How do you like to watch your favourite TV shows? If you consider yourself a member of the hardware enthusiast community, there’s a good chance that you’ve given up on waiting every week for the next episode of Battlestar Galactica or 24 on Sky. Instead, you log onto certain shady websites and use Emule or Bit Torrent to download the latest instalments and watch them on your PC.
But just before Christmas, there’s also a good chance that you headed for your favourite site, only to find it had been permanently suspended. In December, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) got tough and sent heavy legal threats to some of the most well known peer-to-peer web portals. Having seen what the Internet had done to the music recording industry, Hollywood didn’t want to go the same way.
"Having seen what the Internet had done to the music recording industry, Hollywood didn’t want to go the same way."
The most famous casualty of the pre-Yuletide cull was Suprnova.org. This had become the most popular Bit Torrent site because of the quality of its downloads, which were vetted manually before being linked. Suprnova.org hadn’t actually faced any major legal threats itself, partly because the MPAA hadn’t yet been able to track down who ran it. Nevertheless, its main protagonist, known as ‘Sloncek’, had decided to get out while he could. There’s also some theory that money went his way to promote the new eXeem client that’s currently in beta (exeem.com), but there’s no official evidence of this other than the eXeem plug on the Suprnova.org holding page.
Although eXeem already seems to be taking off nicely, even in its 0.20 beta version, in some ways it is a step back from sites like Suprnova.org. Whatever great new peer-to-peer search technology might be lurking in there, it’s essentially just another client like Emule or KaZaa – and in many ways more like the latter than the former. Aside from installing the Looksmart search bar in Internet Explorer, eXeem will also deploy Cydoor spyware onto your system (see here for details). Although Suprnova.org hosted the odd pop-up advert or two, it never downloaded this kind of malicious code to your system.
It’s not just the unhealthy Trojans eXeem installs which make it a retrograde manoeuvre. It also lacks the browsability of a web-based interface. Whilst there’s no avoiding the truth that both eXeem and Suprnova.org enable copyright-infringing content theft, Suprnova.org pointed in a different direction, with potential implications for a change in the legitimate side of TV and film distribution. Although getting something for nothing is a major factor in why people fileshare, it’s not the only one. With TV and film content, there’s also the fact that no legal alternative yet exists if you want to download this kind of material rather than wait until it’s available on DVD.
So far, the creators of motion-visual content are showing as little imagination regarding file sharing as the recording industry did when faced with the original Napster. The latter is a case in point about what’s possible when content companies embrace the potential of digital technology and the Internet. As I write, Napster To Go has just been launched in the UK. This extends Napster’s subscription service to portable devices. For £14.95 a month, the 1,000,000 songs available on Napster can be transferred to a compatible portable player without the need to buy the tracks individually. The selection of devices which work with it is currently quite pitiful, but support is likely to be a tickbox in all future portable media players from now on. It’s a radical change in the way music is distributed.
Why hasn’t a Napster-style subscription model been extended to TV? Imagine that instead of the Sci-Fi channel or Sky One, you have a subscription-based website containing download links to a selection of your favourite shows. The portal could incorporate advertising, but the programming itself might not have to. Unlike illicit peer-to-peer file sharing, you’d be guaranteed of the quality, and confident that any link you clicked on would start downloading immediately. The sheer volume of video data has always been an issue for video on demand. But all a portal owner would need to provide would be enough bandwidth and storage to seed the content sufficiently. After a few initial downloads, the peer-to-peer model would kick in nicely to make the more popular choices arrive quickly. In fact, there’s a site doing something like this already - My5minutes.com. It doesn’t include any commercial content, but uses Bit Torrent to speed data delivery.
"Why hasn’t a Napster-style subscription model been extended to TV?"
I have no idea if this model I’m imagining is economically viable, but I have a strong suspicion it is. After all, aside from the delivery mechanism, it’s not a million miles away from how services like LoveFilm.com work. With the latter, a flat monthly fee lets you rent a certain number of DVDs at a time. You keep them as long as you want, but can only get more when you send back the ones you’ve currently got. Replicating this kind of function using DRM (digital rights management) such as can be found in Windows Media Player 10 is entirely possible right now.
So, how much would you pay to have your favourite programming available like this? At least a tenner a month? What about £20? Maybe if enough people ask for such a service, somebody might just notice and start providing it. Until then, though, you’ll just have to go on stealing your TV instead.