From Betamax to Blinkbox: Film and TV industries meeting consumer demand for digital content via safe, legal sources

When it comes to charting technological change, historians could do worse than to look at the presents we give each other at Christmas. Whereas once people bought radios, later they gave televisions as gifts; we traded pagers for mobile phones; and the Walkman was edged out by the Discman and then the iPod.

And of course, the video cassette went the same way, replaced by the DVD. And a few years ago, the box set was the must-have gift. What better present than all seven seasons of the West Wing or a compendium of the Bond movies? After all, back in the heady days before the Coalition Government, despite the arrival of YouTube and online video but with high street video stores an increasing rarity, the legitimate online market for film and TV content was still largely nascent. This was frequently, and wrongly, cited as a justification for piracy.

Even a few years ago there were ways of downloading entertainment legally, and there was never any justification for distributing illegal content. But there’s no question that in the time since Cameron and Clegg posed for pictures in the Rose Garden, we’ve seen a remarkable evolution in the accessibility of downloadable legal content.

This Christmas, you can download almost 90 per cent of top TV and film titles, using an array of different platforms, from subscription services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, to services like iTunes and Blinkbox that let you rent or download to own content as and when you want it. And it’s the good stuff too; the critically acclaimed series and the Oscar-winning films. Research by KPMG found that overall, across all 27 legal digital streaming and download services, you can find every single 2012 UK top 100 box office hit and three quarters of top UK 100 TV programmes.

If mainstream film isn’t your thing, you’re in luck, since nine out of ten indie films can be downloaded legally. If Christmas isn’t Christmas without a viewing of Casablanca, you can also find 96% of the UK all time box office hits on one of these services.

With more of our work available to access legally, audiences and artists get a better deal. The challenge now is to make sure people know how easy it is to watch a film through a legal website, or download an entire series at the click of a button. But more than that, it’s affordable.

Yet we’ve still got to tackle the continued, widespread problem of people downloading or streaming for free from dodgy websites. According to research by Ofcom last year, 85% of people who had downloaded or streamed TV programmes in a three month period paid absolutely nothing to do so. Two of the best British films of the year, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are both already being offered online for free. This is despite the fact they are still in the cinema and not even out yet in the UK respectively.

That is why industry, supported by Government, is launching Creative Content UK next year. This is a ground-breaking new partnership between content creators and internet service providers that will boost consumer awareness of the wide array of legitimate online content services and help reduce online copyright infringement. This initiative will include a major multi-media education awareness campaign, led by content creators and part-funded by government, that aims to create wider appreciation of the value and benefits of entertainment content and copyright.

There are still too many people who think that paying anything – no matter how tiny the sum – to watch an episode of their favourite legal drama or the latest superhero film – is unnecessary. But if the creators don’t get paid, there is less money to reinvest in new film or television programmes.

The industry has responded to customer demand for more flexible ways of consuming popular culture, but for these systems to survive and improve, tackling piracy is vital. All this free content, and the ability of television and film companies to innovate and develop better, faster and cheaper models for you to watch, depends on the wider industry defeating the illegal sites and remaining profitable.

This Christmas, thousands of people will be exchanging gifts of Netflix subscriptions and Amazon or iTunes vouchers, just as they once put DVD box sets under the tree, while thousands more will watch a Christmas favourite through a legitimate platform.

Once upon a time people could legitimately claim there was limited choice if you wanted to download a film in an instant. Those days are gone, and it’s time to get that message out.