Cutting The Cord's Not So Hard… When You Steal

Earlier this week, as part of PBS Mediashift‘s 2012 guide to “Cutting the Cord” one entry in the series covered the darker side of this phenomenon:

I catch my favorite shows, new and classic movies, real-time sports, and breaking news for free, on my TV, through the Internet. […] There is the legal way, and the other way. Netflix, iTunes, Blockbuster, Hulu and PlayOn are lovely services. I have never used any of them. Instead, some of us revel in the freedom and free price tag of less-than-legal downloading services and streaming sites. Ones I may or may not be utilizing at the moment: uTorrent (part of the BitTorrent family, a program for downloading copyrighted files); FirstRow Sports and (both great for sporting events, the first more reliable from my experience); (a streaming site popular for its catalog of both little-known and just-released mainstream movies); and Torrentz and The Pirate Bay (the best sites I’ve stumbled across that house movie files ready to download).

Of course, to those that follow this space, the text isn’t particularly dramatic or revealing. It’s quite clear a large number of folks who have the technological knowledge and wherewithal are helping themselves to content online. And as industry analyst Michael Gartenberg responded, it’s “easy to cut the cord when you’re stealing”. But I find the article most notable simply because it’s hosted by PBS – an entity that creates, licenses, and presents content. So I’d think they might have also discussed how theft potentially hurts their business or cover the approaches they’re taking to make PBS content more accessible. Rather, their editor responded to a copyright infringement remark on Twitter with, “PBS prob not worried about sharing Downton Abbey. You can watch episodes free at“. Which seems to show a poor understanding of how BitTorrent functions and the limitations of PBS’ licensing – which I assume does not extend internationally.

However, PBS must have sensed something was amiss with their presentation, as the article was updated to remove much of the cited text above and a disclaimer was added. Further, I guess PBS also has second thoughts regarding people sharing Downton Abbey, as they ironically filed suit today (along with Fox and Univision) against Aereo… for unlicensed content distribution.

29 thoughts on “Cutting The Cord's Not So Hard… When You Steal”

  1. The Downton Christmas special did air on PBS a few weeks ago. Its still on my TiVo! We also got a ~30 minute “behind the scenes” featurette at the end of the episode.

  2. Ah, cool. I’ll update the post and set our TiVo. Unlike PBS’ approach here’s the timestamp to indicate I’ve made a meaningful change. ;)

  3. It’s not only “not hard” when you steal; it’s very easy and the only way to actually do it and get all the content you want.

    Most major network shows are available online, but news and sports often isn’t.

    Many episodes are only available for a 4 week window after the original airdate, but I like to watch some shows in marathons on my PVR. Quite a few shows are delayed online for a week, too.

    Pay networks vary; HBO content isn’t available anywhere.

    Some shows are only available on iTunes for $30+ per season.

    Long story short, you’ll end up going to five or six different sources to get your programming, paying subscriptions to both hulu+ and netflix, and you’ll STILL end up with an inferior experience.

    This is not by accident, of course. Cable companies, ISPs, and content creators are all in bed with one another.

    Comcast owns NBC, E!, style, golf, and has a stake in the MLB. They also own a couple sports teams. But Comcast is also the largest ISP in the USA. And a cable TV company too!

    Time Warner owns HBO, Cinemax, all the various Turner stations (TBC, cartoon, TNT, etc), and has a stake in the CW and CNN. They also run a production company, making shows for other networks, and of course are also a movie studio and have a home video group. Time Warner Cable is the SECOND largest cable provider in the USA, offering ISP and cable TV to its customers. It’s a top-to-bottom enterprise.

    This is why all the legal options suck. Comcast and Time Warner chose to support their lucrative yet increasingly obsolete cable television business.

    A friend of mine named Peter had a successful bar here in NYC. It was down on Bleeker street in the business and did really well, live music, dancing, the works. A couple years ago he got ambitious and tried to open a fine dining restaurant in the west village. Dry-aged steaks, risotto, brick oven pizza, truffles, a pastry chef, etc. It didn’t do so well, but he was emotionally invested in the restaurant and supported it using revenue from his bar. I’m sure you can guess where this is going– yeah, he lost both of ’em.

  4. Thanks for the link Dave, I’ll be checking back at Media Shift often based on the number of articles that picqued my interest this go ’round. And yes the article quoted above is pretty provocative. I’m suprised the guy used his own name actually. Of course he’s not unusual or anything, but saying the things he says in public? He’s must be just shameless or something.

  5. Maybe PBS isn’t being hurt by “theft” because its not funded by advertising. And really? “just hack into your local cable line” is easier than using the Internet? I’m sure he was being sarcastic but he basically insults every PBS viewer with that statement. Moreso, since you can get PBS for free with an antenna in most places but you are still subject to their programming schedule.

