“I’ll just go back to pirating my content”: That was the response some of our readers had after hearing about Fox’s plans to restrict online access to full episodes of its shows to viewers that can either authenticate themselves as Dish Network subscribers or pay for Hulu Plus. The question is: How many users will authenticate, how many will wait eight days for content to become freely available and how many will go back to BitTorrent once the changes go into effect in mid-August?
We’ll have to wait for the actual switch-over to the authentication system for any hard data, but here’s a clue to how much is at stake for Fox: The official launch of Hulu in early 2008 reduced the number of U.S.-based viewers who got their Fox shows from BitTorrent by up to a third for some of the more popular shows on the network, according to data from TorrentFreak.
TorrentFreak has been tracking weekly BitTorrent file-sharing trends for years, and its editor, Ernesto, told me on Wednesday via IM that the number of U.S.-based downloaders of the Fox show Prison Break decreased by 36 percent from October 2007 to October 2008. The Simpsons saw a slightly less dramatic decrease of 23 percent, and the number of people downloading Family Guy from the U.S. was only down 10 percent in the same time period.
Why is there such a discrepancy between shows? Ernesto explained that the amount of piracy between shows can be influenced by a number of different factors, including the genre, viewership demographics and the time slot they air during.
However, few doubt that there will be a direct impact on piracy. “It’s like flipping a switch,” said Eric Garland from the Los Angeles–based media measurement company BigChampagne during a phone call on Wednesday, adding that he has seen “immediate and direct correlations” between the availability of online content on sites like Hulu and piracy.
Of course, the world of television has changed a lot since 2008. Content is now available through a wider variety of sources, with people using more DVRs and cable VOD systems that offer more content than in the past. TV Everywhere could just be seen as another alternative, and its proponents might argue that Fox viewers will still be able to access the content as long as they’re authenticating themselves as subscribers of a participating pay-TV provider.
However, Garland thinks that piracy is still a viable alternative for many, just because it’s easier than jumping through authentication hoops. “We have still not made the process effortless enough,” he told me, comparing authentication to issues the music industry faced with DRM a few years ago and arguing that DRM eventually ended up punishing honest customers the most while not really preventing piracy. “People don’t like to be inconvenienced when they are playing by the rules.” In other words: People might just go for BitTorrent or unlicensed streaming sites and watch content ad-free if they feel like they’re being forced to jump through unnecessary hoops to watch an ad-supported episode of a TV show online.