An Open Letter on TV Piracy

Hey TV executives, it's me your good pal Jay Black. Maybe you remember me from my one man “Bring Back Alf” letter-writing campaign? If not, that's OK. I'm just happy that we're talking like this and not through Yvonne Strahovski's lawyers like last time.

I'll be honest with you, I'm worried about the future of your industry. I know you're worried too. You think that if you don't act fast to counter all those people pirating your content that you'll wind up like your good buddies over in the music industry. I don't want that to happen to you, so that's why I'm writing this letter: TV, you can save yourself if you don't fight piracy, but rather embrace it.

Listen, we all know that pirating any copyrighted piece of entertainment is technically stealing. Just like online pornography is technically cheating on your wife and doing 75 miles per hour in a 65 zone is technically putting other people's lives in danger.

The problem is that none of those things feel illegal, at least not in the same way punching a puppy does. If you see someone punching a puppy, you feel compelled to do something about it; if you see someone downloading a TV show, you feel compelled to make popcorn. No amount of clever PSAs is ever going to change that.

Sadly, because the philosophy on downloading was shaped by the music industry, it won't be long before illegally downloaded TV shows become as commonplace as illegally downloaded music. The current situation is like a skinny Oprah: it's only a matter of time before the whole thing blows up.

TV Executives, here's what not to do: don't panic. Don't form an anti-piracy wing like the RIAA and start suing housewives just trying to catch up on the Grey's that they missed. Piracy is not to be feared, it's to be embraced. Here's how to do that, while keeping the revenue flowing:

1. You need to change the way Nielsen does its ratings. People don't gather 'round the TV at the scheduled time of their favorite shows anymore. They time-shift, they place-shift, and they porn-shift (that's when you watch something on your computer other than pornography; rare, but I'm told it happens).

Since you're going to be embracing non-traditional viewing, Nielsen needs to update its methodology to make sure that every form of viewing, from TiVo to Hulu to LimeWire is accurately counted. Abritron, the people who measure radio ratings, just unveiled Personal People Meters that attach to a person and figure out what they've listened to all day. Why can't TV have the same thing?

2. You need to give your product away. Hulu is a good step in this direction, but I would go further: make every single show you produce a) downloadable and b) immediately available (and in high quality!) online the same second it broadcasts on traditional TV. You don't have to serve it — that's a lot of bandwidth — just release it into the wild and let the P2P networks handle it for you.

3. That said, you need to understand that the old commercial paradigm — two commercial breaks of three minutes a piece every half-hour — is as dead as Michael Richards' career. Anything more than one 30-second commercial per half hour (and really, 15 seconds is the ideal) and people are going to start looking elsewhere.

4. You can make up for this loss in commercial time by fully integrating your commercials into the content. Product placement is only the tip of the iceberg. Go further than that. It shouldn't be NBC presents The Office, it should be Sunoco Presents The Office. Sell the whole show! Hell it worked for The Texaco Star Theater, why wouldn't it work today?

Further, try to make the sales-pitch part of the entertainment. Jimmy Kimmel Live is currently doing this with their Klondike Bar ads. Because Kimmel is involved and because the ads are funny and because it's hard to tell where the show ends and the pitch begins, people are much more likely to watch them.

(And don't worry about people grumbling that this is “selling out” or “compromising the art.” You're TV for chrissake, compromising the art is the art.)

I know this is hard for you to accept. After all, the current distribution system has been a winner for you for 70 years. But the days of a monolithic TV empire controlling when a person watches a show and how many commercials that person will see during the course of it are long gone.

Every time you want to exercise that old control, remember what Princess Leia said to Grand Moff Tarkin: The more you tighten your grip ... the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Tarkin, of course, didn't listen, and wound up as vaporized dust orbiting Yavin. So, you know, think about it.