TV May Be Free but Not That Free

Times Staff Writers

Amanda Palmer hardly fits the profile of an Internet outlaw, but her obsession with the ABC show “Lost” makes this self-described “bubbly, nutty mum” the television industry’s worst nightmare.

Like thousands of other British fans, the 30-year-old personal assistant can’t bear to wait the nine months it can take for new “Lost” shows to air in England. So, soon after the closing credits roll in America, she downloads each episode off file-sharing networks.

And most alarming to TV industry executives, Palmer admits not a twinge of guilt.


“It’s TV, isn’t it?” she said. “It would probably be different if it was a movie. If it is free on everybody’s TV, why worry about it?”

The $60-billion TV industry has a simple answer to Palmer’s question: because the future of free TV may depend on it.

Although still far behind music, television shows represent the fastest-growing type of files downloaded online. As Internet speeds increase and software improves, almost anyone can get high-quality bootlegs of such popular shows as “Desperate Housewives,” “24” and “The O.C.” -- minus the commercials that make “free” TV free.

As Palmer can attest, piracy has never been easier.

Software such as BitTorrent makes pirated material easy to download, episodic TV ensures a fresh supply of content and the popularity of devices such as Apple Computer Inc.’s iPod creates an appetite for video.

“In the same way that the original Napster was synonymous in the minds of virtually everyone who used it with free music, today if you say ‘BitTorrent,’ they’re thinking television,” said Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne, a research firm that tracks online traffic. “Even people who are not eye-patch-wearing pirates think nothing of grabbing a show from BitTorrent.”

In fact, some people now use file sharing as a source of on-demand programming, outpacing the industry’s efforts to set up their own pay-for-view services. Instead of programming a VCR or digital video recorder to record the latest episode of FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” these users simply download it the next day.

Clicking the mouse instead of the remote has dramatic implications for the TV industry.

Producers of popular programs often take in as much as a third of their revenue from foreign sales -- a pot of money that would presumably evaporate if overseas downloading catches on.

In addition, producers also rely heavily on the profits that flow from DVD compilations of their biggest hits.

“It’s a serious problem,” said Peter Levinsohn, president of Fox Digital Media at News Corp. “There is a voracious appetite for this content.”

On Monday, CBS asked to pull a “CBS Evening News” clip that had been posted on the site devoted to videos made by users. The clip -- about an autistic high school student who scored 20 points in the final minutes of a basketball game -- was viewed more than 1.5 million times.

“The protocol here would have been to come and say, “Hey, this is something we’d really like to post, give us permission to do it,” said “Evening News” executive producer Rome Hartman. “I’m almost positive that if they had done so, we would have said ‘yes.’ They posted without asking us.”

Just two weeks earlier, NBC had asked YouTube to remove hundreds of videos from its website, including highlights from the Winter Olympics in Turin and a “Saturday Night Live” skit called “Lazy Sunday.”

To be sure, television piracy is not yet as pervasive as the unauthorized downloading that has accompanied the decline of music CD sales.

A popular song, such as the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” can be found on as many as 4.7 million computers. By contrast, there are only a few hundred thousand bootlegged copies of a hit show like ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

“The television business deals in tens of millions of people,” said Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the “Law & Order” series on NBC. “When you are talking thousands of people ... that’s less than the change that falls off the table. But that’s for now.”

During the last year, both the number of people sharing pirated shows -- and the number of files available for download -- have increased faster than movies or adult films, according to BigChampagne. In the Britain, illegal downloads of the hit “24” increased by more than 150% in a single year.

“It’s really grown enormously over the last 12 months,” said David Price, head of piracy intelligence for the Internet monitoring company Envisional Ltd. in Cambridge, England. “It’s partly because broadband has become more broadly available. It’s becoming easier to do. It’s becoming quicker.”

TV shows are enticing because a half-hour show takes much less time to download than a 90-minute feature-length film. And freely available software compresses the files so they’re compact enough for an hourlong show to fit on a single CD and be played on a DVD player.

In some ways, the industry’s dilemma boils down to this: how to convince consumers that you can steal something that is perceived to be widely available free of charge. The half-century-old business model of subsidizing TV production by selling commercial time to advertisers is invisible to the audience.

“Unlike downloading a Hollywood film, which I think everyone intuitively knows is a clear violation of the copyright, people do not have that sharp line, that distinction, in their minds when they download free TV,” said Garland of BigChampagne.

After watching the music industry blame online piracy for ravaging sales, television producers are trying to make legal downloading so easy that no one steals.

Walt Disney Co. was the first major media company to strike a deal to sell some of its most popular shows through Apple’s iTunes Store. NBC Universal and Viacom Inc.’s Comedy Central and MTV quickly joined.

“We are trying to be on the leading edge of utilizing digital technology to make our TV shows available to consumers in as convenient of a way as we can,” said Richard Cotton, general counsel of NBC Universal.

CBS distributes its shows through Google Video and its own website. Time Warner Inc.’s America Online announced that later this month it would begin offering TV classics such as “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

“Whether or not this curtails any of that [illegal] usage, time will tell,” said Michele Ganeless, general manager of Comedy Central.

Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Assn. of America began suing online sources of pirated TV shows in late 2004. Last month alone the movie industry’s trade group filed seven lawsuits against sites that traffic in pirated material.

Apple’s launch of the video-playing iPod in the fall spurred demand for TV shows. An estimated 4.5 million people own the portable device, and the video iPod’s introduction heightened awareness of the Internet as a new distribution outlet for television for the mass audience.

Still, studios have required that iTunes limit downloads to domestic consumers. That prevents fans in Britain and other countries from downloading TV programs before they are broadcast locally.

Palmer said she learned the intricacies of how to download the latest episodes of “Lost” in a private section of an online fan forum. She noted her husband now downloads a whole lineup of American TV shows.

“You can pretty much guarantee, as soon as the episodes hit the states about 8 o’clock Eastern time, by 3 or 4 o’clock GMT it’s going to hit the Internet,” said Palmer, referring to 10 p.m. Eastern time. “Don’t worry: I don’t stay up that late. I have the nice advantage of having a taxi driver husband who helps me.”