At first glance, it mightn’t seem as though there’s necessarily much of a connection between online gambling and the television industry, and so it’s difficult to see immediately how one may affect the other. Different media, different audiences, different business models.
However, while big internet gambling firms may not be directly impacting on the business of television production (apart from the fact that they take eyeballs away from the major networks, pay TV, and legal streaming sites like Netflix), it is rather their advertising strategies that are indirectly, yet most significantly, impacting on the world of TV.
This is because large, multi-national online betting companies have taken to paying for pop-up advertising on popular illegal streaming sites, which has significantly contributed to their rapid and widespread proliferation. Very few enterprises can say no when big gambling comes calling, and so internet betting’s presence in the murky underworld of pirate TV is what keeps many torrent sites going. The appeal is, of course, obvious — illegal streaming sites suddenly find that they have guaranteed income and, perhaps just as importantly, a stamp of respectability, by featuring the advertising of major brands.
And this is hurting the legitimate TV industry, which argues that advertising by online sports betting sites and casinos has a significant negative impact on their bottom line because these advertisers thus help to keep illegal TV streaming sites in business.
However, this is not an argument that’s likely to sway internet gambling brands, as while the majority of their player acquisition comes through legitimate review sites like the UK’s playright.co.uk, it is certainly the case that a great deal is also done through less than legitimate torrent and streaming sites.
So why aren’t TV streaming sites simply shut down for breaking the law by infringing copyright? This is where it gets a little tricky, as enforcing the law in this regard is not as straightforward as it may seem. Many streaming sites operate in something of a legal grey area, as they only provide links to pirated content, but they don’t actually host it. As such, they are not directly responsible (it’s argued) for any copyright breaches. They can also be hard to pin down, as most streaming sites are nimble at changing their URLs and domain names to avoid detection and blocking.
Is it legal for the gambling companies?
According to the letter of the law, any gambling company that is licensed to operate in Britain by the UK Gambling Commission is prohibited from advertising on websites that breach copyright regulations; however, while the question is unresolved as to whether these sites are actually the infringers of copyright, or rather just the channels through which such content is viewed, it would seem that there is nothing that can be done in legal terms to stop the gambling companies’ presence in this less than reputable market.
This might lead you to think that such a murky form of advertising is likewise undertaken by less than reputable operators, without the resources to conduct mainstream or above-board advertising campaigns. However, you’d be wrong — the ads that pop up when you’re watching Game of Thrones on an illegal streaming site are likely to feature the biggest names, publicly-owned brands with international profiles, like bet365, SkyBet, bwin and Novibet.
That internet gambling firms have gone down the route of these sorts of dubious practices is in part because of the far tighter restrictions that are now in place as to where and when they can legitimately advertise, particularly when it comes to mainstream, free-to-air TV channels. It could be argued that the authorities’ success in this realm has had the unintended consequence of forcing internet gambling brands to look elsewhere to pick up players, which has in turn led to them to the not entirely respectable — but also not entirely illegal — market provided by pirate TV, with the losers being the legitimate providers.
And as there has as yet been no action taken against any of these large online gambling companies over their choice of advertising partners, such as having their licenses revoked by the UK Gambling Commission, it would seem that the practice is likely to continue.
Who is watching illegally streamed TV shows?
The answer as to why gambling companies want to advertise on illegal torrent sites is a simple one — lots of people watch them. And, unlike legitimate steaming sites or network TV, you can get all of the best TV shows from across all of the available channels without having to maintain a number of different subscriptions. There is also the question of availability — why wait for a hit TV show to be officially released on Netflix or Amazon Prime when you can watch it almost instantly on an illegal site.
With a list of the top ten pirated shows in 2016 including a range of titles as diverse as The Grand Tour, Vikings, The Big Bang Theory, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, it demonstrates that the target audience is large and varied, and thus appealing to online gambling sites as an advertising vehicle because of the very different demographics that torrent sites reach.
How much do illegal streaming sites cost the TV industry?
It’s hard to make any truly accurate assessment of how much TV piracy costs the industry; illegal torrent and steaming sites are by their very nature not likely to put their financials into the public domain, while the legitimate industry can only speculate as to how much they are missing out on, both in terms of lost revenue from copyright being stolen and the amount of advertising mainstream TV and legitimate streaming channels are consequently losing.
The last available industry figures suggested that pirate TV websites generated more than US$220 million in 2014, and despite moderately successful efforts by authorities to clamp down on the practice, anyone who has watched their favorite show via an illegal torrent will know that the volume of pop-ups ads, particularly by gambling companies, does not seem to be diminishing. And while international smash hit TV shows like Game of Thrones continue to attract an estimated 10 million viewers via illegal streams, gambling companies are not going to be too squeamish about getting their messages in front of that many eyes, despite any ethical concerns.
What will the future hold?
It’s hard to predict what will be the ultimate outcome of this battle between regulators, legitimate content producers, and the pirates that profit from them. We all know that the most nefarious industries have always been early adopters of any technological development, and have pushed the boundaries of the law as to what is and isn’t acceptable.
However, with online gambling companies under increased pressure, and their social license to operate under ever more intense scrutiny, they may in the end decide that advertising in this way is not worth the reputational risk, and so revert back to more above board means of advertising.
It may even be the case that, like in the old days when cigarette and alcohol companies got around advertising restrictions by sponsoring sports and other events, we may perhaps see a brave new world in which online gambling companies actually become content producers themselves and get involved in making, promoting or screening of their own sponsored TV shows or channels. It sounds unlikely, but then the concepts of pay TV and streaming services were unimaginable concepts not that long ago.
If national regulators continue restricting where and when online gambling companies can advertise, and the morally suspect but financially lucrative illegal streaming route is cut off through the revoking of licenses, then the idea of internet gambling brands launching into the world of TV, either running channels or producing shows, is perhaps not as far-fetched as it seems.