“If you can’t keep up with the conversation you better not try to join in at all.”
-Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal (2001)
Hannibal is dead in the ground. After three spectacular seasons of beautiful horror and delicious psychological violence, Bryan Fuller’s television masterpiece was forced to conclude on the downbeat of its adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. The show was critically lauded, fanatically supported, and criminally under-watched. Still, NBC refused to let it go on for a fourth the season, and all the major streaming services passed on their opportunities to adopt it.
The gaping hole of Hannibal’s absence in the television landscape hurts. Even if you, like me, felt like the season three finale served as a perfect ending to the series, there can be no denying that the rest of TV still fails to satisfy like Hannibal once did. I don’t need more Hannibal, but I would still love more. And when you lose something so important to you in the middle of enjoying it, the instinct is to start pointing fingers. In this regard, producer and Hannibal champion Martha De Laurentiis is blaming the fans — namely the pirates.
In advance of her participation of the Meet The Producers event that was held just over a week ago in Washington, DC, De Laurentiis penned an open letter that was published on The Hill, speculating that Hannibal didn’t get a fourth season because of online piracy. Citing a statistic from 2013, De Laurentiis points out that Hannibal was the fifth most pirated television show during its first season.
When NBC decided not to renew “Hannibal” for a fourth season — a show on which I served as executive producer — it wasn’t much of a leap to connect its fate with the fact that the show was ranked as the fifth-most illegally downloaded show in 2013. When nearly one-third of the audience for “Hannibal” is coming from pirated sites — despite the fact that a legitimate download for each episode was available the following day — you don’t have to know calculus to do the math. If a show is stolen, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to fairly compensate a crew and keep a series in production.
Now, setting aside the fact that Hannibal didn’t crack the top ten most pirated shows for its second or third seasons — and that the number one most pirated show every year since 2012, Game of Thrones, is only a month away from its highly anticipated sixth season and will likely air until its rightful conclusion — De Laurentiis’ hypothesis begs the question: why do fans pirate shows they love?
Go Team Adult Swim
On January 31, 2016, I was filled with rage. Staring at the interactive guide on my TV, I didn’t see what I was promised. The Venture Bros. is one of my favourite television shows and its sixth season was set to premiere on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block at Midnight. I purchased a subscription to the channel earlier that weekend so that I could watch along with the rest of the Team Venture fandom. Loving television, after all, is a community activity. But Venture Brothers wasn’t showing up on the schedule.
This is how I found out that Cartoon Network in Canada is a different, shittier version of Cartoon Network in the States, and that if I wanted to watch season six of The Venture Bros. with the rest of the world, I wouldn’t even be able to pay for it. The Adult Swim website streams shows the next day, but requires viewers to login with their US cable provider info, effectively blocking the use of VPN services. You can’t buy new episodes on iTunes or on Google Play in Canada either (which is a great way to legally watch Fargo by the way). You just have to wait. Or, obviously, you can spend three minutes illegally downloading it for free.
I was on the verge of piracy, and that’s not a moral position I like to be in since I already pay away a good portion of my income to my cable provider (and also I have a crippling level of Catholic guilt). Thankfully some angel at Adult Swim understood the situation and launched a subscription service aimed at international audiences. Now, fans of Venture Bros who reside outside of the US can subscribe to Adult Swim through the company’s official app and watch all the content they were normally denied because of where they live.
Problem solved. The content creators are actually selling their product outside of the normal broadcast range and the fans barely have to wait to watch it while also being able to engage in community discussion, which is at least half the fun of consuming pop culture.
Breaking Up The Party
If piracy contributed to Hannibal’s demise then it was because the show was difficult to watch and impossible not to talk about. In its first season, a critically important episode the the show’s central storyline was banned from airing due to content sensitivity reasons. In its second season, Hannibal was relegated to a late Friday night time slot. Last year, for the show’s triumphant Red Dragon arc, it was moved to Saturday nights in the US, but aired two nights earlier in Canada on City.
In those strange final days of Hannibal it became abundantly clear that the viewer/content/broadcaster relationship had fundamentally changed. Thanks to the Internet, fans can now connect with the creators and stars of their shows, they can make friends with other fans, and they can experience these grand emotional events together at the same time. Watching a show and live-tweeting along with its associated online community is an enriching experience and has become a central part of modern cultural identity.
But when watching the final episodes of Hannibal season three in Canada, Twitter was dead silent. We didn’t want to spoil the fun for American friends, who wouldn’t participate anyway. Meanwhile, when those friends were watching on Saturday, some of us weren’t tweeting along with them or the shows’ producers (De Laurentiis included), having already examined the show in isolated spoiler threads on Reddit and in Canadian review comment sections. By Sunday, when it went up for free on NBC’s website for American viewers, the conversation was long over. There was nothing left to say. It had been picked at intermittently over four days by fans who watched it either on Canadian TV, streamed it by circumventing City’s online border wall, or downloaded the torrent which was likely available within an hour of the Thursday night broadcast. People know how to get their entertainment when they want it, as is readily evidenced by this Reddit thread that sprung up when City announced it wouldn’t change its schedule.
The broadcasters broke up an international community of fans by messing with their show’s schedule. Now a producer is blaming them for wanting to be involved in a peer group as equals. If piracy is killing shows, it’s because broadcasters don’t understand how their content is being valued, consumed, or discussed. Make shows available across international borders as they air, respect the discussion and fan communities, and people will stop stealing television.
Now, there are some idealists who will pirate shows no matter what, but piracy on the massive scales De Laurentiis is talking about is done out of frustration. Fans will buy content. They will subscribe to content. But they will not wait for it, because fandom is a conversation, and to paraphrase Hannibal Lecter, if you can’t keep up you better not join in at all.