Losing Lost

The news that Sky has outbid Channel 4 in the auction for the rights to show the next two series of the multi-layered enigma that is ‘Lost’ has caused a stir in media-watching circles.

Whether or not you care about the activities of a disparate bunch of crash survivors and the people and phenomena they encounter on a desert island, and I confess that I was so bored by the first series that I stopped watching, the deal seems to have merited a lot of attention.

Media Guardian claimed that Sky had ‘pulled off a coup by snatching Lost’, while the BBC said they had ‘snapped up the rights’. And it was not a cheap deal, since Broadcast magazine reckon they are paying £20m.
Clearly Sky believes that it will manage to attract a significant proportion of
Channel 4’s multi-channel audience in households watching on cable or satellite, yet the excited coverage of this latest battle over UK rights to a big US hit seems strangely dated.

When ‘The Simpsons’ moved from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2002 it made headlines, but things are different now.  This is partly because there are many more households with cable, satellite or Freeview, but also because the internet has changed the way audiences relate to their favourite programmes.

A good friend of mine is a big fan of the new incarnation of the science fiction show ‘Battlestar Galactica’, currently showing to a small but dedicated army of enthusiasts on Sky One.  Having bought and watched the DVDs of the pilot and the first two series he can hardly wait for series three, which will not be showing here until next year.

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to, because as soon as the new series started last month each episode was available to download over the net within hours of its broadcast on the US SciFi channel.  Episode four is due this weekend.

Those who upload the shows and the peer to peer networks used to distribute them are clearly breaching copyright law, but they are generally doing it for free, and they are filling a gap that the TV networks are not willing to fill.

Of course the content owners and the networks are making strenuous efforts to ensure that this doesn’t happen, and BitTorrent index sites  have been prosecuted for listing where to find shows to download.

They have also put pressure on hardware manufacturers, and users of the TiVo video recorder cannot record some programmes while selected programmes they have recorded are automatically deleted after a period of time.

The new generation of high definition TVs and recording technologies like Blu-Ray and HD DVD come with a protection system, High-Bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP), which will make it harder to take a broadcast stream and turn it into a downloadable file.

But no copy protection system has succeeded in stopping material leaking onto the network, and once it is there it can be copied, with or without permission.

It is getting easier and easier for viewers to see what they want, when they want it, and the level of technical skill needed to find and download TV shows from around the world is dropping fast.

There are also innovative ways to get access to broadcast TV or shows you have recorded yourself.

One of the highlights of the Symbian Smartphone show this week was the mobile version of the Slingbox player.

Slingbox, launched last year in the US and now available over here, is a box of electronics that takes the TV signal coming into your house and pipes it over the internet, where you can watch on any Windows PC or, very soon, on your mobile phone. You neither use nor pay for one of the mobile TV services offered by your network operator.

Slingbox is only one of the ways in which old models of television are being deconstructed before our eyes, but they are easy to miss because for most people, most of the time, television has changed little in the past twenty years.

My dad, in his seventies, doesn’t know or care that the only thing his new widescreen TV and Freeview channels have in common with the BBC of his youth is that at some point in the chain a camera was pointed at some actors. He sees moving images on a screen, and calls it television.

Slingbox users can watch their favourite shows on a laptop at the airport or a phone at the beach, but paid programme downloads are also growing in importance. If you’re in the US you can get a range of shows from the iTunes Store, and  Channel Five’s new download service will let you watch police procedural ‘CSI’ for £2.49 before it is broadcast, and £1.49 afterwards.

It can only be a matter of time before the studios realise that having a million fans paying £2.49 an episode for a whole series makes more commercial sense than selling the rights to a national broadcaster.  After all, if Five persuade two million people to watch the broadcast, they keep the ad revenue, but the profit on every extra download goes to the studio.
Lost may have been ‘the envy of every network’, as Sky director of programmes Richard Woolfe claims, but perhaps the lustre was starting to fade.

It seems that Channel 4 was in talks with Buena Vista International Television for a month but could not reach agreement on terms.

Perhaps the Channel 4 executives realised that the days of the multi-million pound deal are drawing to a close, and that they’ll be better off figuring out how to work with the growing number of video download services to reach their audience.

At least now they’ve got some money to spare.

Bill’s Links 

Media Guardian  (registration required)

BBC On Lost
TiVo limits

4 Replies to “Losing Lost”

  1. I was downloading the latest episode of Season 3 of Lost in proper 720p HD from the Bit Torrent last Thursday and there were over 40,000 people downloading the same torrent.

    Despite Bit Torrents non geographic nature you can’t tell me that won’t impact on Sky One’s deal….

    The easy solution? Simultaneous release dates both sides of the pond. Easy.

  2. Bill,
    A thought provoking article.
    However, to me there is one fatal flaw.
    Perhaps it is shortsighted of me but I can’t see any series managing to get 1 million people to pay £2.49 an episode for it.
    The Sky / OnDigital / ITV Digital / Freeview drama has shown that there are basically two types of viewers in the UK – the people using Sky and Cable who are prepared to pay a fixed fee (of up to £45 / month), and the others who are happy to pay their TV licence and maybe a one-off payment for the box but then expect all the content to be free.
    I’m relatively well off but there is no way that I’m going to pay that sort of price for a series (10 x £2.49). I’m either going to wait for it to be on FreeView, or on DVD, or even import the DVDs from abroad.
    I think that the FreeView story confirms this – terrestial digital TV really struggled until it was re-launched under the FreeView banner. iTunes/iStore also confirms this – they may have a large volume of sales overall but most people only have a relatively small % of purchased songs. Most music on an iPod has been ripped from a personal CD collection, not payed for online.

    For me, until there is an easy way to store content for later use (without DRM), at a very low unit cost, then the Pay per View Model is going to fail.

    So maybe Sky’s purchase still makes sense after all.
    Cheers, Paul

  3. There’s no way I’d pay £2.49 per episode but I would happily pay £1.49 if it was available at the same around the world.

    I don’t want to illegally download TV shows, I’m more than happy to pay for them (as I started doing with music when iTunes launched) I just need to be given the opportunity to do so.

    I also know a large number of people in the UK who would happily give up bittorrent and use iTunes or a similar service if 1) the price was right and 2) it was available at the same time as the US.

    I don’t care whether it has DRM (although I find DRM a massive pain in the…) as I would be watching it on my computer or on my TV (which is connected to the computer) so I don’t need to burn it or put it on an iPod.

  4. Sky? Channel 4? Who are they? The EZTV crew and Mininova.org is all that matters now. No commercials, just quaility caps of the best TV around.

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