The anecdote where I have to download Doctor Who from a grey market source

There’s an Oatmeal comic doing the rounds today about how hard it can be to actually pay for media content. The basic message is that although there is a wide range of places consumers can go to pay for media content (in this case a TV programme) it can actually be really hard to pay for the content. There’s also this critique of the Oatmeal’s position that, in summary, says: “just grow up and play the game according to the content industry’s rules”.


There’s a story I keep meaning to blog about that relates to these two posts: it’s the story of Christmas Doctor Who. I’ve outlined it on Twitter before, but it’s really more of a blog post thing. Here’s how it goes:
  • Doctor Who is broadcast at exactly the wrong time for a family with very young kids to watch it, as it’s right in the bath / bed sweet spot between 6pm and 8pm.
  • We have Virgin Media which features an on demand service, and we have iPlayer so we just skip new Who  and rely on catching up later.
  • We settle down around 8pm, ready to crash out and enjoy the new Who.
  • The show hasn’t been added to the Virgin Media catch up listings.
  • We plug the laptop into the TV, and boot up iPlayer. The new episode is available! Hurrah! But wait! Server demand is so high we’re looking at an hour or more to get the show downloaded.
  • I wonder if there are any rips of the show on any media sharing sites? Yep, there are. Three clicks later the show is downloading to my laptop. Within two or three minutes there’s a 720p rip playing out from my laptop to the telly.
I don’t feel bad for downloading an episode of Doctor Who in this way. I’ve paid for it through the TV license, I’ve paid for it through investing in Virgin Media’s infrastructure. Morally I have a right to watch it, but legally I should not have done that. But why wouldn’t I when the grey market can even deliver a public good quicker than a commercial provider (Virgin Media) and a public service (the BBC)? The grey market in file sharing can deliver an episode of Doctor Who within an hour of broadcast but the content industry cannot.


There’s a strange thing that’s happening here regarding incentive. There’s a real incentive for people in file sharing communities to get their files up first, as that’s how they’re going to earn respect in their communities – and that’s why they do this stuff. They really want to get me some media, and they make it easy. All the content providers do is provide barriers. And that’s why the Oatmeal is right and Ihnatko isn’t.

By Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: