I Want It All, and I Want It Now

An interesting debate sputtered last night on Twitter, inspired by a recent Oatmeal cartoon in which the author moaned about being forced to turn to piracy after discovering HBO did not have an episode of Game of Thrones available to watch during the one hour window the author wanted to watch it.

Veruca Salt

During the back-and-forth on Twitter, the main pro-piracy sentiment was that HBO is using an outdated business model, that networks should keep up with viewer demand or suffer the consequences. But let’s ignore the rationalization people use to defend illegal downloading, because this really isn’t about piracy at all. The real issue with that cartoon is: why do viewers now think every piece of entertainment should be available to everyone immediately and in all platforms upon release?

To start, let’s take a closer look at the cartoon, which is rather disingenuous in attempts to frame its argument. To present the notion that Game of Thrones is not available on home video in the foreseeable future, writer/artist Matthew Inman shows us a screenshot of a Netflix page saying the series’ availability date is unknown. However, as many Netflix users – including, one must assume, Inman himself – are aware, Netflix’s release dates rarely line up with home video release dates any more, not since studios began pushing for longer windows between sale and rental (and streaming) availability. The cartoon then gives us a screenshot of Amazon.com – but only of Amazon Instant Video, which offers no search results.

But! The rest of Amazon seems plenty aware that Game of Thrones will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 6, a mere two weeks after February 20 (the date the cartoon was published). Heck, a simple Google search would give you hundreds of websites telling you the same thing. Inman is intentionally attempting to fudge the facts to help his case.

The cartoon’s protagonist – whom I’ll call “Mr. Oatmeal” for the sake of not having to repeatedly type “the guy in the Oatmeal cartoon who looks creepier than most people do in Oatmeal cartoons, which is to say, pretty damn creepy” – also visits three more websites: iTunes, Hulu, and HBO.com. At the first, Mr. Oatmeal gripes again about the show’s current unavailability. At the second, he gripes about being forwarded to the third. And at the third, he gripes about not wanting to pay for HBO as a complete channel.

And that’s where the argument completely collapses. Mr. Oatmeal says he doesn’t want to pay for a premium cable channel because he’d rather get his cable TV online. Which is a perfectly reasonable thing, really, representing a growing number of viewers who feel empowered by “cutting the cord.” But refusing to pay for a premium service then whining when that service is kept premium is, quite simply, dumb.

Mr. Oatmeal’s complaint wouldn’t even have existed twelve years ago. HBO created the very notion of complete season DVD sets, thanks to the popularity of The Sopranos; add to that the rise of DVRs and streaming video, and the entire way we consume television has changed. It’s no longer week-to-week. It’s on-demand. You missed last night’s show? No problem. We got twenty ways to time-shift. Water cooler TV is gone, replaced by “I know it aired last night for millions to see but you’re not allowed to talk about what happened until I get around to watching it next month.”

The over-the-air networks – and some basic cable stations – have fed into this by posting episodes online mere hours after they’ve been broadcast. And that’s understandable; you could watch it for free when it aired, so why not have free online access immediately after, too? But that formula doesn’t apply to premium cable networks, who have the right to keep their exclusive content exclusive for as long as they wish. Considering they’re releasing premium content to their non-customers sooner than ever before (with windows shrinking still), it’s hardly an outdated business model. It’s more like a comfortable middle ground.

Alas, Mr. Oatmeal is too spoiled to realize that. He’s used to a world of instant gratification. He wants it when he wants it. It’s not his fault he didn’t watch it when HBO aired it, and it’s not his fault it’s not on DVD for a couple weeks, and it’s not his fault he got the urge to watch the show in that very tiny stretch of days when it was unavailable to the paying public.

He wants it now, and to hell with everyone else.

What a bad egg.

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5 thoughts on “I Want It All, and I Want It Now

  1. Great points all around. I’m not getting the sentiment that I see from a lot of people who are saying Hollywood needs to “adapt or die.” Fact is, Hollywood HAS adapted–we now have VOD and streaming platforms in addition to shorter-than-ever-theatrical windows. We’re able to see movies from smaller studios/indies in a higher quality (and sometimes more quickly) than ever before. I have no sympathy for anyone who can’t see that studios have ostensibly made it easier than ever to access their material. The problem is that most people will pirate despite this; people often point to how the music industry adapted, but I have to wonder how many people will still illegally download an album simply because they don’t want to pay for it?

    Another random point: I don’t think this should be the generational issue it’s being made out to be. People keep saying we’re in an “era of Veruca Salts,” but it’s really just a matter of timing; this is the first generation to be confronted with this specific form of piracy, which is unfortunately the most convenient and easiest form to date. If the internet had been around like this in the 80s, it would have been a problem then; even that era had people who pirated cable, dubbed tapes, etc.

    • You can even argue that by increasing access, distributors are cutting down on piracy by eliminating (as best they can, at least) the main reason some people pirate – because they can’t find it anywhere.

      Of course, you can never get rid of piracy completely, because, as you say, some people just never want to pay, no matter the generation. But the more outlets for viewing there are, the fewer excuses there are not to use them.

  2. Alex Cockell says:

    However, there was one thing you miss in the Oatmeal issue, – *the character does not have any kind of cable subscription*. And from what I understand, the prerequisite over there to even have a chance of paying for HBO is that you have to buy the equivalent of Sky World FIRST.

    So instead of say a $20 per month recurring payment to stream HBO (a la iPlayer live-viewing), he has to lock himself into a 12 or 18 month contract for about $100 a month BEFORE the $15/month surcharge.

    He was paying for Netflix and Hulu Plus – if HBO was carried on Hulu as a payable supplement – no problem.

    It’s a bit like me – I’m Freeview only in the UK; I’d have to sign up to Sky at £20 a month for at least a year in order to get Sky Atlantic – and thus get GoT.

    • That’s a terrific point, and it’s the big issue cable networks must face when reacting to the trend of “cord cutting.” While Mr. Oatmeal currently has no ground to complain when he cancels his cable service but still wants a select part of that cable service, because HBO’s current policy is to make their channel available only to cable subscribers.

      But! You are correct that HBO is obviously slipping in holding on to their old model of only providing service to those paying for a separate, expensive middleman service. While cable companies scramble to make up for lost revenue, cable networks have much, much less to lose by cord cutters, provided they make up the difference by offering programming directly to customers. Which is what I expect will happen in the coming years.

      Until then, though? Having to pay the $100 a month just to get that one premium channel, while a pain, is also the only legal method of accessing the shows Mr. Oatmeal wants… which means a legal method does still exist. He can’t pretend it’s not there in hopes of justifying a torrent.

      • Alex Cockell says:

        However, what if he *never had* a cable subscription – or a TV? That’s (and I’ll use Uk prices) £200-500 for a TV, then rental of all the kit, plus clearance from his landlord for install…
        Monthly subs to cable…
        And THEN the HBO subs…

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