Why Can't Americans Watch British TV Shows as Soon as They Air?

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The infuriating, anachronistic logic that keeps series like 56 Up sequestered in the UK

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ITV

56 Up, the latest installment in the extraordinary "Up Series" of documentaries, which has followed the lives of the same 14 Britons for close to 50 years, premieres tonight in England. Starting with 1964's Seven Up, when the subjects were seven years old, the series has revisited these same 14 people (with the exception of one or two who have refused to participate at various intervals ) every seven years. This makes the series one of the most important and unique longitudinal sociological studies ever undertaken. It also makes for a riveting viewing experience. Each installment ends by default with a natural cliff-hanger. But, alas, unlike scripted television, we must wait for another seven years of real-time life to pass before we can find out what happens next. And so, like millions of other viewers from around the world, I have anxiously been anticipating 56 Up, knowing that it was due in 2012. And yet, to my surprise and dismay, 56 Up—insanely, anachronistically—is being aired exclusively in the UK this week. And that's it. People in the US and elsewhere are unable to watch it on TV, DVD, or the web now and for the unknown near-future.

Why, in a global marketplace that has the technological capability for content to be available simultaneously around the world, aren't people, regardless of where they live, able to enjoy content—be it 56 Up or a host of other films and shows—as soon as it's released? Is it due to corporate contractual obligations? Is it part of global sales strategies? Or maybe just inertia of doing things the old way? The answer, I discovered, is a little bit of all three. This is bad news not only for viewers who are unable to view new content, but is often likely an economic mistake for producers as well.

Let's get one major exception out of the way first: There is some sense behind blockbuster productions—your Dark Nights and Harry Potters—being rolled out over time across the globe. "If you tried to release [one of these tent-pole films] on all platforms at the same time, it would drastically reduce the profitability of the film," said Keith Calder, producer of films such as the indie hit The Wackness, in an online discussion on the topic earlier this year. There are a variety of reasons behind this assertion, including how profits are shared between distributors and theaters, and because most theaters refuse to show films that are simultaneously available as VOD (video on demand). Further, the marketing for such a juggernaut, which often involves logistics like jetting the stars to the various premieres around the world and utilizing press and sales in one region to build buzz in the next, would be abominably complex for a simultaneous global theatrical release.

But the merits of simultaneous release—on multiple platforms (and, by default, in multiple territories)—begin to surface when we look at specific projects that aren't part of the blockbuster system. A number of smaller films, including 2011's Margin Call, have demonstrated success with multi-platform release. Or, skipping theatrical release altogether, let's take a look at the much-lauded release strategy of Louis CK's recent concert film. Instead of selling the rights of his standup special to HBO or another network, CK funded and released the special himself as a $5 download on his website. Just 12 days after its release it had generated $1,000,000, quadrupling his production cost. CK, who detailed, with dollar amounts, the whole endeavor on his site, took great care to make sure the download function worked flawlessly: "Development of the website, which needed to be a very robust, reliable and carefully constructed website, was around $32,000," he wrote. This cost is surmountable for all but the most shoestring production budgets. And if you do have a tiny budget, which means you likely don't have a fanbase as large as CK's, then you can probably get away with a cheaper website production because the load it has to handle smoothly will be smaller. Or you could skip building a sales module all together and partner with an existing retail site and give up a portion of the revenue. Point being, selling downloads online has a very low entry barrier. So then why wouldn't a large production company like ITV Studios, the producers of 56 Up, not immediately make the film available for download? Welcome to the rabbit hole.

"Each film is a little different in how they roll out," said Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of the POV documentary series on PBS, which has been airing documentaries for 25 years. "With international titles, there may be different obligations depending on who financed the film and what deals they made with different networks in different countries. All those deals come with certain windows where it has to show on one platform for a set amount of time before it's allowed to show elsewhere."

Eddie Schmidt, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and former president of the IDA (a non-profit organization that promotes documentary films), added, "If you're getting money from X company they may have a foreign service deal with Y company. For example, if HBO funds your film then you are of course beholden to having it released on HBO and having it roll out on other platforms as they permit." Schmidt continued, "If you're a large multi-national, or a US company that has made foreign 'output deals' for your film or shows in foreign markets—this could be TV/broadcast, but could be theatrical too—then you can only do what they permit; there can be 'holdbacks' on digital exposure. They want exclusive hold of the product for X amount of time."

A cable network executive with intimate knowledge of licensing deals, who spoke anonymously because he isn't authorized to talk with media, said, "We have to look at how to window things." Finally, when asked for details on why they aren't selling 56 Up online and why American and other audiences won't be able to see the film on TV anytime soon, an ITV Studios spokesperson said, "We're looking to build a strong international content business by creating our own content, achieving strong ratings on ITV in the UK and then selling it around the world." Commercial networks fear that if a show is available simultaneously and/or before it airs on TV that it would cannibalize the audience. Producers fear that if they do a multi-platform release it may hurt sales for TV rights. Both assumptions, however, are at best debatable, and at worst demonstrably false.

