It goes without saying that the value of television rights for Premier League football has risen over the last two decades in a manner that few would have considered possible when the league came into being in 1992. Television has become the driving force behind the entire league, changing the culture of the game almost beyond recognition and fuelling a spending spree that shows no signs of abating, but the medium itself is struggling. Viewing audiences are nothing like what they used to be, and for many the internet has become the medium of choice for all media consumption.
Moreover, the untameable nature of the internet means that protecting those rights is more difficult than it was ever likely thought to be possible. For as long as broadband speeds have been quick enough to be able to cope with streaming video, those that do not wish or are unable to pay for live Premier League football have been able to stream matches illegally. The quality isn’t always perfect and the commentary is often in a language other than English, but if there is one thing that can be said for certain it is that the popularity of sites offering this service continues to grow.
All of this leaves rights holders in a bit of a spot. The pursuance of illegal streaming sites has in recent years come to resemble a game of “whack-a-mole.” Every time a site is forced to close down a dozen more spring up in its place, and every effort to try and stem the tide of illegal streaming sites has an air of futile resignation about it, the application of a sticking plaster that will not – primarily because it almost certainly cannot – make any difference to this phenomenon apart from a cosmetic one. At the same time, though, those that hold these rights have to be seen to be doing something about it. The amount of money spent on television rights for the Premier League dictates that, if nothing else.
This week, the Premier League has launched another offensive against this phenomenon, seeking a court order to request that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are made to block one of the most popular streaming sites, First Row Sports. This site, which at any time offers a near bewildering choice of matches from around the entire world, has become one the the most recognisable names in this particular sphere, and with such recognition comes the attention of lawyers. It is understood that ISPs themselves will not block the move, but the question of what practical difference it might make to the number of sites that do this is a real one, to which the answer is most likely “not very much.”
There will, of course, always be those who will simply not pay for TV subscriptions when there is a free alternative available, but there is another group of people who make use of these sites for other reasons. Getting a television subscription to watch live is not cheap, particularly for those who like their coverage to be comprehensive. Sky Sports alone has four channels play the now ubiquitous Sky Sports News, while the BT Sport channel is to launch soon as well. And as all supporters know, agreements between authorities mean that three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon is a black hole, with no matches being shown live at all. One thing that illegal streaming sites do offer those that use them is convenience. Rather than searching around, trying to find out which match is on what channel, these sites tend to have everything in one place.
There is a cogent line of reasoning behind why rights holders should take steps to protect their property, of course, and it’s an argument that can be obscured by the fact that it is being made on behalf of the likes of Rupert Murdoch. However, this sort of approach is riven with problems, and from a purely practical perspective it would seem to make sense for rights holders to try a different approach in dealing with it. This, however, is an argument that has been going on for a considerable amount of time across the entertainment industry, and as yet there doesn’t seem to be any policy formula that works, either for consumers or rights holders.
We might even argue that the horse has already bolted on this subject, and that attempting to close the stable door now is unlikely to make any difference to it whatsoever. When court orders were granted blocking file-sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay and Kick Ass Torrents last year, mirrors of the sites affected were in place within days, and it seems difficult to believe that the same thing wouldn’t happen if the Premier League was to obtain the court order that it currently craves. But over time, it only seems likely that the use of television in a traditional sense will die off, as technology moves further away from aerials and towards what we might describe as a web-based multimedia model.
Official live streaming services remain unsatisfactory. Sky Sports offers a live service through Sky Go, but the quality of streams can be erratic, the Silverlight software that it uses is clunky, and there is a tendency for the scourge of anyone who streams video at all, buffering, to rear its head at any time, particularly – and this is an obvious bone of contention when we’re talking about live sports – at moments of high significance. Moreover, they’re expensive – not quite as expensive as full television subscriptions, but charged at level at which people will be likely to start to look for alternative options. Indeed, when we consider the extent to which streaming video has become the next generation of viewing choice for so many people, the legitimate online services that are available often feel like an afterthought, a bolt-on added without a great deal of attention.
There are obvious ways that the Premier League could cut down on the success of illegal streaming sites, by making watching matches online cheaper and easier to watch or by putting more attention into their legitimate online streaming services that are offered in their name. Alternatively, they could advertise the problems with illegal streaming sites, the issues with connections or the possibility of the advertisements that these sites running depositing viruses onto users’ machines, but this approach hasn’t been attempted in the past, so there is no reason to believe that it will be in the future. Rather than giving viewers greater reason to go to legitimate services, the policy seems to be to continue to pursue this game of “whack-a-mole” for the foreseeable future, and it’s a battle that they are exceedingly unlikely to win in anything but a Pyrrhic sense.
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