The download threat
SHARING MUSIC over the Internet is a long-established practice, and music companies worldwide are trying their best to eliminate anyone and everyone that may be using their computer and high-speed Internet connection to download every new song released so they can listen to it on their iPod.
For owners of other content the threat is not as severe in terms of scale but even more dangerous in terms of the potential effect on their business. It’s already possible to download the latest films and TV series from file-sharing networks such as bittorrent and other systems.
While the film industry has a number of initiatives to counteract that and is partially sheltered by the fact that the file size of a film makes downloading – even over a high-speed line – an arduous task.
TV shows – such as 24, Grey’s Anatomy or Desperate Housewives – weigh in at a file size that even the slowest broadband users in SA could manage.
That poses a unique challenge for both existing and future South African TV operators. As TV series are typically aired in SA months after they’re broadcast in the US, it’s possible for broadband users to download high definition copies of a series days or even hours after it airs in the US.
Astrid Hamilton, analysts at research firm BMI-T, says that due to the low penetration of broadband in the SA market and a lack of sophistication among users, downloading is restricted to a small number of people.
That view is echoed by Gerdus van Eeden, chief technology officer at MultiChoice, who says that while downloading doesn’t currently pose a threat to the SABC it’s likely to do so in the future.
However, as one broadband user who regularly downloads TV shows points out, much of the content that he downloads is already shared through an informal network of friends with content burned on to CD or DVD and then passed around.
He adds that he downloads between 30Gb and 40Gb of content a month depending on what’s available. “If the US isn’t in peak season, then there are a lot of reruns on and therefore not much to download,” he says.
The one solution to the downloading problem would be for SA broadcasters to show content at the same time as the original networks in the US. But even that poses a problem.
Jan du Plessis, head of programming at MNet, says that the peak season in the US is over the South African summer, when local viewership is at its lowest. “If we were to start closer to the US then we’d be effectively burning good content and many of our customers would miss episodes of their favourite shows.
“There are also often extended production breaks during the run of a season. For example, Lost Season 2 had a seven week break, something that SA audiences aren’t used to.”
Those factors play into the hands of the technology savvy who may want to watch episodes as they air in the US.
Hamilton expects there will be some harmonisation in broadcast dates, because the effects of globalisation will be felt in all areas of creative content.
It appears that the moral issue of piracy tends to get shoved aside when it comes to downloading TV programmes. One downloader says he didn’t even think of it from that viewpoint, as it was more about being hooked on a particular series and wanting to be up to date with what’s happening.
Another downloader comments that he had no moral problem with lifting content that was aired on free-to-air services in the US and that he paid his DStv subscriptions, irrespective of what he downloaded.
As broadband penetration continues to improve and network speeds increase, downloading is going to become more of a problem for broadcasters in SA, and when broadcasting regulator Icasa issues more PayTV licences later this year – and programmes are spread over a number of networks – the urge to download may become overwhelming.
The ability of SA’s broadcasters to counteract that threat is limited by their relationship with their international content providers and efforts at a worldwide level to shut down the services providing that type of sharing.