As part of its campaign to get us all watching Smash before it airs “live” on February 6 (more thoughts on Smash itself coming later) NBC has placed the entire pilot – and the preview of coming attractions that follows it – on YouTube, with no apparent geographic restrictions. As one commenter says, “that’s how you beat the piraters.”
Update: The video was working in Canada when I posted this. Now it’s not. So the “no apparent geographic restrictions” turns out, as it always does, to be a mirage – that’s the worst part, that sometimes a video is available, briefly, giving us a false sense of hope before they block it.
Several networks have tried this technique of making pilots available for free in advance; Fox did this with New Girl, and the live ratings for the pilot were excellent. Of course you can’t prove that this kind of thing doesn’t hurt the ratings; no one can prove definitively that a show would have done better in the ratings. But it at least is arguable that the audience for shows online is somewhat different from the audience for shows live on TV, and that at least some of the people who are watching on YouTube would not have watched it live anyway. But theoretically, some of those YouTube viewers might talk to the people who will watch live – people who use TV viewing as appointment time to spend time with their families, let’s say, might be tipped off by one family member who doesn’t mind sitting through it again.
I’m a little uncomfortable advancing the theory that people who watch in one format probably wouldn’t have watched in another format, because it is a bit close to one of my least favourite arguments from the SOPA flap (obligatory disclaimer, SOPA seems to have been a very poorly-thought-out idea): that piracy is not a problem because most people who pirate would never have paid for the product anyway. This assumes that everybody has money that can only be used for one purpose, and that the possibility of getting something for free doesn’t change the way we use our money (let’s say, if the choice is between buying something we can get free, and buying something that we can’t get unless we pay for it). Individually, we may sometimes watch things for free that we would never have paid for; collectively, the availability of free stuff probably does change things.
So I don’t know if broadcast TV networks are better off pumping more free episodes into the system – making it easier for us to get them legally – or making it harder for us to get anything for free. It’s the same problem other advertising-supported media have had to face. But for a pilot, at least, I think it makes sense; certainly for a heavily-promoted pilot like this one. When a network puts this much promotional muscle into a show, the pilot is almost guaranteed a lot of viewers. So even if Fox lost viewers by making New Girl available before the premiere (it probably didn’t lose viewers, but let’s just say for the sake of argument), it was always going to get a lot of people tuning in. The problems with a show like this start to emerge in episode 2 and beyond, when the viewers decide if they actually like the show and want to come back. So the method being used here is to give away the episode that will get a lot of live viewers, building as many viewers in as many formats as you possibly can – and then hope that that gives you a bigger pool of interested viewers when episode 2 rolls around.