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Young turn to piracy to watch pay tv for free • chrishenrick

Young turn to piracy to watch pay TV for free

Launch of Sky Atlantic has encouraged new ways to avoid paying for blockbuster series

Broadcasting analysts are predicting a fresh tide of television piracy in the wake of the launch of Sky Atlantic, the glossy satellite channel that has bought the UK rights to many of America's most successful drama series, including Mad Men and The Sopranos.

Fans of popular and acclaimed US shows such as the Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire and comedy drama Entourage are already honing new, illicit ways of accessing episodes of the shows they love without the need to pay at least £20 a month to subscribe to Sky.

Analysts say "streaming" from unofficial websites will peak in the next few months. After that, many believe, increased demand will bring new and cheaper ways to watch television over the internet into the mainstream.

While many non-subscription viewers are still happy to wait for the release of DVD box sets, younger audiences are already resorting to streaming bootleg episodes from sites not sanctioned by the programme's "rights-holders".

"If I have a good connection I will download a whole show in bits, with Torrent, and see it whenever I like," said Jake, a 21-year-old trainee chef from Bournemouth, "but otherwise I will stream a show from somewhere. It is not about the money. It is about impatience and getting some power back."

Jake and his peer group tend to watch television on the screens of their Macs, occasionally gathering together around a traditional set for a live show such as X Factor.

The trend is growing among those who are used to accessing music from pirate sites, says John Enser, a partner at media law firm Olswang. "Young people already know where to stream from. And, broadly speaking, they know a legal site from an illegal one," said Enser. "Most of the time it is pretty clear. If you Google 'Lady Gaga download', certainly not every site that comes up is legal. We tried it for Top Gear and the official BBC site came about halfway down."

Enser admits there is complexity around the edges of the law. Yet the truth is that few who transgress will ever be fined, or even reprimanded. "Most programme rights holders are not interested in pursuing individuals who download illicit material. The record industry did play with the idea of taking a tough line, but it doesn't necessarily get the right people," said Enser.

Broadcasters would not enjoy seeing their name linked to a legal action against a 12-year-old who has downloaded from the wrong place. As a result, the chances of any individual being sued are tiny. Instead, rights-holders have to deter people – and this will only be achieved when technology provides simple methods of watching TV, on demand, across national borders, he said.

"What matters to the industry is what the vast majority of the public are doing," Enser summed up. Online, or "connected", viewing has a way to go before it achieves commercial "traction".

Once "connected" viewing grows, DVD sales will slump. And broadcasters are already taking action against piracy in the scheduling of popular shows in different countries. It was greater co-ordination between broadcasters that, for example, drove the decision to show the last episode of the concluding series of Lost on the same day in Britain as the American finale went out. Series four of Mad Men was also shown on this side of the Atlantic soon after the US transmission – with the slim time gap intended to stop fans resorting to illegal methods to catch up on the action.

Last Thursday's advice to the European court of justice from one of its eight advocate generals that pubs should be allowed to choose which broadcaster to pay when they screen live football is also predicted to alter the way in which British audiences watch television. The move could cause a big change in the way live programming is sold, according to Enser, but may not influence home viewing. "The decision taken last week is not binding yet," Enser said. "If the court does go the same way, it could lead to a complete revision of the way rights, particularly sports rights, are handled around Europe."

The impact of Sky Atlantic, launched last week, might appear limited so far. The debut of the seventh series of the HBO drama Entourage drew an average of just 18,000 viewers. Over on ITV2, an average of more than 200,000 viewers an episode watched the last series.

But BSkyB argues that high ratings are not its aim. Like Sky Arts, Sky Atlantic is designed to change the image of Sky, to attract new subscribers and to undermine the BBC's claim to be the only purveyor of quality television.    


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