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.
During the back-and-forth on Twitter, the main pro-piracy sentiment was that HBO is using an outdated business model, that networks should keep up with viewer demand or suffer the consequences.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.