TV is exhausting now. Where once the future of streaming promised to cut down bloated cable bills and create a more efficient customer-provider service—“Imagine a future where you only pay for the 10 channels you actually watch,” I remember excitedly telling my parents earlier in the decade—the reality is that now, there are simply more channels that you need to pay for.
Aside from traditional cable, which remains a must for any sports fan at the absolute least, there now exist more than a half-dozen prominent streaming services (and lots more small ones), all filled with a couple of buzzy shows, some old favorites, and endless filler crap that makes the library of content seem more valuable than it is. And if keeping up with the Emmy-nominated offerings of services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime didn’t already feel like a financial strain, the launch of Apple TV+ and the fawned-over premiere of Disney+ might have done it.
By my count, if you want to watch shows on HBO, Apple TV+, Disney+, CBS All-Access, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix, it’d run you $60.93 a month or $731.16 a year, and that’s before factoring in a standard cable package for live events and other shows, or the other streaming services sure to launch in the near future. (NBC’s got one coming down the pike.) Of course, nobody has to pay for all these things, but the problem here is that, with the arguable exception of CBS, all of these services have at least something resembling a buzzy hit show. If you want to watch, for example, Euphoria, Dickinson, The Mandalorian, Fleabag, Killing Eve, and Stranger Things, you’re going to need a lot of accounts.
With two of the largest companies in the world joining the game this month, adding their own movie stars and iconic IP to the slush pile, it’s worth wondering if the streaming revolution has officially failed TV and movie fans with its endless mitosis and fragmentation. Instead of letting viewers just pay for the stuff they watch, they’re forced, instead, to choose between equally flawed packages where the fun and/or high-quality shows get bundled with pointless crap that jacks up the price. Unlike Spotify and its clones, which include essentially all the music a person could want, one relatively cheap subscription to any Movie/TV streaming service doesn’t give you access to more-or-less the entire history of moving pictures. And unlike Spotify and its clones, which have caused a massive downturn in music piracy, the shows on all these platforms are ripe for stealing.
Piracy has never truly died, whether it occurs when users torrent files through thepiratebay.org or 1337x.to, or download shows through Usenet, a site like MegaUpload or Rapidshare, or find cleverly hidden files on Google Docs, Facebook, or even Wikipedia. Hell, there’s even a thriving network of USB drive-based piracy in some countries.
But in the era of Netflix’s dominance as a legit streaming service, piracy’s prevalence fell greatly. Between 2011 and 2015, Bittorrent’s share of upstream traffic on North American broadband networks dropped from 52.01 percent to 26.83 percent. More recently, an EU study found that the number of young people (age 15-24) who intentionally accessed illegal content dropped from 25 percent to 21 percent from 2016 to 2019. And visits to piracy websites dropped from 206 billion in 2017 to 190 billion in 2018. But now, more paywalled content means that viewers either can’t afford to pay for everything they might want to watch or don’t feel like dealing with a bunch of different services. There’s already evidence people are turning back to piracy: Bittorrent’s traffic freefall has stopped, and has seen a recent small bounceback.
“If people have to spend more money to satisfy their movie and TV consumption needs, a large group will either consume less or look for alternatives,” Ernesto van der Sar, owner of piracy trend website TorrentFreak recently told Motherboard. “A likely result is that more people will pirate on the side.”
A simple glance at torrent websites shows that plenty of people are stealing from the brand new steaming services—episodes of The Mandalorian and Dickinson all have hundreds or thousands of seeders and are among the most popular shows on torrent sites. I reached out specifically to Disney, Apple, and Netflix to ask what their policy was on going after pirated content, and haven’t heard back, but it’s obvious that these companies assume that at least some of their viewers aren’t paying the full price for their services. Given that you can watch as many as six simultaneous streams with Apple TV+, and four with Disney+ and the top Netflix package, the more common form of piracy—password sharing—is built into the system. But for pirates who don’t have any access to the legit services, what makes stealing content particularly appealing in this age is that there are few if any people who face consequences for the crime.
Since the discontinuation of the “six strikes” copyright policy in 2017, there’s been lax enforcement of copyright laws. Rather than going after individuals for exorbitant fines for downloading a handful of songs like copyright holders did a decade ago, enforcement these days has focused on the providers of pirated content, with the much more efficient goal of taking down entire streaming sites rather than just a few of their visitors. Of course, as the continued resilience of The Pirate Bay shows, the current strategy isn’t particularly effective at stopping piracy, either. But it does mean that those who only download already-stolen content are safer than they’ve ever been.
And the widespread use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and the less common but more secure use of services like Tor means that people are getting better at pirating, too. Even if you’re not breaking the law, you should pay for a VPN, because there’s reason to suspect ISPs are monetizing your browsing data. But having some form of VPN is non-negotiable if you’re downloading content illegally. Typically, if a pirate is using a torrent program to download files peer to peer, their IP address is visible to anyone using the program. (That’s how copyright holders could track down pirates and take them to court.) But with a VPN, a pirate’s data gets laundered through the location of the private network—meaning someone in New York could have a public IP address showing Chicago, Toronto, or anywhere in the world. If a pirate is careful, it’s much harder to know who they are.
None of this is to say you should steal—it’s illegal! But whether you’re on the business side spending millions of dollars on new shows, or you’re just a girl who likes to watch hot people punch each other for a few hours every week, it’s clear that companies are overwhelming customers with products, and a breaking point is coming where people won’t be able to pay for all of it. As more and more streaming services launch, each with their own content walled off from the others, it’d be ignorant and naive to think that piracy won’t increase with it.