TV should get on board with the pirates…

says The Pirate’s Dilemma author Matt Mason

“Well, if you’re wondering what happened… so am I,” exclaimed flustered sports reporter Dan Roan on WGN-TV on November 22, 1987, after a TV pirate dressed as 80s TV icon Max Headroom hijacked the station’s signal.

The pirate’s silent transmission jammed the nightly news for twenty seconds, which was transmitting from the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. Of course, this was back when TV piracy was unusual. It¹s incredibly expensive and difficult to jam a TV frequency (the Max Headroom incident remains the most recent in US history), so pirates were never much of a threat to television – until the advent of online video sharing.

Now TV signals are copied, remixed and rebroadcast across the web thousands of times every day, and many of us are wondering what happened. But piracy isn’t always a threat; sometimes it’s an opportunity.

The smart way to beat pirates isn’t to sue your fans the way the record labels did. If suing your customers becomes a core component of your business model – you no longer have a business model. The smart way to beat pirates, as Steve Jobs once put it, is to compete with them. That’s exactly what Apple did when it ripped off the design of file-sharing sites and created iTunes.

More recently television has done the same thing. First BitTorrent and the pirate TV sites took television into uncharted waters, and then legitimate portals like Hulu legitimized the business model and created new revenue streams. The way to beat pirates is to copy them, and the good news is it seems to be working. But the really good news is that as the landscape continues to change, the opportunities to create a more dynamic industry by working with the so-called ‘pirates’ are increasing too.

Pirates and fans are often lumped together in the same category when those fans are creating user-generated content, a lot of which is technically illegal. But when fans create new content from TV broadcasts, they often add value to the original broadcast.

Big media storytelling evolved to fit the broadcast system, but stories and shows that include this user-generated content in the creation process become more complex, go off at tangents and create new relationships with the audience. Some even extend markets and product life spans. The video game industry figured this out long ago.

The battle between Master Chief and the Covenant isn’t the whole story of the Halo franchise. Your YouTube video of yourself regulating ten noobs with the butt of your gun and a hand grenade, set to a thrash metal music soundtrack that sounds offensive to everyone other than you and your friends, is also a major part of the story. That’s the reason why Halo 3 set the record for the most single day sales of any form of media when it was released. The audience knows what they need from narrowcast entertainment better than the broadcaster does, and they know the target audience for that entertainment (their friends and families) better than the broadcaster ever will.

Some argue that all this means traditional storytelling is dead. The media platforms we use to tell stories are all changing, but film and TV writers seem to be using new technology and media platforms to extend and deepen the traditional model of storytelling, not replace it.

Take Heroes for example, ­ the most pirated TV shows in the world. There are many ways to watch Heroes illegally online. So NBC has created many ways for fans to be part of the Heroes universe online that earn money. Heroes‘ story arcs stretch across different formats, creating a totally new kind of immersion experience. In days gone by these story arcs and plot lines might have been left on the cutting room floor, but now they can be revenue-generating webisodes, and back stories and character development pieces can become online graphic novels instead. The story extensions created for season two of Heroes netted NBC more than $50 million in revenue, not including the revenue from TV advertising. Networked storytelling means parts of the creation process the audience doesn¹t usually see have a new home, and they are more than capable of earning their keep.

From fan-fiction to remixes to making home videos at theme parks, people have been creating their own niche stories within mass entertainment properties for a long time, and we’ve never called it ‘piracy’. When mass entertainment properties encourage and add value to the networks taking shape around them, they make it easier for those networks to reciprocate.