    PBS is being hurt because they only have season 2 episodes 1-7 of Downton Abbey available on and their app. Not season 1 and not the Christmas Special. PBS also co-produced Sherlock yet for some reason, they refuse to even air season 2 which has been freely available from other sources online for quite some time.

  6. Content providers are failing to move along with technology – either adapt to the times, or lose control of your product! This resistance is only hurting their monetization potential. Most of us would gladly pay for shows like True Blood. Expanding distribution to Apple TV and Roku would prove very lucrative.

  7. John, they don’t run traditional advertising but they do have sponsors and solicit donations. Further, they’re co-owners of the cable channel Sprout. And I assume they generate revenue through disc sales and such. But I’d think their biggest counter argument, as an advocate of the arts and education, might be something along the lines of if no one’s paying for content, how will it get produced? In regards to Gartenberg, yes I assume his second line was in jest and not specific to PBS.

    Joe, indeed. The media companies and other stakeholders are evolving more slowly than market demand. While the music industry is far simpler, I’d think those lessons would have motivated the video folks to adapt at a quicker pace. Hopefully Hulu and Netflix expand their licensing and fund more original content. Simultaneously, I’m hoping things like the Verizon/Redbox or Comcast Streampix initiatives help collectively move us forward.

  8. FWIW, I think PBS was correct to remove the article. And Dave was correct to be amused about the whole thing.

    By my roll-your-own ethics, filesharing is not OK, but decrypting DVD’s, Blu-Rays, and TiVo files is OK.

    I like having a nice video jukebox of non-DRM’d local media, but I think I ought to pay to get the file into my hands for decrypting.

  9. To be clear, µTorrent is not, “a program for downloading copyrighted files.” as the PBS quote states. It is a simple app that enables your PC to speak the BitTorrent protocol. The payload’s copyright is irrelevant to µTorrent much like web content copyright is irrelevant to your browser. Digitization of media makes copying trivial and BitTorrent makes distribution “free”

    The ethics and economics discussion is healthy and needed. To many people, paying directly for content is viewed as optional. Questioning the ethics of such a position is valid, and so is analyzing the business reaction to such a market change. The confusion and embarrassment of the PBS post highlights how tortured and detached the discussion of big technological changes have become.

  10. John, PBS is going to air Season 2 of Sherlock starting May 6th.

    I don’t see why any media company would want to move forward fast with other methods. Online ads pay pennies compared to what advertisers pay for ads on TV and until that changes, media companies aren’t going to be interested in moving away from the traditional way. I know it is kind of a chicken and the egg thing, but still they have little incentive at the moment to change things up.

  11. Maybe this is something where a company with deep pockets and a penchant for disrupting the status-quo can step in and hurry the transition. I am, of course, talking about Apple. I have no special knowledge of their strategy, but looking at history I wouldn’t be surprised if they find some unusual but painfully obvious way to start solving these problems.

    Witness the iPod/iTunes revolution for digital music, and the iPhone revolution for smartphones and phone apps. Like them or hate them, they have changed the entire landscape of those technologies and media areas for the better for the average consumer.

  12. “Maybe this is something where a company with deep pockets and a penchant for disrupting the status-quo can step in and hurry the transition. I am, of course, talking about Apple.”

    The audio industry let Apple drink their milkshake. The video industry has attempted to learn from history.

    Apple can make some serious money selling marked-up flat panels to suckers, but I’d rate their odds of genuinely disrupting the video distribution model here as low.

  13. Grant, legit solution(s) may not be all about advertising. For example, Netflix is subscription-based and ad free. Then there’s the hybrid Hulu Plus model – a monthly fee, plus ads (not unlike basic cable). And there are other presumably successful ad-free initiatives like Amazon or iTunes VOD and MLB.TV.

    But, as you say, there’s something of a chicken/egg paradox at play here and the transition will take time as the online audience grows and the media industry modernizes. I know many of us would be willing to pay HBO a pretty penny directly for HBO GO… yet they’re obviously not quite ready to step out on their (very lucrative) cable partnerships. And I’ve been personally frustrated that a BBC iPlayer subscription service isn’t yet available in the US.

  14. “Sigh, I’d like to rent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy online. But can’t do it. These studios and release windows need to get with the program.”

    Jeebus. It’s available at Amazon in 2 days.

    (Saw it in the cinema. Moody and good.)

  15. By the way, was just flipping through the Apple TV looking for a movie to rent and I see “Masterpiece” Downton Abbey Season 2 goes for $20. So, contrary to MediaShift’s editor, PBS may indeed mind if folks freely share the content they’ve licensed and presumably generate revenue from. ;)

    How did you discover Tinker will be available in 2 days? I saw something about discs being released 3/20, but nothing about a digital option (sooner). Hm.

