Earlier this week, pilot episodes for three new series—Fox’s Minority Report and Lucifer and NBC’s Blindspot—set to debut in the 2015-2016 TV season leaked onto the internet. The episodes hit certain dark corners of the web in full HD, without any noticeable watermarks, some weeks (or in the case of 2016’s Lucifer, months) ahead of their premiere date.
These aren’t the first TV pilots to take this roundabout road to their world premiere. Back in May, the season’s most high-profile pilot, CBS’ Supergirl, popped up online in similarly pristine, unmarked fashion. Last summer, The CW’s The Flash and NBC’s Constantine, two projects based on major comic book properties, just like Lucifer and Supergirl, leaked. Same for FlashForward in 2009, Fringe in 2008, Chuck, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Reaper in 2007, and even Doctor Who in 2005. Given this string of events, it’s frankly more surprising when a summer passes without the biggest pilots of the upcoming season finding their way onto the internet.
It’s this relatively consistent recurrence of pre-air pilot leaks that has seemingly numbed both the industry and viewers to the morality and ultimate effect of piracy. For instance, CBS, Fox, and NBC have chosen not speak publicly on their respective leaks, nor have the various studios producing this year’s crop of illegally available newbies. Though one might suggest that this silence is partially strategic in nature, born out of the hope that the story will simply go away, it’s also likely a sign of the industry’s understanding that pilot leaks, as instances of piracy, don’t matter.
I know what you’re thinking—networks or studios don’t stress about a pilot leak because they’re responsible for initiating the leak. You’re probably right. It’s more than a little curious that Supergirl hit the web very soon after its first trailer got lit up by the Internet with some of that digital Kryptonite, and that the overwhelmingly positive response to the leaked pilot was just a little beneficial for CBS, WBTV, and DC Comics. We could build similar cases on how projects maligned at some point during the pilot development process—whether for simply existing as a representative of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy like Minority Report or for looking terrible in a three-minute clip presented to advertisers at network upfronts like Lucifer—come out on the other side of a leak having changed the online conversation about the full series prospects.
While networks or studios would never admit it because their business model depends on garnering the most live viewers as possible, the leak-as-marketing-ploy theory tracks with other contemporary maneuvers used to try to get viewers interested in new shows. Every season, more and more pilots arrive, for free, on various on-demand platforms, Hulu, YouTube, or the iTunes store, clearly in an attempt to muster up some buzz in what is an increasingly crowded marketplace, especially in the fall. Leaks to torrent sites generally happen earlier than these more official preseason releases, but are part of the extended cycle necessary to build anticipation for the real premiere date, whether they’re propagated by networks/studios or not.
Further credence to this theory might be found in the type of shows that find their way into hands of pirates each summer. Of the above shows I mentioned, all but two—Chuck and Reaper—are based on pre-existing properties, and all of them could be categorized as "geek-friendly." Let’s put it this way: they’ve all had panels at Comic-Con. It makes some sense that networks and studios would want to not only build buzz in general, but also give the knowledgeable, some might say nitpicky, fans predisposed to the occasional illegal download peace of mind that their favorite comic book character or film isn’t being ruined by the network that brings the masses American Idol.
The question I continue to have with these leaks—and with all preseason releases on iTunes or YouTube or anywhere else—is if they legitimately turn buzz and awareness into viewership. The problem, both for us and for the networks, is that there’s no accurate way to know. Sure, some of the aforementioned shows (Fringe and Doctor Who, perhaps most notably) debuted to sizable ratings despite their leaking online, just as a few recent shows heavily hyped with pre-air pilot releases like New Girl also did work for on Nielsen families. But for every Flash there’s a Constantine, and for every New Girl there’s a Free Agents.
Even then, it’s extremely difficult to know if online positive word of mouth encouraged people to watch live or if 16 other factors—effective traditional marketing, audience interest in the material or the cast, etc.—made that happen. Over time, when you allow illegal viewing, or train people to stream early for "free," doesn’t that devalue the live, revenue-generating airing and teach people to seek episodes out elsewhere?
Of course, an argument can be made that the industry wouldn’t keep quiet on leaks, implicitly sanctioning them, or keep releasing pilots early in any form, if they didn’t know it accomplished a goal. Maybe that’s true. However, I’d suggest that as networks and studios continue to struggle to optimize and monetize programming in the face of declining traditional ratings, they’ve placed significant value on something somehow more ephemeral and imprecise than the Nielsen ratings: buzz. Although it’s cool to see the industry less confrontational to leaks and/or piracy, the problem is that buzz, whether fostered by illegal downloads or VOD views, doesn’t quite pay the bills, at least not yet.