Other than being a handy resource for checking the pulse of global audiences to see where their tastes lie, the list paints a very interesting picture on several fronts.
First, since more than 90 percent of the downloaders are outside the U.S., this takes away the distinction between shows broadcast on major networks and those offered by cablers, effectively taking the number of live viewers out of the equation. This also eliminates factors such as television advertising that may otherwise play a part in how many viewers a show attracts.
Second, it illustrates the international popularity of serialized as opposed to episodic shows as well as non-genre and genre television. Based on the list, viewers tend to shift in favour of science fiction and, other than House, there are no procedurals among the top 10.
Most importantly, the list gives one an idea of how much money networks could earn if they made their shows available – legally, with ads or for a fee – to audiences outside the U.S. at the same time that they are broadcast domestically. (A lesson film studios learned years ago, judging from the number of major releases that have premiered internationally over a matter of days as opposed to months, which was usually the case in the 1990s.)
If last year’s numbers are anything to go by, more than 40 percent of international viewers would either pay or watch ads to be able to download content online instead of having to watch it live. (Read Blood, peanuts and the future of television for more info on those numbers.)
The headcount below only covers the people who aren’t squeamish about piracy when it comes to watching the latest episodes of their favourite shows, and the numbers are the sum of all torrent downloads for the most popular episodes.
While some shows that are very popular with Nielsen audiences (e.g. Desperate Housewives) can live blissfully on network television forever without having to count the loyal pirates across the pond, it is interesting to note that The Sarah Connor Chronicles – a show that only premiered in 2008, while others on the list are well into their mature seasons – can garner an international following of 2,42 million for a single episode, compared to only 5,5 million live viewers it gets in the U.S., while SCI FI’s Stargate Atlantis even gets more viewers outside the country than it does domestically.
The top 10 most pirated shows in 2008 were:
1. Lost – 5,730,000
2. Heroes – 4,400,000
3. Prison Break – 3,840,000
4. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – 2,240,000
5. Desperate Housewives – 1,990,000
6. Stargate Atlantis – 1,810,000
7. Dexter – 1,660,000
8. House – 1,520,000
9. Grey’s Anatomy – 1,380,000
10. Smallville – 1,150,000
While the top three – Lost, Heroes and Prison Break – are on the U.S. primetime A list as well, clear of any cancellation fears, number four – The Sarah Connor Chronicles – has struggled with ratings this season, which has resulted in Fox moving the show from Monday to a Friday slot, with Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse as the lead-out that will to some degree depend on Terminator‘s audiences. (The Sarah Connor Chronicles returns from the winter break on February 13 at 8 p.m., followed by the Dollhouse series premiere at 9 p.m. So mark those Fox Friday nights if you’re a genre geek. Early Saturday mornings if you’re outside the U.S.)
It’s hard to predict the fate of either show at this point, especially with Terminator getting picked up for a full season even though the numbers spelled certain cancellation a couple of months ago, so one can only hope that 2009 will bring broadcast television a step closer to a new, sustainable business model that will allow shows like these to become less dependent on the Nielsen audiences.
Working out international streaming rights sounds like a good place to start, but so far there has only been talk. Still, since it does not seem likely that network television will win back the 2.6 million households (the equivalent of the city of Philadelphia, as Variety reports it) that it lost in the past year, and the economic crisis will not go away overnight, maybe 2009 is the year that will bring some constructive change on this front.