Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

“Big-brand advertisers play a big role in this.” TV piracy’s move into the mainstream

NDA speaks to White Bullet CEO Peter Szyszko on TV piracy’s move into the mainstream and how IP owners and brands are taking action on ad-funded illegal content.

Where are we now on advertiser-funded piracy? According to your Breaking (B)ads report from this summer, we are apparently now talking about a billion-dollar criminal business?

We planted a flag in the ground this summer with the release of the report you mention, published with the Digital Citizens Alliance, which highlights the overlap between piracy, malware and fraud, and really tells you where we stand in terms of the scale of the ad-funded piracy problem. The top websites that offer stolen content generate $1.08 billion in global annual ad revenue. A large number of criminal operators are involved in this, and the bigger ones make an average of $18.3m each from advertising.

Pirate streaming apps are still growing, but they are even more lucrative, the bigger ones making an average of $27.6 million in ad revenue. We know that big-brand advertisers play a big role in this, and that consumers think less of companies when they see their advertising appear on piracy websites and apps. So while there is a great challenge at hand, it also feels as if the whole issue is also really coming into focus for many of the stakeholders.

Can you give some examples of that kind of stakeholder engagement, and also talk about how much the environment has shifted since the start of the pandemic?

We saw an increase in digital content consumption during lockdown, and that meant that both legitimate and illegitimate services really grew in parallel. But another consequence was that the profile of IP fraud, both as a problem for copyright owners and as a brand safety issue for advertisers, has really increased, and we have welcomed a lot of new parties into the prevention effort. In recent months, we have done deals with ad management platforms to cut off advertising to pirate operators at source, and we have worked with some huge advertisers and content owners to help them variously eliminate ad-funded piracy in their ad supply chains and identify and demonetise infringing websites and apps.

Increasingly, pirated TV seems startlingly mainstream, is that fair to say?

That’s certainly accurate. The nature of the threat is constantly evolving. There is no glory in conquering content piracy on the web if, in practice, the pirates have shifted their attention to apps and connected TV – which increasingly they are doing. TV piracy has truly entered the mainstream in recent years. Every day, hundreds of pirate operators steal live and on-demand television programming, movies and pay-per-view sporting events and divert them to millions of consumers, at prices no pay TV or over-the-top provider could possibly match. And of course they can afford to be cheap, because they bear none of the costs of their content. In some countries, we know that more than half of consumers knowingly take pirate services, and often cancel their pay TV as a consequence. So all that is out there, and it very much validates the high level of priority that creators and legitimate distributors of content are giving to this problem.

Given the dynamism of content piracy and the obvious consumer appeal of illegal services, how can those who wish to avoid advertising against illegal content possibly keep up, never mind stay ahead?

We’ve certainly gone far beyond the point where you might imagine you could maintain a blocklist of sites and hope to somehow chase them down. We are in an age of enhanced real-time data now, where AI-driven technology is essential to map the vast, shifting network of IP-infringing services building fraudulent businesses on stolen film and other content. We can track piracy as it is taking place, across multiple digital ecosystems. That means that advertisers and authorities are able to understand risk before placing ads in places that host problem content, and where we find examples in real time, by working with ISPs, ad servers and authorities we can act decisively, pull advertising and initiate full shutdowns. In that way, we can starve offending pirate websites and apps of their revenues.

In such a booming illegal market, do the efforts of individual advertisers really make a difference?

They absolutely do. Our report with the Digital Citizens Alliance found that ads for Amazon, Facebook and Google accounted for 73 percent of all major brand advertising that appeared frequently on piracy apps during our year-long investigation. That is a reflection of the size of those brands and the scale of their advertising, but it also shows how much of an impact might be made by turning the right heads. Even in the report, we were able to note that there had been a recent significant decline in Amazon ads on piracy websites and apps, which demonstrates that when a big brand makes it a priority, that can really make a difference. For smaller brands, the volume and the brand equity impact of misplaced advertising may be far less, but for them it is still an issue of wasted ad budgets, reputation and, frankly, just doing their bit to clean up the web.