The irritation of staggered release dates

Are staggered release dates for movies and television shows the product of an outdated mindset? Josh certainly thinks so, and he’s had enough…

Lost simulcast

‘Staggered release dates’, a phrase that will happily roll off the tongue of your average marketing man, yet stick in the throat of their target consumer.

TV shows, videogames, cinema releases and the DVDs that follow are all unapologetically trotted out, sometimes entire torturous years between regions (a food chain that Australia is regularly at the bottom of, as Yahtzee Croshaw will attest) in the name of a sales strategy and often largely because there’s little commercial impetus not to.

Now, the comic book isn’t a medium synonymous with keeping with the times. In many ways an anachronism, it harks back to a silver age when the vicarious thrills of superpowers and war heroes were uniquely found in their static pages rather than in today’s Hollywood blockbusters and next-gen console releases. And so, of course, it too has fallen foul of the archaic practice of staggered releases. In the US, ‘new comics day’ is an event celebrated on a Wednesday every week, in the UK this is on Thursday, a whole day later.

Why is it, then, that the comics industry, indeed, one in far less rude health than its contemporaries, isn’t afraid to delay the product any longer than the time it takes to physically transport it?

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Sure, it doesn’t require translating or recoding for different regions like other mediums, but then these, too, are artificially implemented limitations. Regions exist so the same movie can be sold in Asia at a price affordable in that economy without the fear of importers undercutting the far more lucrative western market.

While that is admittedly disingenuous, far more nefarious tactics have been applied in the name of business. The problem isn’t the regions, it’s the decision to then organise a hierarchy that dictates who gets the film first.

Originally a successful way to build hype and focus resources in one area of the world at a time, in today’s proliferation of BitTorrent clients, it seems to actively encourage potential customers to illegally download their entertainment, both to enjoy it at the same time as the international acquaintances the Internet allows them to make, and perhaps, also for a little taste of cultural democracy.

Lost has already proved this is not the way things have to be. The series finale was ‘simulcasted’ in eight different countries to bypass the piracy that has always followed the series due to its unusually tech-savvy demographic, and while this was undoubtedly an effective means of avoiding undesired alternative distribution, it also had its own positive influence, by creating a truly worldwide water cooler talking point.

5 a.m. on a Monday morning was a long way for such a hot property to have strayed from its traditional primetime slot on Sky 1 in the UK. But the pay-off for those dedicated Brits who got up especially for it is that they did not then have to spend their day in fear of the Internet being ridden with spoilers for what is definitely a series that rests on its timely revelations.

It’s not just that this universal approach to broadcasting saves us from labelling Internet forums and live gaming arenas no-fly zones, until we’re suitably spoiler-proof. It also means that family, friends and co-workers in the same country can find themselves speaking the same language.

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A tangible download/broadcast division has arisen when it comes to American TV series, to the point that the phrase, “Have you seen the latest episode of X?” not only requires you to have actually seen the latest episode of X (I hear it was quite Y), but also to quickly evaluate to which side of the division the person who’s speaking allegiances lie. You can ask, or you can avoid the risk of having to then explain torrents to the uninitiated, but decide well, because you may be talking about series three when a key element of the current US run is revealed.

Now, this may seem like an overly anal approach to staying spoiler-free, but the key danger is that TV thrives on being a shared experience, and anything that gets in the way of that undermines its potential pleasures.

The water cooler cliché works because it is such an effective way of describing how everyone likes to be able to talk about their favourite show with a fellow follower, and so, surely, the only boundary that should exist is whether you do, in fact, follow that show.

The time difference between the original US broadcast, it finding its way illegally online through an industrious pirate, it being distributed through more authentic means such as iTunes (but then also, is that US or UK iTunes?), and it finally being shown on these shores is completely unacceptable in a time when eager viewers can be discussing an episode on Twitter as it’s happening.

As anachronisms go, Peter Parker’s perpetual youth is systematic of a medium that is afraid to let go of its old properties, but at least it attempts to rejuvenate those properties in new titles, and releases them in a way that remains relevant to their ever-changing audience.

Lost may just represent TV execs trying to feed us the same Twilight Zone/The Prisoner mysteries it has for years, and that’s okay, but that doesn’t mean they can also broadcast them in the same tried and tested ways and hope, through sheer ignorance, those pesky emerging technologies won’t interfere.

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We’re here. The world is filling in the gaps through peer-to-peer. Get used to it, and do something constructive about it.