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Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway-Harris in Mad Men.
Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway-Harris in Mad Men.

television

How Mad Men and Walking Dead are reprogramming the ways we watch TV Add to ...

Toronto physiotherapist Lynn Suter, 39, will be watching when Mad Men returns to TV this Sunday – with her laptop and her phone right beside her. She will be following Twitter feeds and entertainment sites for commentary as the show unfolds, and will be texting friends and family with her own reactions as 1960s ad exec Don Draper and his hip young wife, Megan, greet the Summer of Love.

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Bureaucrat Roy Scott, 60, will wait until the next day to watch it on his tablet as he takes the train from his home in Richmond Hill, Ont., to his job in Toronto. He subscribes to satellite TV at home to watch sports, but finds it more convenient to download his favourite shows illegally the morning after they air.

In Vancouver, 24-year-old music teacher and food blogger Heather Beaty is not exactly sure yet how she is going to snag her Mad Men fix, but she’s willing to provide baking for any friend with a good cable package. A law-abiding type, she doesn’t subscribe to cable – but also never downloads. Last week, she exchanged chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies for an invitation to the season premiere of the fantasy series Game of Thrones. “I am,” confesses Beaty, “a bit of TV moocher.”

Whether they are scrounging or paying, streaming or tweeting, today’s television fans want the top cable dramas. And they want them now. In the process, their voracious appetites are transforming TV – reinvigorating the experience of appointment television even as they drive more and more viewers to piracy.

Launched by HBO’s The Sopranos in 1999, the ascendancy of the cable drama as cultural marker and commercial product is now complete. On Easter Sunday, AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead clobbered the broadcast networks in the ratings, while HBO’s sex-and-violence fantasy series Game of Thrones was subject to record levels of illegal downloads. This weekend, it’s the turn of the slickly stylish Mad Men to shed more light on a landscape in which those too impoverished to pay cable bills gather around a friend’s TV, while tech-savvy viewers torrent and binge.

In the “walled garden” tended by subscriber-only HBO, in the upper-cable tier inhabited by AMC, on the online subscription service offered by Netflix, and in the black market of torrent websites, viewers are looking for critically acclaimed, grownup shows with explicit sex, dark violence and plots so complicated they can spend most of the next day discussing them online. The broadcast networks, which have come to rely on cheap reality formats and tired procedural franchises to continue drawing a mass audience to free TV, have vacated the cultural high ground.

“The quality of TV is so much ahead of film now,” Scott says. “I go to a torrent site … I watch episode after episode, week after week. It’s wonderful. It’s opened up my life to the arts.”

“There are so many options today: PVR, video on demand, free [TV], behind the walled garden and … there is a lot of piracy, absolutely,” says media and communications consultant Brahm Eiley. “But what is amazing is that linear [viewing] is still rocking. Look at the numbers!”

Specifically, the AMC cable drama The Walking Dead closed its season last Sunday with a record 12.4 million live viewers in the United States, and won the night. In the same time slot, Game of Thrones brought in 4.4 million for its third-season premiere, showing an increase of 13 per cent over its Season 2 opener – impressive numbers for a subscriber-only commercial-free TV channel like HBO. (Canadian ratings are not publicly available, but are generally about 10 per cent of American ones; HBO Canada, meanwhile, says Game of Thrones is up 11 per cent over last year, and remains its most popular show ever.)

And yet, as record numbers of legitimate viewers tuned in to Thrones, so did the pirates: This week, Internet site TorrentFreak reported data showing one million illegal downloads of the premiere of a show it had already named the most downloaded series of 2012.

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