After a year and a half of watching and re-watching the season 2 finale of Sherlock to deduce how Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) faked his death, U.K. Sherlock fans finally got their answer (or a range of non-answers) on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, U.S. fans had to wait until last Sunday, Jan. 19, for PBS to broadcast the season 3 premiere. After a modest poll, it’s estimated that more than three quarters of U.S. Sherlock die-hards had seen the episode prior to the PBS broadcast. They’d “pre-watched” it by downloading or streaming off the internet or by buying the DVD from outside their territory.
While the number of people illegally downloading music, movies, and TV episodes suggests that no one cares about artist rights anymore, the word choice of the people doing it shows that we have not yet purged the respect for artists from our consciousness. Those words are “guilt” and “support,” as in “I feel less guilty for downloading Sherlock because I also bought the Blu-Ray” or “I downloaded it, but I still watched it on PBS to show my support.” Likewise, the artists’ rights can be the key deterrent in pre-watching: “It’s important to me to be fair to the company and actors in the show to watch everything legally,” said one fan, explaining why she waited for the PBS broadcast (Check to see if a PBS affiliate is available via FIlmOn in your area).
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If there’s still a sense of right and wrong when it comes to pre-watching Sherlock, why do people do it? A big part of it is impatience. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss left us with a cliffhanger that had people talking for an unconventional year-and-a-half hiatus. There’s also desire to be part of The Event, like watching coverage of the Royal Wedding or The Olympics, or even the last season finale of long-running hit American TV shows Lost and Breaking Bad.
They want to read the news while it’s fresh and partake in discussions. If their friends are pre-watching or their friends live in the U.K., there’s pressure to keep up with their conversations. But the number one reason why Americans pre-watched Sherlock season 3, and a large factor in Cumberbatch’s campaign to air it on the same day in the two countries, is because of social media. The U.K. and the U.S. may be on different landmasses, but they are on the same Internet. Can you imagine waiting a year and a half to see Sherlock reveal his brilliant method only to have the mystery spoiled by an animated gif on Tumblr? The threat is enough to make one hastily watch a grainy YouTube version or an ever-buffering feed from BBC.
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If avoiding spoilers is so important to the fans and the creators, why did Cumberbatch’s campaign fail? It’s to do with rights restrictions. Let’s assume that in the agreements between the TV stations and the TV studio, BBC was given first broadcast rights. PBS then honors their agreement with the studio to broadcast it after the BBC has. If you are using a geo-blocker to access BBC iPlayer from the U.S., you are not in their licensing territory and are therefore an unwanted audience member. To make matters worse, you’re in a territory that has a station who has the U.S. rights, so they are losing your business. That isn’t to say the system won’t change or isn’t already changing, but it does explain why U.S. Sherlock fans are re-watching the broadcast version to feel “less guilty” about pre-watching.
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Jaime Nelson is editor of anglonerd.com, a British TV and comedy blog for Americans.
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