A long time ago, in a galaxy not too far from this one, the television world was wracked with piracy. People distributed MP4 files of popular shows via file-sharing services such as Limewire, or burnt them to discs and passed them around. But as internet connection speeds got faster and data connections became ubiquitous, that murky world was slowly replaced with low-cost, legitimate online streaming via services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
It helped usher in a golden age of television, with lavish sums being spent on programming that was more accessible than the shows produced for HBO or Sky, which remained trapped behind an expensive satellite or cable subscription. But now that fragile peace is starting to fragment.
Yesterday marked the launch of Disney+—a new streaming service that will give subscribers access to a huge back catalog of movies from Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and Marvel, plus new, big-budget television shows based on existing properties.
Chief among them is The Mandalorian, set in the Star Wars universe, which takes place between the events of the original trilogy and the one that will draw to a close in cinemas this December with The Rise of Skywalker. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Pedro Pascal, it follows a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy. It’s one of the most hotly anticipated shows of 2019—but it’s also set to be one of the most pirated shows of the year too.
That’s because Disney+ has only launched in a handful of countries so far—the US, Canada, and the Netherlands, with Australia and New Zealand to follow next week. In the United Kingdom and most of the rest of the world, preexisting licensing deals mean we’ll have to wait until next March for the service to launch—which means a four-month wait for The Mandalorian and a potential return to online piracy for many Star Wars fans.
“In today’s increasingly fragmented digital world, there is a segment of the market that will just pick up their smartphones and search for what they want to watch and find illicit options,” said Tim Pearson of Nagra, which provides antipiracy services, in an interview with TVBEurope.
For a sense of the potential scale, you only need to look to Game of Thrones. The show, which was available legally via HBO in the US or Sky in the UK, became the most pirated television series of all time, with more than 100,000 illegal downloads per day at one point in 2015. The Mandalorian could well exceed that—and it’s likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.
We’ve seen a proliferation of new streaming services. Netflix dominates the market, but there’s also Amazon Prime, AppleTV+, and Disney+, as well as short-form platforms such as Quibi, and regional offerings like Britbox, which launched in the UK last week. Those £4.99 or £5.99 a month subscriptions don’t seem like much on their own, but if you want to keep abreast of everything the entertainment world has to offer, they start to add up pretty quickly.
“As choice of services continues to grow and the cost of subscribing to all content begins to mount, it’s likely that we’ll see an increase in piracy of platform exclusive content becoming a bigger issue,” says Mihir Haria-Shah, head of broadcast at behavioral planning agency Total Media.
He draws a comparison with the buzz generated by original shows such as Netflix’s Birdbox, which—thanks in part to a heavy marketing push—broke records for the platform with more than 45 million viewers. “Disney’s release of The Mandalorian in the markets where it’s available has already generated huge conversation globally after the first episode, however markets where it won’t be available for almost six months are likely to find ways to watch it, illegally,” he says.
The sporting world offers a pertinent example of how fragmentation can cause rampant piracy. In the UK, live Premier League football went from being accessible via one subscription service (Sky Sports) to being split across three (Sky, BT Sport, and now Amazon Prime). Additionally, because of a long-standing ban on football matches being televised between 3 and 5pm on a Saturday, it’s impossible to watch many games legally in the UK.
As a result, piracy is out of control in the UK—a 2017 BBC survey found that 65 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds admitted to illegally streaming matches at least once a month. European Star Wars fans who want to watch The Mandalorian will find themselves in a similar position—with no legal way of watching the content, they’ll need to resort to piracy or spoofing their location via a VPN (or moving to the Netherlands). A quick check yesterday—just a few hours after the launch of the service in the US—revealed illegal download links for the first episode already circulating on Reddit.
In the past, content providers such as HBO have been relatively blase about their shows being streamed illegally. In 2014, director David Patrarca, who worked on several episodes of Game of Thrones, said piracy helped the show’s “cultural buzz” without impacting the bottom line too much.
But it’s a less than ideal outcome for Disney. There are tools that enable them to clamp down on streamers by embedding hidden, individual codes in each stream so they can quickly shut down those who might be redistributing content illegally. Pirating shows is likely to lead to a worse viewing experience for consumers, and it may mean they’re less likely to subscribe when the service does eventually launch in their country next year.
It is possible, says Haria-Shah, that Disney could look to bring The Mandalorian to other countries sooner by striking temporary deals with broadcasters who it already has a relationship with in order to hook viewers in. “It could be that the early episodes of the show are aired on Sky to give viewers access to them before the platform launches,” he says. “This way, when the platform does launch and consumers are midway through the series, they may be more likely to subscribe to the platform due to the endowment effect.” It’s a potential ray of hope for Star Wars fans who don’t want to go over to the dark side.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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