditional TV. Americans between the ages of 12-34 are spending less time watching television in front of  a TV set compared to those 35 and older. The New York Times states that adults aged 24-35 watched 4 ½ fewer hours of television during the 3rd quarter of 2011 compared to that same time frame in 2010. Although this may not seem like a huge difference now, it is a sign that viewing habits are changing.

Advertisers covet the 18-34 age group (known as the target demographic) and since this demographic is typically the first group to try new things, advertisers pay attention when their viewing habits change. More young people are turning to devises besides TV to watch video. As an almost new form of DVR, many major networks in the United States (NBC, CBS, ABC etc.) will post the latest episode online less than 12 hours after it airs. The change in traditional viewing methods make it harder to determine who is watching what. Nielsen reports use cross platform practices, which allows the use of various devices for streaming. The following video demonstrates how viewing is measured via multiple platforms:

However with many people watching TV via the internet, this represents a new hurdle for the entertainment industry. We all know how distracting the internet is due to the sheer volume of available material; and with attention span decreasing, there becomes  increased competition for consumers to watch your show instead of reading blogs, playing virtual games etc. YouTube represents a new hurdle with copyright and competition.

YouTube is a procrastinator’s worst nightmare. With the availability of endless music videos, tv clips and vlogs (video blogs) you could spend hours on YouTube without getting bored. There was a time when a new TV episode could be found on YouTube within a few days of airing. I will admit, since YouTube is such an open video forum for content, I never seem to think about the frequent piracy or copyrighted material. In 2009, record labels started to crack down on the use of copyright songs as background music, silencing the audio for many videos. A site that has become synonymous for album covers suddenly became silenced. There are multiple videos ranting on the topic with a few mentioning how to avoid the WMG (Warner Music Group) copyright. While covers and background music seem to be safe within recent years, it is still difficult to find rebroadcasted episodes on the site. With record labels and major artists using programs such as Vevo to legally post their music videos and singles online, perhaps we will soon see a similar program for television and movies.

Streaming vs. Downloading, is there a difference?

Streaming and Downloading have become the latest method of viewing and virtual ownership. You can download music videos, albums, tv clips etc. for later use.  Although many people may not care about the legal differences between streaming and downloading (hey as long as you get to watch the video right?) here is a great metaphor from nahimaslaw.com.

To paraphrase, Jordan compares downloading/streaming content to bathtub/shower use. When you stream content (shower), you have a reservoir of information (water) that flows freely. However the water passes through you, meaning you haven’t contained it so it passes through to the drain. Similarly with streaming, you technically aren’t keeping the data therefore it is far less likely that you will redistribute or duplicate it. From a legal standpoint you are using the data for the sole purpose of consumption avoiding any licensing or distributing issues.

Conversely with downloading (bath) we have the same control of stopping or starting the flow of content (opening and closing the faucet) as we did with streaming. However a download is only useful when it is complete, similarly to how a bath is only good when the tub is full. Therefore we need to ‘plug the drain’ or store the content for an extended period of time until completed. Downloading involves many legal issues, since you are holding onto the data instead of letting it ‘pass through,’ therefore there is a licensing issue involved. When you download a song via a program such as iTunes or (legally) purchase a dvd , you enter a licensing agreement that lets you consume the content over an extended period of time; however you are prohibited from distribution of the material or making copies. So while both forms can be seen as morally unjust when done illegally, streaming seems to be the lesser of the two evils. As a note for anyone worried about their bandwidth usage, streaming a video uses MUCH less bandwidth than downloading one.

Location, Location, Location

As I previously mentioned, many US networks now post episodes online hours after they have aired live on TV. These videos are often of the highest quality, with many now being posted in HD. Episodes posted online are typically separate from those live on TV in terms of advertising. Online there are a few commercials thrown in between the episode with the option of viewing all of the commercials in a given episode (typically about 5) at the beginning. Advertisers and major networks realize the demand for online, portable streaming; so much so that the 2012 Superbowl was streamed online for the first time. Of course these major network video players have competition from unaffiliated sites such as Hulu.com which typically provide even fewer commercials.

So you might be wondering what’s the problem with these high quality legal video players? Again, as long as I get to watch the video right? The issue is that because of licensing many of these sites only work in the United States. Canadian networks such as CTV have a similar video player however the reliability doesn’t seem to be on par with its American counterpart. I have frequently had errors with the site saying that ‘the clip cannot be played outside of Canada’…while sitting in my bedroom in Guelph.  The problem is that the legal sources of online media are so unreliable that it almost forces people to look elsewhere to find the clip they are looking for.

As a university student, I typically don’t have the time to watch many shows when they air live on TV. Schoolwork, studying and life take precedence over scheduling a specified TV time every week. Therefore I wholeheartedly support online streaming (when done legally) for the convenience and portability. Because of the unreliability of many legal Canadian sources (as well as those who refuse to watch even 5 commercials), illegal streaming has flourished. A quick google search of ‘watch tv online,’ reveals numerous online websites.

Students are all aware of the dangers of downloading with viruses and more recently various vicious lawsuits (e.g. Brittany Kruger) looming over us like a dark grey storm cloud. Many students that I know are far more likely to stream videos and media rather than download. Although this may still be a detriment to the entertainment industry, entertainment should be just that; something you can enjoy on your downtime rather than having to schedule a set time slot every week to uphold certain moral justifications. Unfortunately many students will resort to downloading due to program restrictions on their devices

I’m looking at YOU flash-based sites!

In Conclusion

With more and more people watching television on devices other than the traditional TV set, networks need to pay attention to consumer demands. Having high quality, legal and reliable streaming websites allows the network to stay in control of their content while giving consumers the portability and convenience of online TV. Who knows with DVD and CD sales declining, maybe in the next 100 years televisions will be a device of the past.


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