Skip to main content

Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway-Harris in Mad Men.

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.

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.

"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?"

These obsessive viewers watch their top shows live and will both tweet commentary and do Internet research while they watch. For them, the water-cooler conversation happens as the show airs, and they swear they can follow the plot of Game of Thrones despite these distractions.

The appointment viewer. "Shhh. I'm watching."

These viewers watch live (or time-shift by a mere hour or two) but don't want to be distracted while they watch. No tweeting for them. On the other hand, they are often the best Monday-morning quarterbacks of the online TV clubs, busy discussing plot points and predicting future developments.

The time shifter. "Don't tell me what happened! Don't tell me what happened!"

Was it only five years ago that the PVR was the hot new gadget? Now, those who want to record shows and watch them at their leisure a few days later seem charmingly quaint. Their occasional complaints about spoilers are considered naive by groups one and two, who argue it isn't that hard to stay off social media if you would rather not know that Lane Pryce commits suicide in Mad Men episode 12.

The binge watcher. "Cliffhangers? I don't do cliffhangers."

Recognizable by their pale skin at the height of summer, these types will record, rent, buy or illegally download whole seasons and watch them just after they finished airing. These marathon viewers compare cable dramas to the best movies, and demand a different kind of instantaneity: They would rather wait a season to follow the dramatic arc of Breaking Bad in its entirety than wait a week for the next plot development. Netflix catered directly to them this winter when it provided all 13 episodes of its new political drama House of Cards simultaneously.

The pirate. "Why pay when you can get it for free?"

The most aggressive of the downloaders make a fetish of not paying, illegally torrenting any show they want from the Internet, often with commercials helpfully removed, as early as a few minutes after it has completed airing on TV.

For some, it's simply about saving money; but all demand efficiency and timeliness, refusing to wait until a broadcaster posts episodes with commercials on a website or until paid legal downloads are available at the end of the season. Another subcategory downloads foreign shows not yet available in North America, watching Downton Abbey, for example, as soon as it appears in Britain.