Biggest P2P Numbers Ever Show Futility of Windowing

“The biggest disappointment of the night”: Entertainment Weekly had some harsh words for this week’s installment of Heroes. The second episode of the show’s new season only clocked about 6 million viewers, following a season premiere that was down almost 30 percent. But Heroes seems to be doing just fine in the rest of the world. TorrentFreak is reporting that Heroes broke download records on many torrent sites.

Most of these downloads go to users outside of the U.S. who have to wait for weeks, if not months, after the U.S. premiere to finally see new episodes on TV. These delays do not just lead to millions of torrent downloads, but also a huge number of streams and downloads from less than legit YouTube clones and one-click hosters. In the light of recent download records, TV studios are slowly waking up to the fact that global release windows just don’t work anymore.

This fall season has been particularly good for torrent sites around the globe: Sweden-based Pirate Bay announced a few days ago that it now has 3 million registered users. It also has been connecting a record breaking 14 million simultaneous users ever since the beginning of of this week. New episodes of shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes or Smallville are attracting around 30,000 to 35,000 simultaneous swappers each at the time of writing, guaranteeing download speeds that will max out your DSL connection.

The Dutch BitTorrent site Mininova also has gotten a lot of attention from TV-loving downloaders in recent days. Mininova clocked more than 10 million torrent downloads on Tuesday alone – a new record that also put the total number of torrents downloaded from the site ever above 6 billion. Mininova has seen well above 1 million downloads of the first Heroes episodes of the season so far, and new episodes of other new shows show equally strong demand.

Then there is a whole network on sites with Flash TV streams hosted by Chinese YouTube clones and similar sites, plus countless sites linking to copies of new episodes on one-click hosters like RapidShare and Megaupload. It’s harder to gather any meaningful statistics from these sites, but it’s safe to assume that they serve at least as many users as torrent sites, if not more. One reason for the success of Flash-based pirate sites is that there is no equivalent to Hulu in most other countries. However, we don’t have any numbers yet on whether Hulu is also luring U.S. users away from torrent sites.

Some TV networks seem to get that the only way to combat this phenomenon is to offer legal alternatives in a timely fashion. FOX is going to experiment with a simultaneous distribution approach for the next season of 24 that is scheduled to start next January. A German TV network will show the season premiere in real time, offering hardcore fans a chance to start another rough day with Jack Bauer in the middle of the night. There will be a repeat the next day, and all following episodes will be scheduled for local primetime, just hours after they hit the airwaves in the US. Episodes are supposedly also available online, albeit for a fee.

The effect of this experiment on 24‘s global download numbers will probably be limited, especially since the premium cable channel in question doesn’t have too many paying viewers in Germany. That means there’s a good chance we’ll be able to report new torrent records in TV seasons to come. Still, it’s a step in the right direction – and maybe even the first serious crack that will eventually lead to global release windows crumbling.


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