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The season finale of your favorite television show aired last night, and the unthinkable happened: You missed it. Fortunately, networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, MTV, and FOX stream full episodes on their websites. However, most of these website interfaces are clumsy and lethargic. Enter Hulu. Hulu offers streamlined, speedy, and free streaming versions of many popular network television programs and feature films with generally reasonably-proportioned, relatively unobtrusive advertisements. In most cases, users can watch the five most recent episodes of a given program. Most programs are available shortly after their original air-date – often the following day. It is truly a revolutionary service.
But there is trouble in streaming entertainment paradise.
In the summer of 2010, Hulu introduced Hulu Plus. For a small monthly fee, viewers are able to access extra content including past seasons of their favorite programs. On August 15, 2011, FOX limited next-day streaming of its content to paying users and subscribers to certain cable and satellite providers. Unidentified sources report that ABC is contemplating a similar move. The networks are limiting access in an attempt to conciliate satellite and cable distributors, organizations that have been either slow or altogether unwilling to embrace free online streaming.
BitTorrent blog TorrentFreak reported one week after FOX narrowed access to its content that internet piracy of the delayed programs via illegal torrents exploded. Suspecting that there would be a surge in illegal downloads following FOX’s decision, TorrentFreak kept tabs on torrents of Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, two popular FOX programs. During the first five days of the test, TorrentFreak reported a 189% increase in illegal downloads of MasterChef and a 114% increase in illegal downloads of Hell’s Kitchen.
While it is unlikely that the majority of illegal downloaders will be prosecuted, media corporations are beginning to adopt a zero-tolerance attitude toward BitTorrent. In May, the U.S. Copyright Group subpoenaed internet services providers to uncover the identities of 23,000 BitTorrent users who illegally downloaded the Sylvester Stallone film The Expendables. According to Wired, the case became the largest BitTorrent related lawsuit in U.S. history. Last week, Nu Image, the company that produced the film, dropped the lawsuit for jurisdictional reasons. However, this suit provides some staggering insight into the power of media companies to subpoena internet service providers.
According to TorrentFreak, the advent of services like Hulu drastically reduced media piracy in the past few years. What implications will networks’ unwillingness to provide promptly-available, free versions of popular programs have for services like BitTorrent now that the masses have had a taste of nearly-immediate media gratification? Will these restrictions diminish reliance on websites like Hulu, which is predominantly owned by major television networks? Are the networks shooting themselves in the foot, or is unfettered access to content too good to be true?
We may be on the cusp of a sea change in the way that prime-time digital content is distributed. For the time being, it seems as though streaming video services such as Hulu are not going anywhere, but the major networks will undoubtedly be vigilant in the quest to make the online distribution of content more profitable.
– Colton Cline
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