« Previous : Angel 4x21 Peace Out - Review
     Next : Vulkon’s Con - James Marsters Q & A »

From Guardian.co.uk

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Move with the TV times

Thursday 1 May 2003, by Webmaster

First the music industry was hit by pirates. Now it’s the turn of the TV giants, as fans swap whole series online. Brian Buchanan reports

The music industry might be struggling to adapt to the file-swapping, internet age, but it is already clear which creative business is likely to be hit next. The television industry, long used to maintaining careful control over who gets to see what and when, is already losing control of its schedules, and its precious content, to the file-swappers. Dozens of hit TV series are made, and broadcast first, in the US, before being exported around the world for screening much later. Normally, you have to wait months - even years - to see US-made programmes in the UK, but now you can see them only hours after America. How? Thank the internet. And, ultimately, it may change how we watch television.

Thanks to broadband and hard drive video recorders, it has become a lot easier for people to store TV shows on their computers. And thanks to file-sharing programs such as KaZaA, BitTorrent, Limewire, XNap and Neo, it has become a lot easier to then share them with others. Now, within 24 hours of a show being broadcast in the US, people on the other side of the world can see it, too. Dedicated fans of shows such as 24, Friends, Buffy, The Sopranos and many other hit series are using this software. Still more file-swappers use private FTP connections (direct connections between computers) AOL Instant Message or IRC (internet relay chat) chatrooms to swap files. There’s more than one way of delivering the content as long as you’re hooked up to the internet. After that, it depends on the sort of computer you have.

If you have something that plays AVI files, Video CDs and Super Video CDs - and most Intel and AMD-powered PCs machines can, especially with software from such sites as www.divx.com - then once you download whatever you want to see, you’re fine.

However, for Macintosh users, it’s a little more tricky. The Mac OS has fewer of the decoders needed for the various formats. Indeed, the most popular file formats such as AVI and VCDs/SVCDs are not supported on the Mac. While MPegs and MOV-for mat files are great for the Mac, they are not the choice of the people uploading because they take up a lot more disc space and download time.

How long does it take to download a show? That all depends on your connection, and where you are getting the file from. A 23-minute episode of Friends (that’s how long it is without ads, which are never part of the download) can be downloaded in less than an hour.

Downloads of less than 250MB are watchable, but anything under 80MB for a 25-minute show will be poor, as will anything under 100MB for a longer show. But you may not be able to watch them full-screen on your computer, and if you transfer them to a disc to watch on TV, it will look like a poor VHS copy.

Anything over 350MB and up will look fairly decent full-screen on a 15-inch monitor and perhaps even on a 17-inch screen - just like watching broadcast television on a portable telly. Anything over 1GB in size is normally a high-quality copy of DVD-like standards.

It’s not unknown for a lot of people to set up their machines to download (or DL, to use the online slang) some episodes of a show - say Buffy and Angel - before they go to bed. In the morning, the files have arrived, and then they set up other downloads before they head off to work, with all the shows there for them to watch when they want. And they are getting value for money from their "always-on" broadband connection - just don’t try this at home with a modem and one phone line.

That’s the how, but why do people do this? Can’t they just sit in front of the TV and be patient like the rest of us? The companies involved would certainly prefer that.

A UK-based licence-fee payer felt that he had already paid for the show. Others claimed they only downloaded shows never seen in the UK, so it could not be theft.

Matt, a UK-based downloader, DL’s a lot of cartoons and anime, including Invader Zim and Family Guy. "I download because Invader Zim has never been shown on UK telly, Family Guy had crap scheduling and a lot of the anime I like is either unavailable or is ridiculously expensive.

"I’ll be honest and admit that in the case of some anime, yes this is piracy, because it’s legally available. However, it’s also stupidly expensive. And as I’m not an idiot, I’m not going to buy it. For TV shows that aren’t available to buy or even watch on TV here, I don’t think it’s piracy."

Chris, another downloader, agrees: "I download stuff but will still buy it quite often as it looks a lot better in DVD quality on my 32-inch telly than as a download on a 17-inch monitor. But a lot of the things I download don’t come out on DVD ever - some aren’t even on UK telly.

"Is it piracy? For my own viewing, since I can’t buy it, the copyright holder cannot be losing out on any money, except through their own design, so I don’t see what rights I’m infringing."

In the UK, the BBC and Channel 4 appear relaxed about the online file sharing, saying it is more an issue for the US networks and programme makers.

But those networks are certainly unhappy about what is going on. A spokesperson for News Corporation - owners of Fox Television and distributors for Angel, Buffy and 24 - is blunt: "This illegal cross-border file trafficking aptly illustrates what it is the studios seek to prevent.

"We do not seek to prevent consumers from making secure physical copies of copyrighted TV shows for their own personal time-shifting purposes. Rather, we seek only to prevent people from making and redistributing insecure ’virtual’ copies of those TV shows, because those copies will inevitably be fodder for illegal file trafficking."

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its international counterpart, the Motion Picture Association (MPA) serve as the voice and advocate of the American motion picture, home video and television industries. Chairman and chief executive Jack Valenti said: "Is Channel 4 going to buy that show [West Wing] if everyone has already watched it free over the internet? No, and that means the show makers lose out on revenue from the UK.

"Putting shows on DVD and video is also a way of earning back the costs of making shows _ but who is going to buy the DVD if they already have the show stored on their hard drive?"

But are the networks at fault for failing to release shows worldwide? Or why don’t they set up an online distribution model? According to Valenti, that may happen one day, but not now. "There is no business model on this Earth that can compete with free. If someone puts a show online for nothing, others will go to it. That’s a fact, regardless of what the networks do with it.

"It frightens me that there is a generation growing up, thinking that because it’s there free, they can take it. You wouldn’t see these kids go into a rental shop and put a DVD in their pocket without paying for it, but that’s what they are doing online, they are putting the show in their virtual pocket."

Valenti knows he is in for a long, hard battle, but he is prepared for it. "This is not something that is going to change overnight, but for the survival of the industry, the piracy does have to stop."

Top ten downloads

1 Star Trek (all series) 2 Buffy/Angel 3 24 4 Friends 5 West Wing 6 Japanese Anime shows (mostly involving robots) 7 Stargate 8 Farscape 9 Firefly 10 Smallville