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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5 Responses to A Veritable Torrent of Piracy: Illegal Downloads Skyrocket as Fox Delays Hulu Content

  1. Joel Slater says:

    “Pirating” content that is broadcast freely over the airwaves is a probably the least ethically objectionable form of pirating. It’s functionally equivalent to just delaying when you watch it, except instead of using your own DVR, you “use” someone else’s. I’m not saying it isn’t illegal, or even that it isn’t unethical. But I do think that publishers are going to have a really difficult time shaming people into obeying the law on this one. There just isn’t enough moral weight involved in “pirating” something that is otherwise free. I can’t even bring myself to type it “pirate” without using mocking quotes.

    As you said, the sooner publishers realize they are fighting a losing battle and embrace ad-based quality streaming, the better. I don’t mind watching a few ads to support shows I like. I do mind watching glitchy, overly-compressed globs of pixels.

  2. Kevin Lumpkin says:

    Downloading television shows illegally is far too easy for networks to afford not to provide access to shows online and at least generate some ad revenue. Torrent index sites like The Pirate Bay make it almost as easy to download a television show illegally as it would be to stream the legal copy from the network.

    • Colton Cline says:

      Hi Kevin. Thanks for reading. I’m afraid that the networks’ response to piracy will be much like the music industry’s response to piracy ten years ago. Ignore any potential profitable utilization, and prosecute teenagers in their parents’ basements. Record companies are just now (in the last couple of years) embracing online free or cheap distribution (e.g. GrooveShark, Spotify, Pandora).

  3. Sophia Behnia says:

    Colton, great post! I’m wondering, did FOX narrow its content in response to Hulu Plus’ introduction? It looks like they didn’t want Hulu to be the only one making money off of online streaming. Unfortunately, no matter what, people will find a way to access the content through illegal means.

    • Colton Cline says:

      Hi Sophia. It looks like both Hulu and the networks profit from ad revenues and fees related to Hulu Plus. I think the traditional broadcast establishment is a little slow on the draw with regard to streaming content. The major networks are part of lucrative deals with cable and satellite providers, and I think the providers caught on that Hulu was cannibalizing content and stealing conventional viewers.