  16. “How did you discover Tinker will be available in 2 days? I saw something about discs being released 3/20, but nothing about a digital option (sooner). Hm.”

    There is a “search” field in the Amazon website. If you type in a query in that field, you’ll get a list of items. One of the items is this, which releases tomorrow, March 6.

    (Also, consider seeing good movies in the cinema back when they are originally released. The cinema screen is much bigger than yours, which provides for a more enjoyable experience.)

  17. Wow, search. Amazing. ;) I did search, but obviously didn’t lock in on that result.

    I am a fan of the larger screen… which is why for several years I ran a projector with 10′ screen (horizontal. diagonal varied by aspect ratio) of my own. It’s my fellow moviegoers that I don’t always care for with their cellphones, whispering, and crinkling candy wrappers. Now and then I do suck it up though. (Saw Mission Impossible in IMAX… screen was TOO large and movie was just OK.)

  18. “It’s my fellow moviegoers that I don’t always care for with their cellphones, whispering, and crinkling candy wrappers.”

    Simple. Bring a taser with you to the cinema, and use as needed. No jury will convict you.

    Also, if you go see movies like Tinker Tailor in the cinema, you’ll often (but not always) find a more well behaved audience than you will for a teen or child oriented action movie. I tend to find the cinema audience in my civilized metro area for new “art house” movies to be pretty well behaved.

    (The only problem I get is with revival art house crowds, which often have pockets of the audience reacting to perceived camp value in older movies. The way around that is to sneak out for weekday matinees, which the yahoos tend to avoid.)

    “I am a fan of the larger screen… which is why for several years I ran a projector with 10′ screen”

    The cinema screen is still bigger by an order of magnitude. I do love my big home flat-screen, but it’s still a waaaay less immersive experience than a cinema.

  19. Yes, back in the day, I used to trek into NYC for movies at the Angelika. Glad it’s much easier these days. And agreed on the more civilized crowds. Though they’re also often the older set leading to the “What did he say?”s

  20. “Though they’re also often the older set leading to the “What did he say?s”

    The worst cinema experience I’ve had in recent years was going to see a restored print of a 1930’s movie I’d always wanted to see at the Film Forum. We were in the row in front of (senior citizen) Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Lou would fall asleep and very loudly snore for 5 minutes before Laurie would shout at the top of her lungs, “Lou! Wake up! You’re snoring!” Lou would wake up. And then 15 minutes later, the whole thing would repeat. And repeat. And repeat. They finally left about 10 minutes before the movie ended.

    But in general, I’ll take my chances with a bad cinema crowd over the atomized shabbiness of movies on TV. Not only is the screen immensely more immersive, but there is something satisfying about the mass communal nature of the experience. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you live within walking distance of 10 theaters. I love livng in a place where you don’t have to own a car.)

    “back in the day, I used to trek into NYC for movies at the Angelika.”

    I’m a fervent enough believer in the Church of the Cinema that I actually enjoy the roar of the subway you periodically hear during movies in that particular cathedral…

  21. “Little known trivia. “Zatz Not Funny’ began life as an AM college radio show in 1994… with a swiped Stu Hamm intro.”

    Never heard of Stu Hamm, but it’s a fine intro, and the dude has a fine pedigree. First album named after a PKD novel before it was commonly cool, and he’s played with proper folks.

    Please tell me that your original radio show covered the intro of Quicktime 2.0…

  22. I’d love to say it was all about HyperCard. But it was mainly whatever music I dug at the time (and I was all over the map) along with inane chatter appropriate for my gender and age. :)

  23. Damn, based on the timely posting of this, I decided to check for you.

    And Tinker Tailor is still playing in 7 cinemas in my metro area. Which means it should be playing in at least one even in rural Idaho.

    The real trick is to see Tinker Tailor in the cinema, and Mission Impossible on cable or VOD on your flat screen. And if that link is any evidence, you could have the cinema to yourself…

  24. “And Tinker Tailor is still playing in 7 cinemas in my metro area. Which means it should be playing in at least one even in rural Idaho.”

    For your final public service announcement on the topic:

    The theatrical run pretty much ends Thursday night. Assuming you’re in DC metro, it’s in 5 cinemas for the next two days, but only 1 cinema starting on Friday.

    If you want to see a slow, moody, and visually intricate movie in the cinema, which is where it’ll work best on you, make haste today or tomorrow. (I often find myself ending up at the cinema for a late Thursday screening due to this precise reason.)

  25. I’m out in the burbs and the closest location is something like 25 miles away. However, I’ll be out there Friday with time to blow… if they keep it on another week.

    Update: Yep, they’re holding the show over so we’ll try to see it.

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