Oz viewers sidestepping court order


SYDNEY -- A piracy raid conducted by police and officials of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft in the southern Australian state of Victoria uncovered thousands of bootleg DVD's of Nine Network flagship drama "Underbelly" last week. The haul provided concrete evidence of what most in the media and law enforcement already knew: that a significant black market exists for the underworld drama that's proved a ratings hit for the network despite being banned in Victoria.

"Underbelly's" gritty, almost docu-style portrayal of the underworld wars that gripped Melbourne from 1995 to 2004 and saw more than 33 crime figures killed was supposed to help arrest the Nine Network's ratings decline.

But unfortunately for Nine, the trial of a man accused of murdering a Melbourne gangland figure coincided with the series launch.

As a result, Supreme Court Justice Betty King, last month, ban-ned Nine from broadcasting the AUS$13 million ($11.8 million) drama on TV in Victoria until after the trial. In a first for this country, she banned them from showing it on the Internet as well.

In her ruling, Justice King said that, while the show was a dramatization, it "tended to corroborate evidence associated with the trial."

"It will be difficult for the viewing public to sift through what is factual material and what is fictional," she said. "In my view, the criminal justice system is more important than (Nine's) profit margin."

The suppression order, which followed heavy marketing and strong word of mouth, only served to fuel demand that's been satisfied by Internet peer-to-peer sites that have allowed tens of thousands to illegally download the show.

One site, EZTV, reported about 10,000 downloads on the day after the premiere. Another, Mininova, has recorded 38,000 downloads of the show and, this week, had all 13 episodes available online, even though only six have aired.

By contrast, the premiere was watched by 1.5 million viewers in the main cities outside Melbourne, and the series has since averaged about 1.8 million nationally a week. Nine says that up to another million would have watched it in Melbourne.

Now, many of them have, and it's putting a dent in Nine's revenues, with key media buyers estimating the network has lost up to AUS$4 million ($3.6 million) in ad revenue as a result of the ban.

Media commentators and the legal fraternity also are asking whether suppression orders remain an effective tool for keeping juror's quarantined from potentially prejudicial material.

"The fact is, that technology has really outstripped the suppression order," one commentator said.

Media buyer Harold Mitchell told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.: "The ban is interesting in the modern days of free-to-air television because, there are, in fact, no boundaries anymore that you can just put up a fence and say 'that's it.' "

Nine is currently appealing the ban and would not comment on any aspect of the show.