On a fast track

I LOVE that Mad Men fans who download the show are spared the kinds of ads its characters are paid to make. To fix the problem and reinvigorate the irony, professionals in the mould of Don Draper are then called upon to devise new ways of reaching the reluctant masses.

I have friends who download TV shows and then complain about product placements designed to make up for revenue losses caused by people who download TV shows.

Whether it be money or time spent watching ads, a growing number of viewers feel free to pay zero.

If patience is a virtue, Australia is a land of sin - home to a populace that's increasingly disinclined to delay televisual gratification. We demand entertainment on demand, as our convict past reverberates in a future of casual cyber theft. Shows aired in the US and Britain are torrented immediately after broadcast by anyone with a high bandwidth and low scruples.

While we are happy to waste our own time, we resent others wasting it for us. We are a nation of pirates with chips, not parrots, on our shoulders.

Such is our fondness for downloading from unlicensed sources that Foxtel and free-to-air networks plan to fast-track foreign content. The lag between a show's premiere overseas and its launch in Australia will be reduced to days and, in some cases, hours. Executives like to call it ''shortening the delivery windows''. Other people call it ''about bloody time''.

The vow to expedite programs is, in my opinion, a long-overdue and tacit admission of contemptuous neglect. Perhaps the most egregious example is The X-Files, which Channel Ten screened two years after its US broadcast. The truth was out there but we had no way of downloading it.

Networks have famously taken advantage of our haplessness; delaying, axing and shifting programs across days and timeslots, with our only recourse being a sternly worded letter to the Green Guide. Some stations debase their brand with cynical programming and craven cost-cutting, and a savvy public no longer feels comfortable having their viewing habits dictated. So we curate our own entertainment, gorging on favourites in a schedule of our choosing. We now have ways of bypassing the rusty gatekeepers as they play catch-up mending their broken reputations.

For many TV lovers, online piracy has evolved from an illicit luxury to a cultural necessity. We are what we watch, and our emotional attachment to art is stronger than intellectual property law. At a restaurant recently, I had to ask those at the table next to me to cease giving very loud spoilers about Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire episodes that were not yet legally available.

We expect convenience, and the small fact of being a distant country in the wrong hemisphere is not going to stop us feeling like vibrant citizens in the global village. After all, we have real-time access to international news and society, why not entertainment? We comfortably exploit any opportunity to feel connected. In a way, downloading TV is a muscle relaxant for our cultural cringe.

Videophiles are uniquely justified in their piracy since they download a superior picture quality to the compressed, standard definition available on our main free-to-air channels. To experience a program as it was intended - in full 1080p HD with 5.1 surround sound - you must either download an HD version or hope the show rates so poorly that it gets relegated to a digital station and screened among the plethora of decades-old sitcoms. Your monstrous, high-tech telly agrees; the need to thieve is crystal clear.

Even when it is feasible to download legally, there is often little incentive. The Australian dollar has been near parity with the US for two years, yet Apple persists in gouging customers by charging us much more for digital content. You don't have to be an economist to know it is a ripoff.

The dawn of fast-tracking is a consumer victory but a headache for network programmers who have traditionally traded on our tolerance for watching Christmas-themed episodes in April. Like any business, they try to get away with what they can; shows continue to pop up and disappear like a game of Whac-a-mole, and new episodes of popular series are screened intermittently between stretches of repeats. While the ratings might suggest we don't care, the overall mood of distrust has seen us drift away from dependence.

Television is at a curious juncture; the medium itself is flourishing while the industry falters. The public's new need for fast-tracking confirms a thirst for quality content, and it is in everyone's best interests for networks to monetise our passion.

Movies and cable subscriptions aside, Australians are not accustomed to paying for couch time. The television industry has been wounded and, without treatment, we are leeches in danger of draining the blood of our host.

Follow @trubnad on Twitter.

The story On a fast track first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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