I’ve noticed over the past few weeks that most popular TV shows are available via BitTorrent. They’re generally edited to remove commercials. They’re frequently downscaled from HDTV sources, which means that their quality is fantastic. Modern video codecs can compress a 45 minute show into around 350 MB, which BitTorrent can download in the background in a matter of hours. Better yet, the very nature of BitTorrent means that the more users downloading a given file, the better the available bandwidth, because each downloaded copy is also available for upload; it’s not uncommon to see BitTorrent clients start sharing pieces of downloaded files within seconds of the download starting. This means that large files can be widely shared without a massive investment in download bandwidth.
According to the news this week, Hollywood has finally noticed BitTorrent and is moving to stop the rampant sharing of their property. I’m amazed that it’s taken them so long to get involved.
However, in the midst of their attack, I think they may have missed an opportunity. Hollywood and the TV networks produce a lot of content annually, and quite a bit of that is really just advertising. Hollywood trailers are really just ads for the full-length movie. Most TV show pilots are ads for the rest of the series. They’re teasers, intended to hook viewers and get them to pay (either in movie tickets or eyeball time) for the full product. In both cases, the media companies have produced copyrighted works that they really want people to watch, even if they aren’t directly compensated for the experience. The more widely they’re distributed, the more effective they are. This should lead directly to profits on the “real” product–the movie or TV series involved.
So, logically, media companies could come out ahead by producing sharable versions of their trailers and pilots, and then going ahead and sharing them themselves. With BitTorrent, they’d even have decent download statistics–they’d know how many people had downloaded things.
Of course, I don’t see this happening anytime soon. First, the last thing that the media companies want to do is to tell people “go install a BitTorrent client.” Actually, that’s the second-to-last thing–the last thing they want to do is to legitimize P2P filesharing. Even if they can get past those two issues, and get over the conceptual hurdles that follow them (”Download TV? That’s what pirates do, not media companies. We don’t do that.“), they’d still be left with a relatively small market–I doubt that there are more then a million people out there downloading and watching TV shows.
It’s an interesting opportunity for someone, though. First, the first company to do this will get an enormous PR boost. Second, there’s no real limit on how many different versions of a show they can distribute–they could do full HDTV, 640x480, and smaller sizes, all the way down to versions for mobile devices. The mobile aspect is another PR opportunity, and possibly even a VC opportunity.
So, while I don’t see this happening soon, and I certainly don’t see widespread adoption of this sort of thing by Hollywood, I’d be amazed if someone doesn’t take it up within the next couple years, even if it’s just for the PR burst.