Opinion

Better Call Saul begins tonight. If you choose to steal it, don’t pretend you’re Robin Hood

tim burrowes landscapeBetter Call Saul launches on new video streaming service Stan tonight. Its low price point and fast-tracking calls the bluff of torrenters who claim they don’t pay for content because it is overpriced or takes too long to come to Australia, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

A while back I had one of those dinner party conversations where we had to change the subject because we were about to fall out.   

I was debating music piracy with a friend-of-a-friend. He’s a massive music fan, but downloads everything from pirate sites. It came up that I had never downloaded pirated music (or films, or TV) because I was against doing so.

I could tell he thought I was being pompous and holier-than-thou. And I was getting frustrated because I felt he wasn’t even trying to make a logical moral case for his actions.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the arguments in both directions. They apply to music, TV shows and movies equally well.

The justifications for downloading content you haven’t paid for include one often aimed at Australia’s free-to-air TV networks – it can be an agonising wait before the networks decide to air them. Then they’ll treat the viewers with disrespect – playing ratings games, airing repeats, shows out of order and sometimes abruptly stopping halfway through a series. Often that means that the shows aren’t legally available to buy or rent online until they’ve had their first broadcast. So they bring it upon themselves, or so goes the argument.

That’s often true, although the networks are getting better at fast-tracking.

Another argument is that the content already exists, and being one more viewer is harmless. So it’s a “victimless crime”. But it’s also a selfish argument though. Essentially, you are relying on somebody else to pay for it. Otherwise it doesn’t get made next time. That’s the reason I choose not to torrent.

I noticed that the battleground shifted during the last season of the much-torrented Game Of Thrones. Foxtel fast-tracked it so it aired simultaneously with the US.

And yet the torrenting continued. This time, there was a new justification – that it was unfair to expect people to pay perhaps 100 bucks or more to subscribe to a package when they only wanted to watch a single show. Take a look at the kicking given to Foxtel in the comment thread when the company’s Bruce Meagher wrote a piece for Mumbrella last year. The very first comment came from someone whose problem was price.

So Australia led the way in torrenting once again, and the torrenters were able to justify it to themselves once more.

But here’s the thing. I think the real reason that people do it is simply because they can. And they’d rather not pay for something if they can get away with it.

The arguments then become a justification to stop themselves from feeling bad about not supporting the artists. You’d rather tell yourself you’re being Robin Hood when you nick someone else’s content.

Which brings me to Better Call Saul. It’s the much-anticipated prequel to Breaking Bad and it launches on Stan, the new streaming service from Fairfax Media and Nine, from 6pm tonight.

I went to a preview of the first two episodes a few weeks back. Don’t worry – I’m not going to offer any spoilers.

But what I would say is that it’s everything I hoped it would be. For fans of Breaking Bad, it will feel like there was another early series you’d previously been unaware of. I loved it and can’t wait to see the rest of the series.

In other words, for fans, being able to access Better Call Saul will be well worth the $10 a month price of subscribing to Stan alone. And of course you get a library of much more TV and film content than that.

Yet, I’m certain that a lot of fans who think of themselves as good people will cheerfully torrent it rather than pay for it as soon as it goes out in the US tonight.

Of course, there was one other justification that gets wheeled out. Some don’t like putting dollars in the hands of the Rupert Murdoch-aligned Foxtel and the other media giants.

That argument falls down this time round too. Stan is, as I mentioned, a joint venture from Fairfax Media and Nine. That’s the Fairfax, of course, that is struggling to reinvent its business models in order to continue the sort of independent journalism contained within titles like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. It’s an ambition that I suspect many of those who torrent would profess to support.

Now I realise, that sometimes the self-interest of the content world undermines its own arguments. The regular implausible press releases about the loss of income through piracy so lack credibility they make me a little uncomfortable sitting on their side of the argument.

Better Call Saul will be a great test for Australia’s torrent culture.

Even if the show is brilliant, the content is fast-tracked, the price is fair and the delivery comes from the good guys, will that be enough to get people to pay?

I suspect it won’t. But at least it will expose the Robin Hood defence for the bullshit it is.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

 

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