It’s always seemed strange to me that local broadcasters would hold off broadcasting Dr Who, Mad Men, and other high-profile shows. Viewers chatter about it as soon as an episode airs in its country of origin, so regional fans either have the episode ruined by net spoilers or disconnect until the episode airs locally. The situation has improved enormously from the days of six month or multi-year lags, but the experience is still a bit shit.
So when the new season of Dr Who launched in the UK last Sunday, and an Australian broadcaster announced they’d offer online streaming (to Australians) of the first episode as soon as it aired, everyone looked to Prime to see what they’d offer New Zealand. Their press release: we’ll show it “less than two weeks after it airs in the UK”. (queue record scratch)
Rather than join in the online whining, I wanted to find out why Prime was doing that. After all, nobody in their right mind would say “yes, let’s delay it and piss people off!”. They’re sensible people, running a company that will give chase at the sniff of money like a shark sensing blood in the water. So there must be a *reason* for the two week delay.
What the hell could it be?
I spoke to someone highly placed at Prime Television. She explained that there are several reasons why they don’t, and often can’t, offer same-day airing. At the heart of it is that Prime is a channel for mainstream local viewers: Prime screens episodes in a schedule that they have designed to appeal to mainstream New Zealand. This would be broken by attempts to air same-day shows.
The problems, as I understood them from my source, are:
- Consistency across shows and seasons. Even when you might be able to get one show quite close to the airing date, you can’t guarantee you’ll be able to get it for the next season. Let alone the dozens of other popular shows you air.
- Predictable airing. In the US, and sometimes the UK, a season isn’t always aired from start to finish. They mix in reruns to drag out 22 episodes over 8 or 9 months, and generally milk the season for as many eyeballs as they can. This means that Prime would not be able to guarantee its viewers, from week to week, that they’d see the next episode in the season.
- Legal risk. Prime does not have the rights to air the show before the UK or US channels. They can never show a Dr Who before the BBC. That would be unimaginably bad. So if the BBC pre-empted Dr Who for breaking news, Prime would have to pre-empt its local broadcast. Imagine the enormous overhead and hassle of ensuring you never inadvertently were first-to-air.
- Materials. Even if you could sort all the above issues out, you need to be able to tease and promote the show to get your mainstream audience. In many cases, creators and distributors play their cards close to their chest. Teasers and promos are inconsistently and unpredictably sent to the local station. So, on top of the risk and chaos, you wouldn’t have much (any?!) ability to tease the episodes.
At the heart is the fundamental construction of Prime as a thing of its own, with schedule and branding separate from the shows on it, and a mainstream audience who need to be teased and scheduled. While you buy into those things (and the advertising-based broadcast model forces you to buy into those things), there’s no incentive for Prime to push for any kind of change to international show distribution.
The alienation of fans isn’t a big problem: when we talk about the show and rave, even if sometimes we complain, it’s all “buzz” that raises the profile for the mainstream audience. They do, however, try to keep the gaps as small as possible for the shows whose audiences really care. They find the mainstream audiences generally grateful that the wait isn’t months and months for the titles that they (the audience) have said matter most.
This prompts thought about the Internet’s move to real time; global audience sophistication; the disintermediation of “stations”; the risk-reward relationship between high prices of shows and the consequent inertia in business relationships exploiting those shows; the “unbundling” from albums to singles matched by unbundling of stations into episodes; and the vast business model changes that will need to happen for these changes to take place.
But that’s all the future. For the time being, Prime has what they see as good reasons for retaining their broadcast delays. They know they’ll lose some hardcore fans to illegal downloads, but their business model was never about pleasing only hardcore fans.