Web Sites Enable 'Sharing’ of TV Shows

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Most viewers won’t get a chance to revisit the first season of Fox’s 24 until it goes into syndication this fall, but with a few clicks of a mouse, any Web surfer with a high-speed connection can apparently download 24 and dozens of other original programs, via file-sharing software and Web sites.

But to do so, those surfers apparently would be infringing on the copyrights of the owners of 24 and other shows.

Web sites already in operation are making video, including cable-network content, the fastest growing segment in the peer-to-peer download world, according to the Distributed Computing Industry Association.

Could cable TV be the next medium to take a financial hit, in the way the music industry has been zapped financially by the KaZaas of the world?

SAYS 'STOP PAYING’

The intent of these sites seems clear. “Stop paying for cable or DVDs, renting or even going to the movies,” trumpets TV.org (www.tv.org).

The site, a well-designed, official-looking portal, is marketing primetime broadcast and cable shows by name for download, including CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Home Box Office hit The Sopranos and Sci Fi Channel’s Farscape.

Multichannel News found several of these sites — bearing different names, such as TVunleashed.com and downloadTVnow.com — all of which are very similar in design and verbiage.

A check of domain registrations found that some of the sites were registered anonymously, but at least two come back to the same registrant, MP3 Networks Ltd. in Sliema, Malta.

The sites stress that they’re not selling software (i.e. content). Rather, they say they’re charging for technical support to downloaders.

Membership is not a license, the sites stressed, and downloading is for “educational purposes only.”

A typical hold-harmless warning is: “We do not condone copyright infringement. Any violators must leave the site immediately.”

Another states, “We urge you to respect copyrights,” but also instructs members to “share responsibly.”

The sites boast anywhere from 50 million to 240 million downloaders. In addition to television content, the sites also market movies and video games.

Multichannel News did not register to use the sites, which is necessary to determine their pricing structure for content.

HBO: NO LICENSE

HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson said no Web sites are licensed to distribute the channel’s content. Though such a site could affect sales of DVDs of HBO series and movies, as well as subscription video-on-demand, he said the network has seen no financial impact from such peer-to-peer portals.

He declined to publicly discuss the network’s anti-piracy efforts.

A request for comment from Sci Fi, passed up the corporate ladder to parent NBC Universal Cable, was not returned.

There are some Web sites that offer legal television content. Movie download service Movielink (www.movielink.com), for instance, offers licensed downloads of BBC and National Geographic Society documentaries.

CinemaNow, which is a partnership of all the major producers except Viacom Inc., (www.cinemanow.com) sells and rents episodes of classic television shows such as The Andy Griffith Show and past seasons of Big Brother.

Through its PR agency, CinemaNow officials said content companies are very concerned about piracy, but also indicated that the company is not currently involved in efforts to shut down illegal sites or services. The venture fights piracy by providing a legal alternative for content seekers.

Unfortunately for content rights-holders and hardware manufacturers, the consumer-adoption rate for downloaded content is far ahead of that curve — regardless of the legality of that content.

That could be harmful to the development of video-on-demand, since many distributors believe the next-day availability of “water-cooler shows” could launch VOD into the mainstream.

But producers won’t license such content for the platform until it can be delivered and consumed securely.

Content providers were loath to talk about online piracy. But Marty Lafferty, a former executive of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and now CEO of the Distributed Computing Industry Association, said downloading has enjoyed the fastest consumer-adoption rate since the introduction of instant messaging.

Not surprisingly, the largest demographic group among downloaders and file-sharers is college kids, 18 to 24 years old. The trend is responsible for an estimated 750 million music downloads to date, and the appetite for video is growing.

LIKE BIG-DISH DAYS

Lafferty compared the dilemma of digital rights management to the crisis cable TV faced from home satellite dish customers in the 1970s. All a consumer had to do was buy a massive dish for the yard to receive HBO and all the other satellite-delivered signals available.

“All over the world, analog engineers said, 'This is the end. We can never encrypt this. We’ll have to go back to landlines,’ ” Lafferty recalled. But the rights-holders worked together with companies like General Instrument Corp. and came up with a solution to secure the signals.

Rather than kill the home-satellite segment, encryption led to the development of a robust direct-broadcast satellite industry, Lafferty noted.

The 2-year-old DCIA saw Internet filtering as the most efficient way to protect licensed content.

But Internet-service providers — especially the regional Bell operating companies — want to focus on recouping their investments and want no liability or responsibility for what passes through their pipes, Lafferty said.

The content community needs to agree on a digital-rights management system, such as watermarking or digital fingerprinting, according to Lafferty.

“They need to roll up their sleeves and work together,” he said.

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