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B’casters: What, us worry about piracy?

Australians responsible for 15.6% of illegal TV downloads

SYDNEY — As aggressive early adopters of new technology who often have to wait months for U.S. TV hits to reach their shores, Aussie auds have turned to nefarious means to get their entertainment — piracy.

According to a 2005 survey by Web monitoring group Envisional, Australians are responsible for 15.6% of all online TV piracy, second only to Blighty with 16%. On a per-capita basis, however, this gives Oz the highest piracy rate in the world.

The same survey also found TV piracy had increased by 150% from the previous year, due largely to the peer-to-peer software BitTorrent.

But are the networks taking notice?

“We suspect that the issue of piracy is at the top of the minds for those companies that hold copyright to content, and are seeking to protect the inherent and long-term value of their agreements with broadcast and subscription television channels in markets around the world,” says Seven’s Simon Francis. “We know that broadcast television is — and will continue to be — the singularly most powerful form of communication.”

Seven is not alone in dismissing pirates as a minor threat — at an industry meeting last year, all three network bosses played down its impact.

But with blogs and bulletin boards in Oz alive with talk of boycotting shows due to irregular programming; long delays in receiving U.S. product; and the growing demand to personalize viewing habits, it is a problem that won’t go away.

The relaxed approach adopted by the nets seems to be at odds with the MPA’s aggressive posturing on illegal TV downloads. True, piracy was once the preserve of keen sci-fi auds who had the know-how and were no advertising darlings. Now the most popular pirated shows are U.S. hits such as “24” and “Desperate Housewives,” which are mainstays of the free-to-air networks’ success.

So where does that leave copyright watchdog Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft?

AFACT has touted its success in the hardware and film areas but less is documented about TV piracy. Still, AFACT topper Adrianne Pecotic acknowledges it as an important area.

“The downloading of television programs is a definite threat to the broadcast television model; left unattended, more consumers would migrate to downloading,” Pecotic says. “To ignore that threat in Australia would be wrong, because while Australia has a significant hard-goods problem, the Internet piracy and the hard-goods piracy are part of one ecosystem.”

AFACT pointed to its dual approach of education and enforcement to battle TV pirates, but was unable to outline a specific TV action plan, unlike film, which has seen a number of litigations and a successful cinema and DVD advertising campaign that has been running since June 2004.

“When it comes to television programs it is harder to educate people, because they are thinking about a free-to-air television model and they don’t think there is a difference between taping a show off air and going and finding it on the Internet,” Pecotic says. “But by downloading from the Internet, the consumer is bypassing all the revenue models.”

Martin Hoffman, topper of Nine Net’s Web component, NineMSN, says networks would be wrong to say it’s not a point of concern. But he points to the difficulty piracy holds for the average consumer and touts a legal download model as one solution.

“Sometimes the music industry is criticized for not moving more quickly to enable legal download services, and that cost them dearly,” Hoffman says. “I would think that video content owners are looking to avoid that mistake.”

Players in the legal download market already include telco Telstra’s Big Pond, but the service has limited TV product such as “Rescue Me” and sci-fi series “Stargate SG-1.” Download faves such as “24” and “Lost” do not feature in its offerings.

Either way, the world is changing: As Pecotic says, the essential business model of delivering a viewer to an advertiser via a successful program that draws eyeballs is in decline. Now the program is the driver and advertisers can be avoided either illegally or via TiVo-style personal video recorders.

While they may be fringe dwellers now, free-to-air webs will not be able to ignore the pull away from scheduled programming — both legal and illegal — forever.

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