Direct-to-torrent TV: Pioneer One's interesting approach

I don't normally follow the entertainment industry, but this thing is spreading like wildfire across the Net and I think it's worthy of mention. The half-hour pilot of Pioneer One was released on Bittorrent less than five days ago, and has already made Slashdot and racked up close to 70,000 HD and 150,000 Xvid downloads so far. TV studios, take note: Josh Bernhard and Bracey Smith managed to pull together a small group of artists (with virtually no budget) to put this thing together on their own time, completely bypassed the studios and conventional distribution channels, and came out with a pilot far more compelling than what we're used to seeing from network TV. Entertainment technology is changing, all right.

Pioneer One has been criticized, of course. Nobody got paid for the pilot- the cast and crew put in their own time, and the team had only $6,000 to work with. That's not a sustainable model- these people do have to eat, after all- and it remains to be seen what fraction of those 220,000 (and growing) viewers are actually going to donate a few dollars to finance the remaining six episodes of the first season.

The show itself isn't without its flaws, either. There are minor glitches and continuity issues here and there, and the crew could really use an extra few hundred bucks to buy a tripod or a steadycam mount. The thing is, though, production crews for the big networks make these kinds of mistakes all the time- often in a blatant, "we really don't care" manner- and aren't widely criticized for it. If the Pioneer One crew can do nearly as good a job as the CSI production team on something like 0.5-1% of the budget, I'm sure things will improve considerably when they have enough to pay their team.

I won't say any more about the content of the show (just go watch it!) because what I really want to talk about here is the remarkable new distribution and funding model. If it works, this is going to have a lot of corporate executives very worried.

Let me ask you this: How much do you pay for TV and movies? If you have any more than basic over-the-air (good enough near Toronto and other big cities with tall towers, not much use elsewhere), you're probably paying somewhere north of $30 a month for cable TV service- possibly more than $70 a month if you have "the works" with umpteen HD channels. (Personally, I just don't bother, and stick with the free signals from the big networks.)

Now, other than sports (which pretty much have to be live), how much of that do you actually watch? Not what you have on as background noise while you're doing something else, but what shows you actually follow and make a point of watching. I would bet that most people have only a handful of things in this category. Maybe it's CBC's The Border, or CSI, or any of a thousand others. But your cable bill is still paying for the production, marketing and distribution of 998 other shows you don't watch, and the shows you do want to see are slowly shrinking in favour of additional advertising time.

The Pioneer One crew are betting that people are ready to move to a model where you pay, directly, for only the shows you want. They're posting their episodes directly to torrent, via the Vodo indie film distribution network. If you like what you see, and want the series to continue, you can pay whatever you like- $5, $25, $100, anything- and if enough people agree, the show will go on for another season (donors also get some bonus content). If nobody likes it, nobody donates, and the series has to either shape up or die. Since the distribution network is entirely peer-to-peer, popular productions can scale their distribution worldwide, instantly, at near-zero cost to the artists. And since what you get is a high definition, DRM-free digital movie file with a Creative Commons licence, you can watch (and share) it any time, on any device, anywhere.

The numbers are pretty impressive: If only one in five of the 220,000 (to date) Pioneer One viewers decides to contribute $10 or more, the production team will have close to half a million dollars with which to finish the first season. To a network, that's chump change- half an episode of a major drama series, or a handful of episodes of the "reality TV" filler that bogs down much of the dial. But to a small indie team, such a windfall would allow some serious development of the series- more and longer episodes, improved sets and props, additional editing, improved sound- and of course, being able to pay decent salaries to a team of promising actors.

The P2P model has other advantages. Since the show isn't locked to a network time slot, it doesn't have to be exactly 22:30 or 45:00 minutes long (well, 21:00 and 40:00 or so these days); the director can make it as long as necessary to tell that segment of the story. A 34-minute episode no longer needs to be stripped of critical scenes (or padded with unnecessary ones) to fit in a time slot. And the crew is only tied to a particular release schedule to the extent their fans hold them to it; if an episode is technically too complex to finish on time or takes a bit longer to shoot, so be it. Apart from any donations to the crew, the cost to the viewer is minimal- just the use of a couple of gigabytes of bandwidth (1 GB or so to download, another 1 GB or so to seed- you do seed your torrents, right?) that you're already paying for, but probably not using to the extent your ISP service contract says you're entitled to.

If this takes off, what you pay now for a month's worth of ad-filled TV could instead support three, five, maybe even ten well written, high quality shows of your choice for a whole season. What is now a year's cable bill would instead pay for whatever dramas, comedies and sci-fi flicks you enjoy and want to support, plus perhaps an over-the-air or cable sports feed and local/national news feeds for that stuff that really does need to be broadcast live.

I think this is something we'll see a lot more of in the coming years: independent productions, distributed via P2P and financed directly by their fans, free to compete solely on their dramatic and artistic merit. Mediocrity will abound, for sure, but only the good productions will survive- those with compelling stories, well-developed characters and excellent technical quality will attract viewers and will prosper, while those that fail to engage the audience will wither and die. It will be a refreshing change from the "we can put any old cheap junk on here and you'll watch it because you paid a $70 cable bill for it" approach that seems to be turning so many critics and viewers off these days.

Now, let's get the networks up to speed on how P2P really works... I would love to be able to torrent an 'official' version of The Border, not only so that I can watch it whenever I like (and in higher quality than the CBC's streaming video server allows), but also so that the CBC can save a fortune on the server power and bandwith needed to host streaming media. A handful of cheap servers, hosting a tracker and a bunch of seeds, could likely take care of the entire Canadian online demand for every show the CBC produces. Yes, so a bit of ad revenue might be lost in the short term, but let's face it: the current TV/video/movie advertising model is badly broken and is long overdue for some serious, creative re-thinking. I'm sure a 21st-century system can be worked out to everyone's benefit- just as soon as we find a network or studio willing to try.



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