Time Warner's CBS blackout could be fueling online piracy

Illegal downloads of Under the Dome rise after TV network blocked by cable operator

The spat between CBS and coast-to-coast cable TV provider Time Warner Cable is giving TorrentFreak an opportunity to test the notion that reducing legitimate outlets for content increases online piracy of that content.

TorrentFreak covers developments in the online file-sharing world, which is dominated by a protocol called BitTorrent. It found that unauthorized downloads from regions affected by the blackout that began Aug. 2 increased dramatically after Time Warner shut off the tap to CBS and Showtime, cutting off three million viewers from the two networks.

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For example, piracy rates for the network's summer hit series Under the Dome increased 34% during the weekend after the blackout. What's more, as piracy rates increased, the show's ratings declined.

In its analysis, TorrentFreak tallied downloads for the July 29 and Aug. 5 episodes of Under the Dome. "With hundreds of thousands of downloads Under The Dome is one of the most pirated TV-shows at the moment," TorrentFreak said.

Based on samples from eight U.S. cities -- Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit and Pittsburgh -- TorrentFreak found that 10.9% of the pirate downloads for the July 29 episode came from blackout cities. That jumped to 14.6% for the August 5 show, the first after the blackout took effect.

"While one should always be careful of drawing strong conclusions from city-based data, especially when we don't know how many downloaders are Time Warner Cable subscribers, these initial results do suggest that the blackout resulted in a local piracy surge," TorrentFreak noted.

It added that while piracy rates jumped, the show's ratings declined from 11.41 million viewers for the July 29 episode to 10.49 million for the Aug. 5 installment.

CBS declined to comment on TorrentFreak's findings.

Time Warner Cable spokesperson Judy Barbao said in an email, "We don't feel that TWC is the appropriate source for an interview on this topic -- it's not really for us to comment on their [CBS's] possible piracy issues."

TorrentFreak's assertions appear to support the findings of a report released last month that attributed large declines in pirated entertainment in Norway to the rise of legitimate channels like Netflix and Spotify.

The study from Ipsos MMI noted that pirated music downloads declined between 2008 and 2012 from 1.2 billion downloads to 210 million downloads; pirated movies dropped from 125 million to 65 million; and pirated TV shows went from 135 million to 55 million.

Online piracy in Sweden also dropped dramtically, but for a different reason: anti-piracy laws that went into effect in 2009.

"We've seen music piracy dip a bit because of streaming services -- Spotify in particular," Wayne Rosso, a music blogger, founder of Mashboxx and former president of Grokster, said in an interview. "If content is cheap enough," he continued, "people are happy to get it legitimately, otherwise you wouldn't have a Netflix, a Spotify or a Hulu."

TorrentFreak's conclusions are reasonable, noted Sherwyn Siy, vice president for legal affairs for Public Knowledge.

"It makes sense that people are willing to pay for something, willing to get it through legitimate means, but if they can't or are frustrated in that, then they're going to try to get the content they want through other means," Siy said in an interview.

People become attached to their TV shows and don't expect them to randomly disappear every time there's a dispute between corporate offices, Siy explained. "So when their shows are suddenly yanked, they want to keep up with their stuff," he added.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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