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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 ...

“I love the depth of the story, the characterization. It’s a really top-quality production,” said John, an Edmonton insurance-company manager who watched an illegal download of the premiere minutes after it aired – and who did not want to give his last name for this story. He happily downloads full seasons of shows onto a USB key and then watches them on a Blu-ray player. “I don’t cheat on my taxes,” he notes. “I have a selective conscience.”

In the United States, HBO executives and Game of Thrones creators have mostly shrugged off the piracy, choosing to take it as a compliment, although the show’s co-creator David Benioff also wistfully told CNN that he could buy a whole lot more dragons if all the pirates paid 99 cents a download.

Of course, unless you are a subscriber, you can’t legally see episodes of HBO shows online, and can only buy them at the end of the season, when DVD sets and paid downloads become available – and it is convenience and timeliness, as much as money, that drive piracy.

“HBO Canada does not condone the pirating of any of its programming,” says Deborah Wilson, communications VP at Astral Television Networks, which owns HBO Canada. “However, we also believe that pirating takes place, in part, when there is a lack of options to suit viewers’ needs. The majority of people will pay for quality programming, but they want this programming on their terms.”

Scott, who dreams of 99-cent next-day downloads, agrees: “Give me different ways to chose. I ain’t going to spend five bucks for a show but …”

Still, the cherry-picking – of both shows and channels – that consumers demand largely ignores how hit-driven entertainment industries work: Bankrolling many shows, executives know that for every money-maker, there will be several flops that lose buckets. As Netflix makes its move into programming, using the profits from what is essentially an online video store to pay for new series, it will become apparent how much that business model can (or cannot) be reinvented. Netflix had a modest success with House of Cards this winter: The political thriller got mixed reviews, but was the most-watched program on the service. Next month, Netflix offers a much-anticipated revival of the cult Fox sitcom Arrested Development.

“These changes take time,” warns Eiley, whose Convergence Consulting Group just released a report which estimates that Netflix (which offers a significantly smaller catalogue of titles in Canada) accounts for a healthy 16 per cent of the TV- and movie-rental market here, and will boast 2.4 million subscribers by the end of the year. Still, no matter how big Netflix gets, he says, “the vast majority of people still consume content the old way.”

Meanwhile, the cable dramas are breathing considerable new life into that old way, giving viewers fresh incentives to gather round live shows, even if the family – or fan – gathering may be virtual; the next-morning water-cooler chitchat has become an ongoing global conversation.

“Before the Internet, television did not air in a public sphere,” says screenwriter Graham Yost, creator of the Elmore Leonard series Justified on FX and executive producer of the new HBO spy show The Americans. “You used to just get ratings. Now you get reviewed on every episode by fans and critics alike.”

The result is self-perpetuating communities of viewers who may be culturally savvy media watchers or rabidly focused fans. Or both.

Suter, for one, says she isn’t a fantasy fan, but watches Game of Thrones to stay on top of pop culture. “It’s in the zeitgeist right now,” she says, “and I am on the bandwagon.” On the other hand, come Sunday night, all she wants to know is whether the lady-killing Don will remain faithful to Megan or return to his own brand of piracy.

How We Watch

With two or even three screens at their disposal, multiple time- and format-shifting options, and a voracious appetite for high-quality content, today’s TV audience can be divided into five recognizable types. Kate Taylor counts them down

The simultaneous second screener. “Check out Joan’s outfit! What is that song Megan’s singing?”

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