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Australian TV viewers are waiting longer than ever to view their favourite overseas produced televisions shows, driving them to use BitTorrent and other internet-based peer-to-peer programs to download programmes from overseas, prior to their local broadcast.

According to a survey based on a sample of 119 current or recent free-to-air TV series', Australian viewers are waiting an average of almost 17 months for the first run series' first seen overseas. Over the past two years, average Australian broadcast delays for free-to-air television viewers have more than doubled from 7.9 to 16.7 months.

A survey of TV programmes found that while some aired very close to their US air date, many popular programmes were significantly delayed.

Average broadcast delays were shortest for TV series' on the Seven and Ten Networks, at around nine months. The average delay for TV series' airing on the Nine Network was 22 months, while TV series' on ABC and SBS aired on average 23 and 30 months behind the US.

Among popular programs, fans of Nine's Without a Trace had to wait nearly nine months for an episode that aired in the US. A recent episode of Seven's My Name Is Earl aired a year after its US broadcast date. Fans of Ten's American Idol have just seen last season's finals - nine months after they were seen in America, while Americans vote for the new Idol.

The ABC recently showed an episode of The West Wing 21 months after its US broadcast date, but Nine's Antiques Roadshow and SBS's Iron Chef take the cake with recent first run episodes shown over 11 years after their first overseas broadcast.

The survey followed a similar survey from two years ago which found the average delay for first run TV programmes on free-to-air TV at the time was just under eight months. Popular prime time TV programmes currently subject to substantial delays including the following:

  • Close To Home (8.6 months)
  • CSI: N.Y. (9.3 months)
  • Desperate Housewives (4.4 months)
  • Grey's Anatomy (4.9 months)
  • Heroes (4.2 months)
  • House (5 months)
  • NCIS (4.1 months)
  • Third Watch (22.1 months)

While film and music content owners have attempted to cater for digital consumers through services like iTunes, Australian TV networks appear to be unable or unwilling to change their programming policies or provide new digital based options for consumers that don't want to wait to view their favourite shows.

This is despite the growth in Australian broadband usage, legal proceedings against Perth ISP Swiftel related to BitTorrent technology, and the popularity of authorised TV downloads in the US. Australian consumers can't download television programs from the US iTunes website.

Consumer dissatisfaction with programming policies has been expressed in many national online fora with viewers saying they are tired of broadcast delays and are instead turning to unauthorised sources.

The major factor that fuels viewer dissatisfaction and consequent downloading activity is the unavailability of new hit programs from the US, and delays in broadcasting old favourites on local television.

Programmes have been terminated without notice mid-season in Australia, leaving key plotlines unresolved. Others have "gone missing" from free-to-air television.

Forum users often ask how they can download these programmes, challenging the right of Australian television programmers to "hold back" key shows. Further, comments about the content of programmes are typically about the US broadcast version of these programs, rather than the delayed Australian version.

Meanwhile, while no precise usage figures are available, various studies have shown that Australians are substantial users of BitTorrent.

This situation replicates one faced by the music and film industries a few years ago. While these industries responded with increased enforcement activity, they also responded with additional authorised alternatives such as iTunes, and amended business models such as reduced film release windows.

So far, the Australian TV industry has largely responded to these delays by ignoring the issue, and we anticipate they will again be commenting on the research with a "no comment". Any comments from the TV industry will be included in my blog Malik's Law as they are received.

Perhaps the Australian television industry believes that if it fails to mention the internet and the impact it has on TV viewers, it will go away. Of course, that approach didn't work very well for the music industry... ®

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