Thursday, February 11, 2010

Roy Billings, exposing the underbelly on the intertubes, and stealing from the government that steals from the taxpayer ...

(Above: Underbelly, sophisticated entertainment for the thoughtful Australian taxpayer, partially financed by the federal government to bring pleasure to the antipodes, a kind of proceeds of crime, as well as awareness of Australian criminals to the international marketplace).

You know, I don't say this with pride - if nothing else it indicates a jumbled mind and a jumbled warehouse of a home - but here's the thing.

I needed a quote, urgently, from Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano. Don't ask why, just accept that I did, in five minutes, in real time. It's early Vonnegut and it's a parable about how people - once they've had a technology-destroying revolution, immediately begin repairing the machines - and here's a quote, though not the one I was looking for:

Paul and Finnerty left the car to examine the mystery, and saw that the center of attention was an Orange-O machine. Orange-O, Paul recalled, was something of a cause célèbre, for no one in the whole country, apparently, could stomach the stuff - no one save Doctor Francis Eldgrin Gelhorne, National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director. As a monument to him, Orange-O machines stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest, though the coin-box collectors never found anything in the machines but stale Orange-O.
But now the excretor of the blended wood pulp, dye, water, and orange-type flavoring was as popular as a nymphomaniac at an American Legion convention.
"O.K., now let's try anotha' nickel in her an' see how she does," said a familiar voice from behind the machine - the voice of Bud Calhoun.
"Clunkle" went the coin, and then a whir, and a gurgle.
The crowd was overjoyed.
"Filled the cup almost to the top that time; and she's nice and cold now, too," called the man by the machine's spout.
"But the light behind the Orange-O sign didn't light up," said a woman. "Supposed to."
"We'll fix that, won't we, Bud?" said another voice from behind the machine. "You people get me about three feet of that red wire hanging out of the shoeshine machine, and somebody let me borrow their penknife a second."

Well here's the thing, and I don't say it with pride, but my copy of Kurt Vonnegut's book, it wasn't in the Vonnegut section under 'V', but lost under 'P' for paperback mess, thousands of paperbacks jumbled therein.

What to do? On to the intertubes, download Vonnegut's book, discover it's a .lit file, then discover a shareware ebook viewer which will decode .lit files, even though it's supposed to be a proprietary MS file. Works like a charm. A few seconds later, searching the text and nailing the quote.

Well inside ten minutes, and about three hours shorter than trawling through the jumble of books in the house.

Of course I could have lined up and bought a proper legal digital copy, but I already own it, and just want a quick quote, which in the old days I might have turned to a library to find. Or found in an organised home.

It's a new world out there, and the young swim in it like fish, not aware that they're in a digital sea that once didn't exist, and all of the key providers of digital content - books, music, films, television - will have to shape up or ship out, recognise changing realities and devise new business models and new strategies.

In much the way as - if I want to catch up on ABC programs - I might head off to the ABC site, which allows me to download At The Movies (okay, who on earth would want to download those aged film critic loons) or the first Media Watch of the year - well at least they send up Lord Monckton (here or here or here as it slips down the program list).

Or - if I want - to make use of iView, which provides programs for 14 days online, which includes comedies (The Colbert Report), documentaries (Kevin McCloud's Grand Tour), or drama (The Wire).

Funnily enough, you won't find too many Australian programs in the mix, except those the ABC have managed to gee up in relation to rights, because of old fashioned restraints on this kind of thing, driven by people who can't get their heads around the intertubes as a portal, not even understanding its capacity as a new variant on FTA. And at the moment it's a stretch for some because of broadband caps. But that will change, and soon enough.

Because of course anything on iView is free to watch, just as I can watch shows for free on FTA. If I want a copy? Well it's easy to copy online from the screen if you've got the right program, just as it's easy to copy off air, using a PVR to convert the recording to a DVD (if you're of the 'old school, just show me the antiquated technology' society of disc lovers).

Why this extended rant about how digital content wants to be free, and is free, and is all over the place? So much that if I started now I couldn't watch - or want to watch or read or hear - one per cent of it.

Well because of the sadness reading poor old Roy Billing's piece Piracy is not victimless, just ask any actor, in which he conclusively proves that actors are best off in front of the camera, and behind the camera arguments are best left to the writer, director and producer.

Now Billing is a much loved character actor, and he turned in a good job in Underbelly.

