Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Fox Kicks Off the Great Web Video Piracy Boom of 2011

It’s perfectly logical for the TV networks to try to lock up their shows online.

Except for the part about it not working.

On Aug. 15, Fox will stop distributing its shows on Hulu and a day after they air, and will make most Web surfers wait eight days to see them. The only legal way around this, for now, is to pay for a subscription to either the Dish Network or Hulu Plus.

Expect ABC to follow suit, and then NBC. CBS is a reasonable bet, too.

I walked through the networks’ rationale for this last month, when word first got out that Hulu’s broadcast owners — Disney, Comcast and News Corp. — were going to start requiring “authentication” in order to watch shows online the next day. You can read an excerpt at the bottom of the post if you don’t want to click through.

The problem with the networks’ logic: And And Twitter. And Google. Etc.

All those sites will lead you, quite quickly, to anything the networks air, for free, on the Web. And you don’t have to wait eight days to watch them, or even a single day. You can see them within hours, or less, of their original airtime.

Video piracy is nothing new, of course. But if you haven’t tried watching a TV show from a rogue site recently (and I’m not advocating you do so for any reason other than a professional one — I don’t want a “Wolverine” incident) you might be astonished to see just how fast, and easy, it’s become.

As BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield pointed out to Wall Street earlier this year, it’s now a cinch to download pirated copies of any movie you’d like, in very high quality, using free online storage lockers.

But it’s equally easy to grab TV shows, and you don’t have to worry about downloads if you don’t want to clog up your hard drive: Sites like will offer free streams, without commercials, the same night they air on TV.

Here’s a screenshot of last night’s episode of “MasterChef,” available a couple hours after it aired on Fox (which, like this site, is owned by News Corp.).

And here’s a grab of Tuesday night’s “The Daily Show,” which I was able to watch less than 30 minutes after it finished airing on Comedy Central.

Downsides? Sure. The streams aren’t HD quality — if you got it onto your 42-inch LCD, you’d be disappointed. And the sites seem to require Flash, so they won’t work on an iPhone or iPad. And you may still need a bit of trial and error to get a working version.

And they’re illegal, of course.

But again: They are free, totally serviceable, and very easy to find for anyone who’s remotely motivated.

That was the case before the Great Free TV Web Pullback of 2011, too. But back then (as in, now) if you were a middle-of-the-road TV and Web video fan, it was easy enough to head over to Hulu to watch last night’s “MasterChef.” You’d even put up with commercials.

Now Fox, and very likely the rest of the broadcast TV business, are telling non-pirates to go ahead and grab what they like, when they like. I think they’re going to find lots of takers.


So why do the networks think this is a good idea? They probably don’t. But it’s a way to prop the business up in the short term, at the expense of the long run.

From my June 23 piece:

Why would Hulu’s owners push to make the service less attractive? The justification I’ve heard is that most Hulu viewers are paying for TV anyway, so this really wouldn’t be a big deal.

But the real answer is that this is meant to appease cable TV providers who are paying Hulu’s owners — via “retrans” deals — for the rights to provide the shows that Hulu is giving away on the Web. And it’s also meant to protect the value of broadcast TV advertising, since the ad business still doesn’t value a Web eyeball as much as one that watches on a TV.

Again, this is the kind of tension between business models that has been a problem for Hulu almost from the get-go. And it has been the source of many of the disagreements between Hulu CEO Jason Kilar and his owners for some time.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”