If you wanted to watch last night's State Of Origin on a mobile device, it was exclusive to Telstra. If you want to legally watch the next season of Game Of Thrones, it will be exclusive in Australia to Foxtel for the full length of the season. With the spectre of all-you-can-eat Netflix-style streaming video providers looming, this kind of thing is only going to become more common.
I'm no big fan of content exclusivity, but it strikes me that in a world where video is increasingly going digital, and shifting from an owning to a rental-via-subscription model, it's more or less a given.
If you use the music streaming services as a guide, it's not hard to see why it would make sense for a content provider to sign up an exclusivity agreement with a provider, whether it's a hybrid Pay-TV provider such as Foxtel, or anybody who wanted to mimic what Netflix has done very successfully in the United States.
When a track gets played on Spotify, artists make a fraction of a cent. Nobody can seemingly agree on what the exact figure is, but it's well below the level of actual physical currency you can hold in your hand. Complaints about that rate aside, it could work, because a three-minute music track can be played and replayed an awful lot over the course of a day, and the fractions of a cent can stack up. Money can flow, again bearing in mind I'm talking in an idealistic way; I'm well aware that the music industry often provides the template for corrupt artist contracts.
But how does that work when you're talking about video? There are two challenges here. Firstly, there's the cost of production. While it's not cheap to make an album, the scale for even a cheap bit of TV is much higher, and for a blockbuster production it's even bigger again. That means more folk to be paid for each and every episode — which means, if you apply the kind of pricing models that streaming music services go on, there are fractions of cents to be spread around a whole lot more people.
Secondly, there's the scale of consumption. I'm going to throw around some illustrative numbers here; they're nothing I've extensively researched, and I'm just using them to make a point. Bear that in mind.
There are 1440 minutes in each day, which means a three minute music track can be played 480 times. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that each play is worth half a cent. I suspect it's much lower, but go with me here. That means that in a day, a song could earn $2.40 in playback duties if played continuously, and if it was being played by 100 people, that's $240.
It seems unlikely that you'd get exceptionally larger sums of money out of people for a streaming video service. Yes, the fees could be a little higher, but Foxtel in a way provides a benchmark figure for this. People complain heavily about the price Foxtel charges for its service, and whether they're right or wrong, that suggests that anything more than $100 a month wouldn't be paid by too many people at all. Netflix, for a start, is much cheaper than that, and I'm sure that's the kind of price that people would pay, which means you're back in the same kind of income territory as a streaming music service.
So what happens if you apply the same playback figures to a three hour movie?
That same movie can only run eight times in the same span of time, which means you're looking at a grand total of four cents of playback revenue, or perhaps four dollars if all 100 of the same consumers run it eight times. Which, unlike music, they're highly unlikely to; people may leave music streaming, Pandora style all day long, but they'll probably only watch a movie once, and almost never eight of them in a row. As such, the current streaming music prices wouldn't serve TV production well as an entire revenue stream, but they could — if you factor in an exclusivity payment.
Exclusivity isn't offered up for free. HBO's deal with Foxtel — and BBC Worldwide's deal, for that matter — will have cost Foxtel a pretty penny, and those are pennies that HBO and BBC Worldwide can take directly to the bank with no risk involved on their part. It's up to Foxtel (and Telstra, in the case of State of Origin) to manage that risk by signing up enough customers so that they can make money on top of whatever they've paid HBO.
For a streaming video service, it's not likely to be that much different. Netflix dominates the US scene so astonishingly that it's got enough money flowing in to fund its own content, but services from Amazon and Hulu are consistently nipping at their heels by signing up exclusives.
Amazon has just done exactly that in the US for a whole bunch of Viacom shows, with a focus on children's shows. That's not quite Game of Thrones, unless Dora's become a lot more visceral since my kids stopped watching it, but it's a sign of things to come.
I'm all too well aware that plenty will use that exact same exclusivity as an excuse to pirate, but in many ways that just makes the exclusivity argument stronger for the production studios. If the content is being pinched from every direction with nobody paying, at least exclusivity money will help to pay the bills. I've said it before, and I'll say it again; if you really want to protest content exclusivity, piracy isn't the answer. Removing your eyeballs from the equation entirely and letting the studios know why will put vastly more pressure on them if done en masse than any amount of piracy.
In the meantime, the future might be video on demand, but the smart money says you'll probably have to sign up for several services to get it all.
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.