My kids have completely different expectations for how the television works than I did when I was a child. 

I recall racing down the stairs just before 5pm so I could park myself in front of our small television in time for the Brady Bunch song to begin.  There were no second chances, no way to pause while someone used the bathroom or grabbed a snack, and no ability to watch another episode if one didn’t seem like enough. 

Today, my kids know their favorite shows and movies are available anytime they are given the greenlight to turn on the television or any of the many other devices they know can be used for such entertainment. 

But one doesn’t have to go all the way back to the 70s to see how much entertainment has evolved.  The sitcoms of the 90s seem equally antiquated with their laugh-tracks and storylines that last precisely twenty-two minutes, knowing that the audience need closure and only a small part of plot can withstand a week-long wait.   

Today, it’s entirely different.  Our nightly entertainment can have the depth and quality that used to be reserved only for the biggest Hollywood production.  One can watch back-to-back episodes of intricately-produced programming that, while still segmented for us into show-sized chunks, are truly epic, high-quality stories that often last for dozens of hours.

It’s easy to take our access to this kind of quality entertainment for granted, but it’s really an amazing tribute to technological development and innovation.

Ironically, technology can also impede the investment in high quality entertainment.  Technologies that make it possible for such programming to exist and be so readily accessible at any time or place of our choosing also make it easy for consumers to avoid paying anything for access to this entertainment by accessing it illegally. 

As the Washington Post recently reported, new-media innovator Netflix has been hard hit by online-piracy:    

But the fact that Netflix shows are also being voraciously downloaded illegally renews industry worries that there are no clear solutions to piracy.

Entertainment industry executives had hoped Internet-based services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime would persuade those watching pirated videos online to begin paying or subscribing legally — much the way music lovers embraced iTunes, even if they had grown up illegally downloading files on Napster. But even Netflix, which at $8 to $9 per month for a streaming-only plan costs a fraction of a typical cable bill, may not be able to curb online theft….

Analysts say hundreds of millions of dollars are being stolen with these unauthorized downloads of video, music and book files through pirate sites such as the Pirate Bay.

In fact, as this report details, facilitating the illegal downloading of programming itself has become a multi-million dollar business. 

Americans may be tempted to shrug off this phenomenon:  It is only entertainment after all, and famous actors and entertainment executives hardly make for the most sympathetic characters in this economic drama.

But draining millions of dollars from a legitimate industry does have serious economic impacts, and reduces the number of jobs that are created in the media industry not just for big-name actors and executives, but for many average Joes. 

Moreover, at its core, this phenomenon of intellectual property theft is a close-cousin to the problems that plague many industries and impact everything from the development of drugs and medical treatments to new communication technologies.   As I’ve written before, there may not be an easy way to prevent intellectual property theft, but an important first step is recognizing that it’s a real problem with serious economic consequences. 

We want innovation to continue to give us more and better options for entertainment as well as in other areas of life.  That requires a system that gives investors the confidence that their property is just that—their property—and that their products and programming will be free to compete and be recognized and rewarded through a safe, competitive market.