Must-download TV

The latest developments in TV-show-trading technology mean you don't need TiVo to watch what you want, when you want.


Farhad Manjoo
August 11, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

When the Federal Communications Commission gave its blessing on Aug. 4 to a new TiVo service that Hollywood has opposed, the decision was widely hailed as a triumph for techies. The news was both unexpected and unlikely -- these days, government officials rarely move against the wishes of giant media companies.

TiVo's upcoming service, called TivoToGo, will allow users to send recorded TV shows across the Internet to PCs or to other TiVo machines, a functionality that TiVo says customers have long demanded. Although TiVo has imposed a host of restrictions on the system, media firms told the FCC that TivoToGo would cause immense harm to their bottom line. The FCC didn't buy it, and geeks were ecstatic: "Three words.... There is a GOD!" wrote one Slashdot reader in a typical note of glee.

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The closer one looks, however, the less divine the FCC's approval of TiVo begins to appear. For one thing, the new TiVo service seems pretty hard to fall in love with. It's strapped down by a surfeit of copy-protection mechanisms that many people will probably find tedious if not odious. For instance, the service will allow users to transfer shows only to a small number of machines registered on a single customer account; technically, says James Burger, an attorney for TiVo, the system is meant to let users move shows from one of their TiVo systems only to another (say from a summer home to a winter home), and not even to friends or family.

TiVo was required to lock down its system and to seek the government's approval in order to comply with the "broadcast flag" rule, which the FCC adopted last year. The rule is designed to prevent the widespread trading of television shows as we enter the age of high-definition digital television. Hollywood's nightmare scenario is that high-def TV will become "Napsterized," with shows available online to anyone, anytime, for free -- which may sound, to some TV fans, less like a nightmare than a heavenly dream.

And, indeed, despite Hollywood's efforts, it's a dream that in many ways is coming true. While the government and Hollywood fret over ways to keep high-definition television off the Internet, copies of standard-definition TV shows are now heavily traded online. Once an underground activity plagued by hard-to-use tools and shows of less-than-stellar picture quality, the systems for finding and downloading TV are steadily becoming easier to use, and the current watchability of the shows is nothing to scoff at.

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In recent months, a host of developers and TV enthusiasts have been working on ways to improve online trading -- they're building sophisticated networks to record and encode and distribute shows, and they're improving peer-to-peer transfer systems to make downloading easier. The hottest new improvement is made possible by the merging of two Internet innovations, the peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent and RSS, the popular Web syndication standard. Together, these systems enable a computer to automatically find and download a user's favorite shows -- something like having a TV station designed just for you.

To be sure, the shows being traded online don't have anywhere near the quality of high-definition television broadcasts, and those HD shows are what the FCC's broadcast flag rule is meant to protect. Critics of Hollywood are skeptical of its claim that digital television will one day become a hot commodity online -- at full resolution, a typical one-hour digital show requires 14 gigabytes of hard-disk space (more than three times the size of a DVD), and days to transfer at today's broadband speeds.

But even if the shows currently online aren't of HD quality, many people will probably find them good enough -- if you have a big monitor on your machine, or if you connect it to a standard-size television, most of the shows you find will look decent. And anyway, in TV, unlike the movies, picture quality isn't paramount. At least, it's not as important as freedom, the right to do whatever you want with your set, to watch what you want when you want, which is what online TV trading allows, and what the future high-definition, broadcast-flag-protected world will not.

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Indeed, the most troubling thing about the FCC's broadcast flag rule is that it seems designed to stamp out the idea that we're free to do what we want with TV. As many critics of media firms have pointed out, there's something deeply unsettling about the fact that TiVo, a firm that completely remade the way we watch TV, needed the government's permission to release a new technology. You don't have to be a techno-libertarian to find this state of affairs troubling. Sure, this time the FCC allowed TiVo to innovate -- but the decision could easily have gone the other way. In the future, what other technologies might the government deem too dangerous to be invented?

