The fact that it's easier and more reliable to download TV via BitTorrent than watch it via erratic broadcaster schedules is hardly a new development. However, commercial TV networks appear to be largely in denial about that threat to their business.
I got sent some survey results from Intel Australia last week, in which 417 Australians were asked whether they'd find it easier to give up their TV or their PC for a week. Overall, 61% chose to hang onto their PC.
That's not a surprising outcome, but it's also a somewhat ridiculous question. An Internet-connected PC serves as a highly efficient replacement for your TV set. Between catch-up sites, YouTube, BitTorrent and various other sneaky options, there's more or less nothing you won't be able to watch. The reverse isn't true. Even if you happen to have an Internet-connected TV, it won't deliver the same range of services.
However, the idea that the Internet doesn't have anything to do with television is far from uncommon. Most tellingly, that appears to be the official view of Free TV Australia, the industry body which represents Australia's commercial free-to-air broadcasters.
Last week, Free TV released the results of a survey of 1,500 digital TV viewers (note: PDF link) which revealed that one-in-four pay TV customers it had surveyed were considering ditching their subscriptions because they now had more choice on multichannel digital networks, while 77% of those that didn't have pay TV were less likely to get it. I don't doubt that many households have made this choice, but those numbers badly need some context.
Realistically, Free TV wouldn't have chosen to conduct that survey any earlier and get the kind of numbers it wanted. Even though the commercial networks have been entitled to run additional channels since January 2009, they took their sweet time about it. Asking the same question at the beginning of this year would have had very different outcomes, I suspect. But that's not my biggest issue with the results.
It's quite reasonable to ask whether the availability of more digital channels is changing viewing habits. But it's ridiculous not to also enquire as to whether online alternatives are changing that equation as well. One figure from the survey does suggest that we're not too pleased with the networks: one in three viewers says they are now watching more TV as a result of the digital networks. What the other 66% are doing is anybody's guess, but I bet some of them would say "I don't care about the digital networks because I manage my own viewing using online means". Yes, that's sometimes illegal, but it's so widespread that to pretend it doesn't happen is pointless.
I contacted Free TV to see if they had in fact done any research concerning the impact of the Internet on TV viewing habits. I'm still waiting on a reply. So we can only consider the irony inherent in this comment from Free TV CEO Julie Flynn:
The research also recognises Australians' appetite for more quality programming that you don’t have to pay for.
Except, it seems, when it comes to getting quality programming in a more reliable fashion than networks can manage.
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