Saturday, March 22, 2008

Why I'm Not Excited About Sanctioned Bit Torrenting Of Network TV Shows

Bob Cringely, you were a Bit Torrenting business model genius four years ago, but it's only now that the broadcast world is ready to seriously contemplate what you were doing.

I recently read that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is about to be the first North American broadcaster to provide a series of a network show in high definition video files through Bit Torrent, the peer-to-peer file sharing distribution platform.

I've been impressed for many years at Bit Torrent's incredible ability to provide distribution of very large media files to users at incremental costs. Cringely's Nerd TV was one of the first examples I noticed around four years ago. I haven't seen too many legitimate uses since, except in the downloading of game patches, etc. by publishers. But as interesting as the CBC's exercise is, I think it's more of an experiment than the first wave of how broadcasters distribute their content.

I work for a TV and film producer, and while my focus is digital media, the company relies on a tried and true business model to produce and sell programs -- the same model broadcasters rely on to acquire them.

Shows are often commissioned by a broadcaster for exclusive use in a given territory. This means iTunes sales, which can be limited to specific countries, work well with this business model, as do streaming-only agreements (not downloads). But when it comes to web rights, either broadcasters work out an agreement with the producer to make certain materials available on the web globally, or they build a digital fence around content, limiting access to only certain regions. This is the strategy the BBC is using with its iPlayer as well as's streaming of full length shows, among others.

Bit Torrent just doesn't make this possible. And in the case of shows like Canada's Next Prime Minister, where resale outside of Canada is just not likely, a file-sharing release to a limited worldwide audience makes sense.

Companies, such as those that produce hit programming for networks, make their biggest profit from reselling their shows around the world to broadcasters. And these broadcasters also get access to hit programs from other countries for a fraction of the cost it took to produce them, often acquiring the digital rights for the show in their region as part of the deal.

So while Canada's Next Prime Minister is a great foray into DRM free distribution online, I don't expect to see HBO or the producers of LOST (or ABC for that matter, which is in the process of morphing it's destination into a video platform) rushing to join in with their high-quality content.

Also, it's worth mentioning that Bit Torrenters, myself included, make up a small majority of online users. However vocal we are, I don't expect my mom, dad, sister or wife to find shows this way.

I'll be curious to see how the CBC's experiment unfolds, particularly as I assume they will be seeding show files from their servers (thus mitigating the sometimes painfully slow bit torrent downloads I have endured). Will people take notice? Will it help the show?

Perhaps, however, this will lead to a different approach to content. As more users go online and discover video through destinations such as, I think Bob Cringley got it right with Nerd TV almost half a decade ago.

Producers & networks, create something unique that doesn't fall under the rules of the existing business broadcaster model and provide it through Bit Torrent. Then sell ad space and track torrent downloads. Measure the effectiveness of web site calls to action embedded in the show. Balance production costs with expected returns (realistically, they will be low) and see where it takes you. Now this is something to get excited about.

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