Trading TV shows online is, of course, illegal. Television shows are copyrighted, and unless the copyright owner has granted permission, it's as illegal to download a TV show as it is to download a song or a proprietary operating system or a video game. Violations of this law carry heavy penalties -- we've all heard about the kids who lost their life savings for swapping songs using services like Kazaa and Morpheus.

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But what about the ethics of trading online? Regardless of the legality, is there anything unethical about downloading a television show from the Internet? Is it wrong?

This is a harder case to make. When you download a song that you could otherwise have found only on a CD in a store, it's reasonable to say that you've gotten something for nothing -- what most people would call stealing. But broadcast television is free, and many of us already pay for a basic set of television shows through some kind of cable or satellite package.

We're also already used to recording and trading TV; who hasn't taped an episode of "Friends" for a friend, or borrowed a copy of "American Idol" from a co-worker? If you download an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" rather than ask your brother to record it, are you really doing anything that bad?

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"It's hard to identify what the harm is," says Mike Godwin, an attorney at Public Knowledge, a digital-rights group that opposed the broadcast flag rule. "Let's say you're a fan of the FX show 'Nip/Tuck,' and you wanted to see it on Tuesday night, but you were out and you didn't set your TiVo. So you say, 'Let me hunt it down online.' People do that all the time. People who are fans of the show probably already have FX -- they're paying for it. Now, you could say that the harm is in that the distributed version is usually made available without the commercials -- but if you have a TiVo, you aren't watching the commercials anyway."

Godwin concedes that downloading premium-channel shows such as "The Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under" might be a bit harder to justify for people who aren't subscribers to those services. But even this is something of a stretch, since nobody considers it wrong to ask an HBO-blessed colleague to feed you your weekly diet of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," or to invite over a half dozen friends for a "Sopranos" party. (HBO, though, came down on bars and restaurants that publicly screened its shows.)

The mass distribution of premium shows might worry Hollywood, but the main fear of media companies is bigger than that. Media firms make money from TV by keeping it scarce. Even considering the hundreds of channels now on TV, there are only a finite number of slots available, and there are hundreds of thousands of episodes of new and old television programs that might fill those slots. TV companies choose which shows to play when, and, because you've got no other choice but to watch what's on, you watch -- even if you might not particularly enjoy what's on. But would you continue to watch what the TV companies chose if you could find something you actually wanted to watch? Hollywood fears that you would not.

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As the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's main industry group, said in a statement responding to the FCC's approval of TivoToGo, "Technologies that enable redistribution of copyrighted TV programming beyond the local TV market disrupt local advertiser-supported broadcasting and harm TV syndication markets -- essential elements supporting the U.S. local broadcasting system." As Hollywood sees it, in other words, TV depends on your powerlessness over it.

It's this powerlessness that rankles Mark Sailes, a 20-year-old computer science undergraduate at the University of Leeds in the U.K., who is working on a number of systems to make TV trading easier. Like students all over the world, Sailes has two abiding interests -- tinkering with computers and watching television. His taste in TV, too, is rather typical. For the most part, he says he likes popular American shows. The trouble is, new American programs aren't immediately broadcast in the United Kingdom; it can take years for the latest episodes to skip across the pond, which clearly is too excruciating a wait for dedicated fans who need to know what happens in the end with Ross and Rachel.

So what's an enterprising European "Stargate" fan to do? In a world made small by a ubiquitous computer network, the answer is obvious -- download the latest American shows. But BitTorrent, the best tool to download extremely large files, works differently from something like Kazaa, in that it has no built-in search capability. Pointers to BitTorrent files are posted on the Web or traded on discussion groups or in chat rooms, and you've got to know where to look to find them. For a long while, finding good-quality shows online was difficult, Sailes says -- and once you found a file of a TV show, how would know whether it was any good, worth spending hours to download?

So in order to bring a kind of professionalism to TV trading, Sailes and his friends set up a worldwide network of distributors. Members of the group are responsible for recording shows, encoding them into portable formats, uploading them using BitTorrent, and then posting the shows' details on the IRC channel #BT, where Sailes and his crew hang out, and on Sailes' own Web site. (Sailes asked Salon not post his site's URL, not so much because he fears prosecution, he said, but because he didn't really want to deal with the extra unnecessary publicity; it's possible to find the #BT crew's torrents, though, on SuprNova, the biggest and most popular torrent site.)