We can look to PBS's POV as a trailblazer of sorts of viewer and producer-friendly practices. The films they air are often simultaneously available as streaming content on a variety of sites like Netflix and possibly for download as well. Further, POV makes them available for streaming shortly after the broadcast, Kilmurry told me. He recognizes that "digital platforms are becoming more ubiquitous" and that "people can come to films in different ways." Perhaps because PBS isn't a commercial station, they have less concerns about viewership numbers. But FX, the commercial cable channel, just purchased the rights to air CK's special. "The reason I chose to air the special on FX is that FX is my people. They gave me my show Louie," CK wrote in a recent email to fans. "So I thought it would be cool to let them air it and bring more people to the site who want to get the complete unexpurgated version." So not only did the online sales not prevent a TV station from still seeing value in purchasing the rights, CK gave the impression that he had several suitors for this special. And from CK's perspective, the airing of the special on TV will bring new people to his site who want to permanently own the special on their computer (and who, critically, want to watch a version without all the "fucks" censored out). So, not only is selling a one-off special online beneficial for the producer, its popularity online helps generate buzz, and in turn a larger audience, for the TV airing as well. What executives view as competition in actuality may often function as free marketing. As The Hollywood Reporter noted about Margin Call, "Rather than undercutting its theatrical release, its VOD availability and the resulting buzz it created is credited with giving the movie a boost in theaters."

There are a few ingredients that help ensure success with a multi-platform, or even web-exclusive release. First, it's critical that the download is priced properly. CK charged just $5 because he wanted to "make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions," as he wrote on his website, with the assumption that the low price will reduce the likelihood of people stealing it. This is the iTunes model. If people are charged a reasonable price most are willing, in fact prefer, to pay for a pure quality download, rather than deal with the uncertainties - legal, technical, and otherwise - of "torrenting," i.e. stealing it. It also helps to treat your customers with respect. CK's download had "no DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever."

The most obvious two elements to ensure success with a multi-platform, or even web-exclusive release is for the production itself or the entity behind it to have an already-established fanbase (it doesn't have to be huge, it can be modest in size but loyal), and to be a one-off or semi-regular event. Louis CK has these ingredients. So does the Up Series. So do sequels, small films with famous actors, or perhaps even certain popular once-a-year events like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony or a professional sports league's annual draft. A not-yet-famous comic or an unknown indie film are more dependent on the marketing machines of the TV networks and film studios to let consumers know they even exist, and signing with them obligates playing by their theatrical release or TV network exclusive window rules.

But even that is changing. "Old-model filmmakers relied on development money from traditional film companies or sold their rights at the first opportunity, like after a successful showing at Sundance to Sony, for example," said Eddie Schmidt. But today, he explained, the web and crowdsourcing will be an increasingly effective way to inexpensively launch unknown films. He added, "Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are helping lots of projects raise money in idea or development stage." Further, by crowdsourcing, the audience has a vested interest in the success of the project so they are more apt to promote it to friends, generating the critical word-of-mouth marketing that every independent cultural product relies on for success.

Some of the suits seem to be coming around. Schmidt predicts, "as more and more people become used to getting content on places other than their TV, then the bigger companies will all come to the table to do it on the computer." The network executive I spoke with said they've been "conducting tests to see how different amounts of time after a show airs before it goes VOD affect viewership and VOD sales." He noted that NBC is making certain shows available VOD the next day after air, for three days with fast-forward disabled. (If you forgot to set your DVR this is your penance apparently.) Despite the entrenched contractual legalize culture, the large corporations will eventually relent to multi-platform release. And this path will be expedited as the platforms themselves continue to merge, as services like Apple TV do by syncing downloaded content to your TV, and with sites like YouTube bringing TV-style programming to the web.

For producers of content the benefits run beyond the immediate economic ones. By selling online the artist retains complete creative control—no commercial interruptions, no time limits, no edits (the all-important "fucks" benefit, as it were.) Secondly, selling online enables the producer to cull valuable information about who the fans are. At minimum, most purchasers would probably be willing, if not enthusiastic to supply their email address. When your production airs on TV, aside from the basic Nielsen demographic info, you're in the dark and certainly not able to communicate with your fans. Selling online helps break the cycle of depending on the marketing muscle of TV or distributors for your next project. Producers just do an email blast or social media update to all the previous purchasers who gave their contact information letting them know a new project is coming out.

But bringing it back to straight cash, let's end by talking some numbers on 56 Up. Imagine you're CK, flown to England as a consultant, sitting at the head of a long, expensive, dark wood table, the reflections of various ITV Studios executives' faces visible on its polished surface. You take out a basic Radio Shack calculator. 49 Up, the most recent previous installment in the Up Series pulled in 1.7 million viewers on PBS's POV. POV paid approximately $120,000 for 49 Up. If just one-percent of the viewers, a mere 17,000 people, paid for a download at $10 a pop (a reasonable figure considering most of the viewership likely skews older and wealthier, and because the Up films are eagerly anticipated once-every-seven-years prestige products), you'd already be $50,000 ahead. And remember, POV allows the films they buy to be sold simultaneously online so you can add to your $170,000 additional money for the TV rights. This is win-win for the producers, the TV stations, and the viewers (excuse me, it's actually win-win-win). FX bought CK's show after it was sold online because they believe the online downloads won't hurt viewership. Rather the buzz may likely generate more viewers. The producers and providers make more money and the fans get to watch the content immediately as it's available and on whatever platform they like.

From a lowly McDonald's burger to a $3,500 Louis Vuitton bag, we're in a time when it seems every piece of crap I don't want can be found in every corner of the earth, all the time. And yet a life-enriching film I truly am excited for, that requires no shipping, no retail store, that could arrive effortlessly on my computer, is currently imprisoned on that "little island off the coast of France," as Frank Zappa referred to it. This doesn't make sense. The technology is there. It's the outdated contractual stipulations and backward-thinking strategic plans that are creating barriers. Good people of ITV Studios, for your benefit and the fans', put 56 Up online for download now! Call Louis, he'll tell you how it's done. TV and production company executives, tear down this digital wall!

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David Zweig is a writer and lecturer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the novel Swimming Inside the Sun.

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