But of all the weeks to take a pot shot at pirates, this wasn't the week. Not with the news that the Federal government is busy shovelling money down the throat of commercial television broadcasters, supposedly because of the onerous burden of generating 55% Australian content and the suffering induced by the switch to digital.

Well Chairman Rupert's rag The Australian is hardly an innocent bystander in the matter (not where Foxtel is involved), but they do have a point in Kevin Rudd's $250m lifts TV profits:

The financial performance of Nine and Seven has been constrained by the massive debt loads taken on by both networks' owners during private equity deals in 2006. Nine is controlled by private equity firm CVC Asia Pacific, which took on more than $4 billion in debt to buy the company. Seven remains 47 per cent owned by US-based KKR, with the balance held by Kerry Stokes's listed Seven Network and management.

Yep, bank the money and socialise the losses.

What a good idea for the Free TV crowd to appoint old mate Wayne Goss to tickle the feds and get a result.

Naturally The Australian was outraged, managing a feature Election year a prime time for TV, about the belated Christmas present to FTA executives, and an editorial, Taxpayers: the biggest losers.

But even Crikey noted that it was a more than generous gesture, especially as not a single demand was made of the broadcasters in relation to Australian content, employment for actors or crew, or more activity in the production sector. (Rebates to TV networks just an ugly bribe, Tips for Tony Abbott). It was just enough that they carry on as they are, doing more shows about fatties and foodies (a virtuous circle of content).

What's all this got to do with the hapless Billing and his piece?

Well one of the greater ironies is that most Australian television drama, almost all Australian documentaries at the serious end of the spectrum, and the bulk of cinema distributed feature films are funded by the Australian taxpayer.

Underbelly, for example, got $2.94 million from Screen Australia, which up to the end of last year had seen a recoupment of 44% on its investment (not a return, just half way towards the black, or the blue sky).

Not that this is unusual. Screen Australia hasn't recouped its initial investment in a single feature film, TV or documentary production over the past three years. (here). But then you could count the projects funded by the FFC (SA's predecessor), which turned a profit, on a couple of hands and a few toes ... and the FFC kept trying from the days it replaced 10BA in the funding mix way back at the end of the eighties.

So when Billing scribbles this kind of nonsense, it's hard to know whether to laugh or to cry:

Every one of us in our industry sets out to do our best and hopefully, the Australian public like what we do. But we work in an industry that requires, like all business enterprises, for costs to be recovered, wages paid, and, hopefully, profit made to be invested back into further ventures.

But our industry, worldwide, is under threat from piracy. Those who illicitly copy movies and sell them as cheap DVDs and who illegally download movies from the internet are jeapordising the future of homegrown Australian TV and films. Free access to the internet is fine but not when used to access our content for free.

Um actually Roy - you don't mind if I call you Roy, I feel I know you from a past life - pirates and the intertubes aren't killing the Australian film and television industry.

If you were a cynic, you might say they'd shot themselves in the foot, because nobody wants to watch the stuff they make, and few people can be bothered to pirate or download it for free (or even burn a copy off their PVR). At least in the feature film arena. There's only so much misery porn you can watch in a year.

But let's be a romantic for the moment, and think of a way forward.

I know, how about the federal government, instead of shovelling money down the throat of free to air networks and their self inflicted debts, spends a little of the licence fees on additional funding for the industry?

Because you see rhetoric about a cottage industry largely funded by the federal government flies like a lead balloon, especially if you pretend it's a business and don't bother to acknowledge the massive amounts of subsidy already delivered in dollops by inept bureaucrats who don't have a clue:

... contrary to popular belief, actors are not all earning millions. Some of us do very well, some of us just eke out a living — same as in every job. But, like the life cycle of a movie, our income has many streams, unlike an average job where you get paid one wage for the job done. Those extra income streams from the movie or TV show's initial release to DVD sales or online distribution, make the difference between working for peanuts or getting a fair whack for what we do.

Well actually Roy, contrary to popular belief, Screen Australia is the one that has its hand out for fair dibs on ancillary returns. You can find their terms of trade here in pdf form, and see how you can get your paws on reverted recoupment seven years down the track, along with a share from first dollar and the neat little earners actors get under their award as bonuses (unless you've produced a title which is actually profitable, in which case let's not be so hasty in our talk of reversion).

