Web piracy hits int'l TV sector in pocketbook

Web piracy hits int'l TV sector in pocketbook

Nothing seems to be safe from entertainment content thieves who now are causing even the international TV sector some major headaches.

Broadcasters are becoming increasingly irked at seeing expensive U.S. studio TV shows being downloaded off the Internet and exploited by pirates long before their scheduled broadcast in their territories. The English-language territories are the most vulnerable because there's no need for dubbing or subtitles. So fans of top-rated U.S. dramas -- many of which are now being licensed at well more than $1 million an episode -- are simply hacking into shows within hours of their U.S. broadcast.

Piracy has forced the film sector to close the window between domestic U.S. and international debuts. Now the same thing is happening on the TV front. The debut in Australia of the CBS drama "Jericho" within hours of its U.S. bow a couple of weeks ago likely will pave the way for more day-and-date launches in foreign territories.

In fact, the U.K.'s Sky One recently refined its deal with 20th Century Fox Television Distribution to air the next season of "24" within a week of its U.S. broadcast. Research has identified "24" as the single-most illegally viewed TV program on the Internet in the U.K. It seems that genuine fans of the show are so eager to find out what happens next that they are figuring out how to tap into illegal downloads of the U.S. broadcast.

According to 20th Century Fox Television Distribution executive vp international Marion Edwards, broadcasters see the fan-based piracy as a serious devaluation of their program investment. But with gaps of several months between U.S. and foreign broadcasts (with the exception of Canada) often the norm, the temptation for fans to tune in via the Web often is irresistible.

Fox and Sky One are hoping that the narrower broadcast window will go a long way toward countering the problem. "The feeling is that if you can tell somebody you can watch it legally within a week, rather than choose to watch it illegally, that people will respond," Edwards says.

As for "24" in the U.K., Sky One head of acquisitions David Smyth says: "We have yet to confirm a launch date, but it is our firm intention to go as close behind Fox (in the U.S.) as possible (the show is set to launch on Fox in mid-January). It has everything to do with minimizing downloads and capitalizing on fans' immediate response. With '24,' the story lines are so keenly anticipated that they are out of the bag from the get-go."

He adds: " I think its a trend for the future with respect to the downloading scenario. I certainly think, in that regard, that '24' is head and shoulders above the rest because it's so heavily serialized that it's addictive. When you are finished watching one episode, the only thing you want to do is watch another."

In promoting the almost day-and-date broadcast for "24" in the U.K., Sky One will "be talking to a larger fan base than those who would illegally download," Smyth says. But the message will be loud and clear: that the viewing experience on television, and in particular high-def, will be so much better than a computer download.