Fun TV fact: “Desperate Housewives” is a cult hit in North Korea. Slightly less surprisingly, shows like “Breaking Bad” and “House” are watched everywhere, from Latin America to China to France.
But as America’s TV stars and bosses gathered in Los Angeles this weekend for the Emmys, the massive success of U.S. shows abroad also highlighted a clear problem — a huge proportion of viewers watch their products illegally.
“It’s definitely a big problem,” said Tim Westcott, senior TV analyst at international media consultancy IHS Screen Digest. “People outside the U.S. can download pirate copies of a new U.S. show only minutes after it’s aired in the U.S. via various file-sharing sites,” he said.
Beth Braen of the National Association of Television Program Executives (NATPE) added, “Piracy is as big an issue for the TV industry as it is for their film counterparts.”
Of course, American TV series have long been popular around the world — “Baywatch,” “Starsky and Hutch” and “Dallas” were staples of television decades before the latest crop of hit shows.
“House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” were among those vying for glory — and increased riches — at the Emmys on Sunday.
But they are popular way beyond America’s shores. And the growth potential is enormous. Global pay TV revenue last year jumped by nearly 30 percent to more than $184 billion, according to a recent study cited by the Hollywood Reporter.
For example, in France — long proud of its “cultural exception” that protects its own film, television and music producers — American shows now dominate TV schedules.
The most popular include “House” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (“Les Experts”). The biggest hit, “The Mentalist,” gets more than 7 million viewers per episode on France’s biggest private channel, TF1.
In China, U.S. television shows are hugely popular, even if there is little opportunity for viewers to watch them on state-controlled television stations.
HBO dramas are particularly big with Chinese viewers. They are available mainly through illicit online streaming, usually the day after they have been aired in the United States, with subtitled versions following soon after.
Japan has long had a love affair with U.S. TV shows. Even older shows such as “Columbo” still garner viewers.
NHK’s expansion into satellite television saw it offer a greater variety of series, with recent examples including “Glee” and “Desperate Housewives.” The fantasy drama “Once Upon A Time” began its run this month.
North Korea has always derided “decadent” foreign culture and bans nearly all South Korean and U.S. films and TV shows — but technology has punched numerous holes in the once impenetrable information barrier around the country.
“Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives” are the hermit state’s cult favorites.
“I was often asked for medicines, but not as often as I was asked for DVDs of television soap operas,” former British Ambassador in Pyongyang John Everard wrote in his recently published memoir, “Only Beautiful Please.”
“I once lent one contact a set of DVDs of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and met the same person the next day with big rings under their eyes. They had sat up all night and watched the entire series in one sitting,” he said.
In Latin America, illicit downloading or file sharing is rife, with the most popular shows including “The X-Factor,” “Breaking Bad,” “Glee,” “Homeland” and “Modern Family.”
The potential markets overseas are huge.
“TV is unquestionably more international than ever before,” said Tim Gray, the awards editor of industry journal Variety. “As channels proliferate around the globe via cable and satellite, everybody needs more content.”
IHS Screen Digest analyst Westcott added: “New markets are opening up all the time (Asia-Pacific, Latin America, Eastern Europe), and new players in the market are always looking for high quality content, ideally in high volume.”
But experts compare the state of TV and film piracy to the music industry before the advent of iTunes. Like record producers, TV folks need to find a way to persuade viewers to watch legally.
“Everyone’s looking for a new model that will give consumers an option that’s affordable and attractive,” said Gray.
Netflix, a video streaming service with a huge following in America, is touted by some as possibly pointing the way ahead overseas too. Its “House of Cards” was the first online-only series nominated for a major prize at the Emmys.
The company, founded in 1997, now has more than 37 million members in 40 countries, including Canada since 2010, Latin America since 2011, and Britain, Ireland and the Nordic countries since last year.
But its services, and others like Hulu, are likely a drop in the ocean compared to the tidal wave of content being streamed illegally worldwide.
The amount of money that TV producers are losing out on due to illicit viewing is difficult to calculate.
“It’s hard to monetize these things in the film world — but even harder in TV,” Gray said. “Everyone agrees it’s a crisis, but nobody quite knows what to do about it. . . . Netflix, Hulu and others are trying for options, but there are no easy answers.”