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But a few months ago, Sailes says, he and his friends began noticing another bottleneck in TV trading. "It became apparent that hundreds of people were coming into our IRC channel just to ask when new shows would be available, just spending a whole lot of time doing nothing but waiting for the new show," Sailes says. This is due to another idiosyncrasy of BitTorrent. The system works best when lots of people are downloading the same file at the same time, and getting a TV show requires a knack for timing -- you've got to find a show while it's new, within the first few days of its being posted online, before everyone who wants it has downloaded it and the file has faded away. Instead of having the people come to IRC to ask about new shows, Sailes wondered, wouldn't it be great if the #BT crew could somehow notify all the interested traders when a new show was ready?

The situation faced by TV show downloaders is not very different from the problem faced by consumers of most content on the Web -- how do you know when your favorite Web site has changed, and how do you know when to check back in to a blog that's only occasionally updated? In the blogosphere, the answer for most people is RSS. So why couldn't that work for TV shows? Sailes wondered. People's computers could automatically check the RSS feed for updates, and when a desired show was found in the feed, the machine would automatically download the program, without the user's input. "We saw that we could quite easily get this done," Sailes said.

Sailes didn't exactly come up with this idea on his own. Net visionaries have long been pondering the marriage of BitTorrent and RSS, and many people have built systems to bring about this union.

But Sailes didn't think that anyone had gotten it just right, and this spring he and a roommate set out to build a stand-alone RSS reader meant specifically for TV trading. What they came up with is Buttress, an open-source Java application that, while still very much a work in progress, looks extremely promising. Using the system is easy: You give the program a few RSS feeds to monitor (here are some to get you started), and you give it some keywords of shows you'd like to download -- "sopranos," "buffy," that kind of thing. The program periodically scans the feeds, and if it sees your keyword, it launches your BitTorrent app and downloads the show. Because this happens in the background, while you're sleeping or at work or out of town, it's painless -- you don't need to look around for the show, or to wait while it downloads, or to worry about whether you recorded it, etc. All you've got to do is trust that someone, somewhere, has put the show online -- and when you check back on your machine, you'll see that you've got it and it's ready to watch.

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Buttress is not the only such application. There is a plug-in for the popular BitTorrent client Azureus that's also useful, and there's an app for Linux systems. All of these are open-source programs, and developers are working mightily on improvements. Sailes says that by the fall TV season, there will be a very stable version of Buttress available, one that "shouldn't be a problem for anyone to use."

Although there are no firm numbers, TV trading still appears to be relatively uncommon. Sailes estimates that there were more than 50,000 downloads of the last episode of "Friends," but compared to the millions of people who watched it on TV, that's not much. It's clear that trading is not hurting Hollywood. "The last time I checked, the sales of DVDs of television shows were huge -- way larger than anyone had ever expected," says Fred von Lohmann, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It doesn't seem to me that the Internet trading is harming the market in any substantial way."

And the best way for Hollywood to curb trading, von Lohmann says, would be to quickly offer high-definition digital television. Because of their quality, high-def shows would be much more difficult to trade, and the better quality would give people a reason to tune in to their televisions. But Hollywood's not doing this; instead of quickly moving to HD, the industry has been pushing for a regulatory lockdown of HD technology, a complicated scheme that will do nothing to stem the trading of shows online.

And it's conceivable that the trading of standard-definition shows online may even slow the adoption of digital TV. After all, who will want a digital TV device locked down by copy protection when people can stick with standard TV and experience the sheer joy of doing what they want. With online TV trading, you'll never miss a show ever again, and you can find shows from all over the world, and you can even catch some old-school programs. As the blogger Jason Kottke has termed it, you can now "roll your own reruns."

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"Of course, they just want to restrict choice," Sailes says of the media companies who would lock down TV. "It's up to us to get the best out of what they give us."


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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