May 28, 2013

At midnight on Sunday, Netflix posted all fifteen new episodes of Arrested Development. To say anticipation had been running high for this new season would be an understatement. For instance, someone I know went out and got a tattoo of the Bluth company staircar on Saturday, and while this was an uncommonly high level of devotion, it did accurately represent the prevailing mood. Fans were so eager to get a peek that when everyone realized the posting time was midnight West Coast time, not EST, Twitter became a mass lamentation. All of this was to be expected for one of the most beloved and sorely-missed TV shows of the last few decades. The weird thing was: the episodes didn’t leak. Before they were available to the general public on Netflix, there was no way to see the new season. This is not unusual for TV shows, but it’s highly unusual for digital media. How did that happen?

The analogous case here is music. Early availability of albums have become such an expected thing that websites will notify you when a leak emerges online. There are only two ways to prevent such leaks, it seems. One is to spend millions of dollars on security measures, which is what Jay-Z and Kanye West did with Watch the Throne. The other is to announce the existence of the album and then very quickly release it yourself, digitally, through your own website, which is what Radiohead did with In Rainbows. Otherwise, there’s going to be a leak. Either someone who gets a promo or someone who works at the manufacturing plant is going to quickly rip the disc and upload it to everyone, the process taking no more than ten minutes.

Of course, TV has always been different. Sure, things “leak,” but those things are usually scripts or casting decisions, not whole videos. And whole seasons are rarely available in advance, with even critics only getting the first three or four episodes of a new show. Even if the whole season was available, it’d be much harder to distribute than a new album. The files are considerably larger, ripping it from a DVD and uploading it takes a lot longer, and it’s far more to deal with than a movie — about 19 hours of video for a full 26-episode season of a network hourlong show, as opposed to two hours for a new movie. Plus, video can be watermarked in ways audio simply can’t, and so someone who had an advance copy of a show might not be willing to risk their access just so the internet got to see the show a little sooner. And since TV shows aren’t physical objects, there aren’t millions of discs containing the video sitting in a Best Buy for days before the official release.

But many of these things simply aren’t true of Arrested Development. The full season was available, and it already existed as digital files on Netflix’s servers. It wouldn’t take much technically for someone who had access to the files to make them a torrent. So why didn’t they?

The thing that saved it might have been another of the factors making TV shows less leakable than music: the quick turnaround. South Park episodes, for instance, are transmitted to the network only hours or even minutes before they air. They can’t be leaked because there’s nothing to leak until roughly the same moment it’s broadcast to everyone. Presumably something like this was the case with Arrested Development, too. Show creator Mitchell Hurwitz was likely editing the episodes until close to the last minute before he had to deliver them to Netflix. A frequent excuse for piracy is that downloading media is simply easier and more convenient than going out and buying it, but if your options are a pirated torrent or actually seeing it on Netflix, that’s an easy choice.

If Arrested Development‘s example is indicative of how online TV is going to work, it’s a very good sign. Music and writing now provides far less revenue to its creators because it’s so easy to get around any anti-piracy options, whether paywalls or CD copy protection. But if you can successfully launch an online TV show without incurring any leaks, then they’re just as valuable as shows that come direct to your cable box. Of course, this might not be a representative case. Because AD was so anticipated there was no need to offer advance screeners to critics, but new shows won’t have this advantage. And having Netflix as the exclusive distributor of the show drastically reduced the number of people who could possibly leak the show, and drastically increased the possibility that anyone doing so would get punished. Shows that want to be available across multiple providers would be more likely to run into leaking problems. But these all seem like problems that can be overcome. TV may turn out to be the rare medium that can move online without losing control of its product.

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