Pirates, Privateers, Filibusters and Buccaneers of the Web

Some probing occurred a few weeks ago, when most conventional and specialty media collectively reiterated a statement made by Kelly Merryman, vice-president of content acquisition at Netflix, during the unveiling of the streaming video giant’s operations in the Netherlands. A short and clear statement, that very well summarizes Netflix’s increasingly precise positioning in an ecosystem of broadcasting rights, territories and synchronized windows:

“With the purchase of series, we look at what does well on piracy sites.” source

In short, Netflix management, following a very eloquent Kevin Spacey at the Edinburgh Television Festival, reiterated the importance of a practice that several analysts the likes of Gavin McGarry have considered both disruptive and crucial for several years now. Already, as early as April 2011, The Pirate Bay became The Research Bay and joined forces with Swedish researchers from Lund University. Their report titled The Survey Bay is online ever since. The pirates of torrents and other download sites would also be the focus of Netflix, Hulu and Lovefilm among others, privateers or buccaneers that concentrate—despite the illegal sharing of video files—data that are extraordinarily useful for legitimate broadcasters and their assigns. And if we pushed the metaphor a little further and looked toward YouTube and Vimeo, we would consider full Internet channel creators as buccaneers, pirates and hunters who became merchants and entrepreneurs.

Amid all of the discussions on social TV that dominate this new television season, a discussion on piracy could greatly contribute to furthering the global reflection on broadcast window synchronization systems as well as territorial rights and free viewing at any time and on any screen. The CRTC has even launched a round of consultations on the subject.

Netflix and other video streaming platforms now very clearly form a part of the broadcasting ecosystem although they penetrate national markets according to a variable geometry. However, the technology underlying recommendation sections that set them apart from all other broadcasters is not. Netflix and the like are leading the almost parallel universe of social data. At the last MIPCOM, several case studies were presented, including those of Telemundo MediaNoktacom and IndiaCast Media. Their conclusion?

In the case of Telemundo: “we’ve learned to recognise that piracy is a fancy name for super-obsessed fans. We’ve learnt to ask what pirates are doing with our content so we can find them and help.”


In October 2013, Western television turned an important page with the broadcasting of the final episode of “Breaking Bad.” This page that was turned should reassure traditional broadcasters in several ways as well as Internet broadcasters should they be able to harness the tsunami of data that exceptionally good content can generate on tangent, remote and sometimes even related platforms. For example, analysts observed an increase of close to 9000% in the space of a few hours of the number of streams on Spotify of the song “Baby Blue” released by the band Badfinger in 1972. This song was played during scenes of the final episode of “Breaking Bad.”

Even more interesting is the fact that platforms like Netflix contribute to the long list of TV series in a now documented fashion. Last August, Variety magazine hypothesized that Netflix has directly contributed to reviving audience ratings for “Breaking Bad” on cable television by making it easier for viewers to catch up on the show’s first five seasons. At least twice as many cable viewers watched the last season than the average for the previous four seasons. The series’ finale was watched live by over 10 million viewers (12.4 million if we include all those who recorded the show and watched it after the live broadcast). This audience stimulation and retention model remains to be tested on shorter running series, but new partnerships are likely on the drawing board for series that are in their second or third season. Traditional broadcasters who have tested these cross-platform models to broadcast previous episodes with very little advertising on a pay-per-view network have noted obvious benefits in doing so.


Based on the comments of the series’ main observers and diehard fans, commercial breaks rather than advertisers were the greatest losers during the broadcasting of the final episode of “Breaking Bad.” Take for example this statement by Jeff Jarvis, probably himself a privateer (unless he records everything) given the series’ last episodes were only available without commercials on sites other than Netflix:

There existed countless merchandising, crossmedia and associative opportunities for “Breaking Bad” (all very successful) as the series’ popularity increased during the month before the broadcasting of the finale. But what about viewers’ preferred viewing windows? The series’ producers even developed their own “spoilerfoiler”, a Twitter application used to block out live tweets that would spoil the viewing experience for those who are not watching the series at the same time.

What this experience suggests is that not only must “in-demand content” data be taken into consideration, but data describing the desired viewing experience—the basis of Netflix’s business model—are just as important. For major fictions, would it be possible to reinvent the way sponsors are presented to television viewers who consume multiple episodes of television shows in a row?

Finally, is what pirates and privateers are telling us about “how to watch” as important as “what to watch”? Probably, and that should be taken into consideration by those who are preoccupied by piracy as well as those who inspire privateers on a screen close to you.

Suzanne Lortie
Suzanne Lortie holds a diploma in production from the National Theatre School of Canada as well as a MBA from HEC Montreal. She became a professor at Université du Québec à Montreal in July 2012. She has also worked as a production manager and line producer for television since 1992 (major variety and cultural series that won several Gémeaux and ADISQ awards, documentaries) and is a consultant in new media strategies.
Read Bio