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Piracy Endangers TV Renewals and Jobs, Says ‘Killing’ Writer (Guest Column)

In a recent New York Times article, Hana Beshara, founder of NinjaVideo, the now defunct illegal online streaming site for TV and movies, says she is unrepentant for creating a site that chose to use other people’s intellectual property to make half a million dollars for herself and her collaborators on the site.

As a television drama writer who works mainly in the cable world, my writing partner Nicole Yorkin and I write characters like Hana all the time. Engaging characters with questionable morality who gleefully commit crimes for the thrill of it. It makes for good TV.

Hanna would be one of the archetypes — lost and without much of a sense of identity, until she stumbles into the world of online piracy. Her life changes dramatically as she becomes the “hot-tempered,” powerful Queen Phara, lording over her own online community of 60,000 devotees.

Oh, yeah. Move over Walter White. This is the stuff that cable dramas are made of, right? Sure, unless it’s your creative sweat and blood that’s making someone else money they haven’t earned. The unfortunate reality: the Hanas of the world are damaging our creative ability to tell those stories, and the entertainment industry in general, with their theft of our content.

When Hana made a TV episode available for free on her website, that was worth the equivalent of thousands of downloads that weren’t watched on a legal site. And when that happened, the entire production team that collectively created the content was adversely impacted – from the most junior production assistant on up. All positions within the hierarchy became devalued.

In contrast, when the audience pays for creative content, they are voicing their support with their dollars. They are saying: “this show/film/whatever has personal value. I enjoy it. It’s worth paying for.” That not only helps me as a writer, it leads to further investment in the shows audiences like.

For example, it was the enthusiastic and legal downloading of one of the most recent shows we worked on — “The Killing,” on Netflix — that brought it back from cancellation not once, but twice. Networks rely heavily on that type of honest feedback from the audience, in order to tailor their programming. In short: if you don’t buy it, they don’t make it.

Netflix realized their subscribers were clearly interested in the show having more seasons to conclude its story. Those two extra seasons provided hundreds of jobs, paid for people’s health insurance and pensions, and provided eighteen more hours of creative content. That benefits fans as well as the creators of the show. When a viewer accesses an episode on a site like NinjaVideo, rather than a legal site, there’s no accurate measurement of market value for that content. And that’s how shows die.

Unfortunately, when it comes to accessing creative content on the internet, the line between what is right and what is wrong has become blurred. There seems to be an almost global mindset that if it’s available and doesn’t require payment, it is okay to take it. People have rationalized this behavior to the point that it’s now the status quo — which has led to a staggering number of unlawful downloads each year.

So the problem doesn’t stop with privateers like Hana. After all, NinjaVideo was profitable because it was able to collect ad dollars from its 60,000 devotees.

Any solution will have to involve higher standards on what constitutes ethical online behavior. Just because something can be found online does not make it right to take it without financially compensating all those individuals whose efforts went into creating the content.

Patrons of pirate sites may think they are “sticking it to the man.” But they are actually sticking it to me — and all my creative colleagues. And that doesn’t make good TV.

Dawn Prestwich is a television writer and producer best known for “The Killing,” which airs on AMC and Netflix; HBO’s “Carnivale;” “The Riches” on FX; Showtime’s “Brotherhood,” as well as “Judging Amy,” “Chicago Hope,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Picket Fences.”

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