At Foo Camp yesterday I was chatting with Bram Cohen (remixed version at right), the inventor of BitTorrent, about what it will take for the TV industry to embrace P2P distribution. Unlike music and movies, where the industry is terrified of piracy and lost revenues, TV could easily use P2P to extend its "free-to-air" ad-driven business model.
The logic goes like this:
- Most TV is already free, so nothing is being "stolen" in file-trading.
- Most television content owners want to reach more viewers for their advertisers.
- One way to do that is via more distribution, which is expensive in broadcast
- BitTorrent provides distribution for free
So if there were a way to let the content circulate on the P2P networks with advertising intact, this would seem like a Good Thing for all involved.
There are, however, another four reasons why this isn't quite as neat a fit for the networks as it appears at first glance:
- Networks rightly assume that people will strip out the ads and circulate "clean" versions.
- Even if the ads remain, most are designed for a specific time and
place. "Now on sale" may not be true weeks later, and local ads don't
make sense elsewhere. Unlike broadcast, P2P content can be viewed at
any time (yes, the same is true of DVRs, and the advertisers aren't
happy about that, either).
- Local network affiliates often have geographic exclusives to certain shows. BitTorrent ignores geography.
- Networks are concerned that widespread file trading of television content would compete with the fast-growing market for DVDs distribution of TV series. Although only a fraction of TV makes it to DVD, they don't always know which shows will make the cut at the start, in the broadcast window, so they don't want to limit their options by letting the files circulate online.
One can, however, imagine solutions to all of these:
- Content owners could release the video in a protected form that makes it difficult to strip out the ads (you could even make it difficult to skip them). That packaging could also be smart enough to report back when played, giving networks more solid viewership numbers than they can get in broadcast. Alternatively, networks could just rely on revenues from product placement in the content, which is impossible to strip out.
- They could only use ads that work well nationally and over a period
of weeks. These tend to be ads for brands, rather than specific
products, but there are plenty of those.
- Quoth Bram: "Stop doing geographic exclusives." Indeed, many networks are moving away from that.
- Make those protected videos expire after six months or so, so they won't be around to compete with the DVD if and when it comes out.
Let me be clear that these are my arguments, not Bram's. He's no fan of DRM (more on practical than moral grounds) and is hoping that more content-owners come around to the benefits of letting their video circulate freely without restrictions. And there some sign that's beginning to happen, with new examples including that of ADV Films, which distributes Anime in the US, using BitTorrent distribution for trailers and other promotional material. Bram now has a half-dozen people working with him to further commercialize the technology, making it easier for others to follow ADV's example.
I suspect it will take some form of content protection, such as the above, to get the networks to follow suit (they are, as you might imagine, incredibly risk-adverse when it comes to their golden geese). But one way or another, that day will come. The economic efficiencies of BitTorrent's distribution model are too compelling, especially for non-mainstream fare. The question is not if, but how and when P2P TV takes off.