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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Torrent of TV Content


While reading an IBM white paper, ominously entitled "The end of Television as we know it ." I found myself thinking about what would TV really look like in the coming years. What are some of the base assumptions that still aren't being challenged? How will consumers evolve, what will they be interested in purchasing, in what form and for how much? Alas, it'll take bigger brains with more time and resources to figure out these questions, then I have at my merger disposal. However, I can offer a view of one way that TV viewing is changing right now and what it may mean for the companies currently making millions from it.

You have all heard of BitTorrent by now. Its a cool little protocol that allows users to distribute very large files relatively quickly and simply. While its gotten a fair amount of press and is the current MPAA technology evil of the month its not something that most people use on a regular basis and even fewer take the time to understand, despite that fact that its users are the very "trendsetters " that media companies need to be watching and speaking to. The way BitTorrent works is a client application sits on the users computer and connects to other users via a Tracker (a server on the net) which coordinates the conversation between clients. Because of this system the transfer of data is both very efficient as well as traceable (trackable if you don't mind the pun). So in an effort to help bridge the gap I present a mildly quantitative view of TV from a BitTorrent perspective.

Mininova.org is one of the many successors to the late Suprnova.org torrent site, which shut down rather then fight an MPAA threatened lawsuit and has over 76,950 torrents in its meta-database. And while not a perfect proxy for the BitTorrent universe it does provide an acceptable mirror into the goings on in the network. The most popular (ie Downloaded) torrents in its database as of Monday the 27th includes 6 television shows, despite the fact that TV only makes up 19% of the total files available through the site. The full list is:
Doctor Who S1 E12 (875,369 dl's)
Top Gear S7 E5 (354,460 dl's)
Top Gear S7 E6 (337,923 dl's)
Stargate Atlantis S2 E15 (286,197 dl's)
CSI Miami S4 E11 (258,429 dl's)
Lost S2 E14 (220,824 dl's)
Battlestar Galactica S2 E17 (209,343 dl's)
UK - Fifth Gear S8 E9 (205,325 dl's)
The Simpsons S17 E9 (200,508 dl's)
Top Gear S7 E4 (195,483 dl's)

Torrentspy is another popular meta-indexing site for BitTorrent and has one of the largest torrent search engines online. Of the 8,189 torrents posted to Torrentspy since the start of the year, roughly 1,132 have been torrents of TV episodes roughly 140 of these have been full seasons of a TV program. That's 14% in terms of total files but again its closer to 50% in terms of most downloaded or most popular content on the sites. There where 1,550 movies posted, 2,633 music files, 624 gaming titles, 657 software applications and perhaps most surprisingly only 740 adult titles.

Over at Torrentportal there have been 14,880 torrents posted since the first of the year, (close to half of which are still uncatergorized). Of the categorized files, 917 where for tv programs, roughly 100 of which were for the full season. There where 1,098 movie posted, 1,223 music files, 611 games, 968 adult titles and 176 applications. That's a whooping 18% of the categorized files are for television programs and 30% of its most popular files are also TV programs.

The numbers aren't terribly different at either Torrentbox or isoHunt which have merged their data sometime last year. As of Monday the 27th, Torrentbox's top 10 most active torrents was composed of 40% TV programs, 30% games and 30% movies. And yet TV programmings shares of the total content on the site was under 20%. While isoHunt doesn't list most active files it does list the most searched for terms and of the top ten terms 5 where for TV programs. Again barely 20% of the total categorized files in the isoHunt index are for TV programming. This pattern repeats at a number of other large torrent sites, from TorrentBytes to Demonoid, TV commands a disproportionate share of the content demand relative to its availability on many of these sites.

Looking at the numbers its clear that TV content commands a fairly significant portion of both share and demand on BitTorrent sites. The modest amount of content available, between 10%-20% could be due to the relatively recent development of putting TV Shows on DVD or the more recent developments with Tivo and Media Center related apps that make the capture and transfer to a hard-drive simpler than ever. However, its even more interesting to speculate about the reasons for the relatively high demand levels (30% - 50% downloaded content).

While it is often less then 20% of the available content as much as half of what people are downloading through BitTorrent is TV programing. Programming that's neither scarce nor truly restricted (Lost , 24, Dr. Who) and is available for free on a repeat basis in most cases. What problem is BitTorrent solving that current solutions are not?

Is it the much ballyhooed themes of time-shifting and convenience? I don't think so. Traffic patterns on several sites for single shows tend to follow the shows TV release window, so when the latest lost is shown on TV demand spikes at the BitTorrent sites and falls off precipitously until the next episode. If folks are time shifting their are doing it for a very short window. Also demand for full seasons of programs also seems to follow a "catch-up" pattern and then a trail off, with high numbers of leechers for the Torrent last seasons episodes trailing off percipitously as the new season gets rolling. One need only compare the BitTorrent experience to almost another TV view experience to gut check how convenient it is. I doubt people arent downloading software, registering for sites and waiting several hours for a TV program because its convenient.

So this leaves us with an open question for exploration. Why are people flocking to BitTorrent? Its doesnt seem to be a Tivo replacement and its not more convenient then other options. If media companies can beging to look at the development of new technologies and new usage patterns in this manner then we have fewer lawsuits and more money exchanging hands.