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Where’s my 21st-century television?

Cyril Kowaliski
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Gabe Newell said something that caught my eye the other day. As part of a broader interview with The Cambridge Student, Newell shared some powerful words of wisdom on the topic of piracy and copy protection:

In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.

Our goal is to create greater service value than pirates, and this has been successful enough for us that piracy is basically a non-issue for our company. For example, prior to entering the Russian market, we were told that Russia was a waste of time because everyone would pirate our products. Russia is now about to become our largest market in Europe.

If you’re a media industry executive who campaigns to paint pirates as amoral thieves who must be drawn and quartered, those words probably feel like a slap in the face. If you’re an average, Internet-savvy adult, they probably ring truer than anything anyone’s ever said about piracy—if only because of their eloquence.

I know Newell’s right because I can relate. Many years ago, I was just another kid who downloaded MP3s and games off KaZaA and BitTorrent. I would make a point to purchase physical copies of the content I liked, but I would usually leave the jewel cases and boxes unopened. Retail purchases were a show of support for the content creators, not a means of obtaining their work.

Today, I buy almost all of my music on iTunes and almost all of my games on Steam. The exceptions are indie songs distributed through the artists’ websites and games inexplicably walled off from the world’s most popular PC game distribution service (*coughBattlefield3cough*). I use iTunes and Steam because, as Newell says, they provide a better service than the pirates do. I can get any content I want instantly, I know the quality is up to snuff, there are no viruses or cracks to worry about, and I get to support the content creators without letting shrink-wrapped jewel cases pile up in my apartment.

Valve can claim credit for making online game distribution appealing, and Apple undoubtedly deserves props for doing the same with music. Before iTunes came along, record labels were cluelessly trying to make up for declining CD sales with awkward, unappealing, and restrictive services. Apple didn’t invent the concept of digital music distribution, but in true Apple tradition, it was the first to do it right. The move away from digitally locked songs and the introduction of iCloud have only made iTunes more appealing as the years have gone by.

Thanks to Apple and Valve, we’re in a good place with music and PC games. Unfortunately, watching one’s weekly slate of TV shows is still, inexplicably and frustratingly, a royal pain in the ass.

Yes, you can spend a hundred dollars every month on a carefully customized cable TV service, and then spend valuable time configuring your DVR to record the shows you want to watch. You can pay $1.99 per episode on iTunes, ensuring that you never give obscure shows a chance and that you curb your consumption of nightly programs like The Daily Show. You can use Hulu and watch recent episodes for free, with commercial breaks, the day after they air (provided you live in the United States). You can even scour the websites of different cable networks in the hope that they, too, let you stream recent shows for free.

Or… you can hop on your favorite BiTorrent tracker and download high-definition, commercial-free rips of any TV show on the planet at most an hour after it airs.

Many of the legit offerings are doing things almost right, but the pirates still provide a better service, hands down. It’s not even funny. We all know what the problem is and what needs to be done, so why haven’t the big networks gotten the message yet?

Here’s what I want: a single service like Hulu Plus or Netflix that regroups shows from all major channels (including Comedy Central and HBO), lets me watch all past seasons of shows, and offers new episodes immediately after they finish airing. I want this service to be available in Canada as well as the United States. I want to pay a flat subscription fee, and I’m prepared to live with brief commercial breaks on top of that. I want to be able to cancel my cable TV subscription, because I never watch live TV anyway, and to use my PC or on my girlfriend’s Xbox to watch shows. I will pay good money for this service ($50 or more a month doesn’t sound unreasonable), and I will use it every day.

Why is nobody willing to take my money and provide this service in exchange? My demands aren’t outlandish. All I’m asking for, really, is an on-demand alternative to live TV that doesn’t suck. Save for sports, news, and American Idol, I think we can all agree that live television is a relic of the last century. It’s high time to give 21st-century television a 21st-century platform on which to flourish, but I fear that won’t happen until a dashing, Steve Jobs-esque executive once again strong-arms content providers into doing what’s best for their customers. I hope someone rises to the challenge, because every day, entirely too many good TV shows are pirated by people simply following the path of least resistance. And that’s just sad.