But Roy has drunk the private enterprise kool aid:

Similarly the production companies that employ us rely on those income streams to make a profit, which can then be channelled back into other productions.

Underbelly Three, for example, could not happen unless the people that produced and invested in Underbelly Two got a return on their investment. Just like any business situation.

What? A business situation where you get a special producer offset as a rich financial incentive?
Because if you can't get Screen Australia going one way as an equity investor, you can get get the government going the other way with a healthy rebate cash flowed by the usual assortment of private sector socialists?

Then Roy decides to crank the rhetoric up to eleven:

Anyone who illegally downloads a movie or a TV show from the internet is taking money out of the pockets of everyone who was involved in it. And they are making it harder for us to carry on.

But what about the wretches who legally watch a movie or TV show on free to air TV, or even watch it on iView (especially if they're one of the batch who've suddenly discovered the Playstation Three connection - Casting the Net, here)?

Well here's what will make it harder for the industry to carry on. A federal government as lick spittle lackey to the FTA broadcasters, and determined to keep subsidy via the offset or the producers down to a Treasury-approved level.

Never mind, let's get back to the rhetoric:

It might not even feel like thieving to those who do it but it is far from a victimless crime. Can you imagine someone going over to their neighbour's house, when they weren't home, with an extension lead, plugging that lead into the neighbour's power point, then using that electricity to power their vacuum cleaner to clean their own home? That's theft isn't it? It is stealing something your neighbour is going to have to pay for.

Why am I always reminded at this point that feature film ticket sales last year in Australia broke the billion dollar barrier? Talk about crying poor all the way to the poorhouse drinking French champagne.

While Roy rabbits on about vacuum cleaners and power supplies, the real pirates - FTA and local film distributors - make out like bandits, while the production industry suffers, because when you're last in line for a dollar from recoupment, you'll be lucky to see a dollar.

If you illegally download a movie that I am in from the internet, or buy a pirated DVD of Underbelly Two you are stealing from me and everyone who put their investment, talent and effort into that production.

Or are we stealing from the government, and their recoupment demands? Seeing as how they put a lot of their investment and bureaucratic time into financing productions? And want some of it back? So they can spend it on new shows? From which they want a little tickle?

Never mind, here's the clincher:

Last week a very important case brought by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft against one of the internet providers, iinet, over its failure to stop illegal downloads of films and TV shows found in favour of the internet provider. I am disappointed with this court ruling and believe that in view of the constantly changing online environment, the federal government should be looking at the current situation and drafting legislation accordingly.

Um, Roy piracy is already illegal, it's just that the court ruled that the ISPs didn't have to turn themselves into an internet police force.

So what kind of legislation are you talking about? Oh I see, Senator Conroy's great big internet filter ... that should sort out the pirates. Or perhaps three strikes and you're out? Which has had such a strong impact on piracy elsewhere in the world.

Not to worry, the intertubes is now so vast and full to overflowing, that watching Australian content, let alone ripping it off, is the last thought on many consumers' minds ... which is why I have sympathy for Australian cast and crew and the Australian industry. It simply wouldn't exist without subsidy, and on balance, and contrary to the ravings of the Dolts of this world, it's better to have it than not.

It just shouldn't pretend it's a business going about its business without the hefty help of government, and in the future needing even heftier support if reasonable production budgets are to be sustained in a fragmenting market place. Soon enough one of the few games left in town might well be the ABC.

Naturally Roy copped a pounding in the comments section. Ain't much love out there Roy. But no spoilers, for there's much fun to be had reading the digerati as they ravage Roy. Golly it's rougher than some of the Underbelly killings and not a bare boob in sight to provide a bit of relief.

Oh and did I start this rant just so I could rant about how much I hate seeing wretched Free TV ads on the ABC and SBS? For Seven and Nine and Ten and all the other digital channels, what's more, as if we couldn't work it out for ourselves. On the supposedly ad free ABC, except for all the ads for the ABC they already ram down our throat?

You betcha! Stop it you bastards, just stop it, before I go blind ... Where are you Media Watch when you're needed? By golly, I think I'll copy an episode of Bed of Roses off air to punish them, and release it on the intertubes. What's that? You couldn't give it away, no one wants it?

Oh no! Kerry Armstrong. There's already too much suffering in the world ...

UPDATE: Crikey's even more agitated in Free TV handouts: we don't know the half of it ...

(Below: say what? My eight track did what? Oh no).

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