net.wars: Crossing the streams

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 08 September 2006

OK, this is weird. At last I can see all those American TV commercials everybody is complaining about.

Wendy M Grossman

I'm sitting at my desk - in London - watching a match from the US Open (a modestly sized tennis tournament finishing up this week in New York City). I'm watching it on the laptop. Not so strange; lots of people watch TV on their computers these days. Only in this case I'm watching the match, live, as it was broadcast on USA Network, a satellite channel people get by cable. In the US.

Some months back in the online tennis forum I hang out in, you started seeing mention of "streams" of live tennis, all coming from Asia somewhere, somehow. And damn if it wasn't true. Forget all those P2P networks that make you wait a day or two while someone seeds their digital copy of last night's broadcast – if anyone else is even interested enough in that quarter-final Jankovic-Dementieva match to upload it. Pick a player, and although the picture is small, you can have it live. Complete with commercials. And yes: I can see the ads - repeating 12 times an hour - that everyone else is complaining about. Whee!

It's weird the frisson of excitement with which you can welcome ads when they're part of something exotic and slightly forbidden. Believe me, if I were sitting in my friends' living room in Pennsylvania – I'd be complaining away with the best of them about how many times do we have to see that Sharapova-as-Leona Helmsley commercial (what's she supposed to be selling, anyway? Noblesse oblige?). But viewed this way it's suddenly so cool, like huddling around the short wave radio and tuning in South Africa.

The closer analogy is the early days of satellite television, when satellite nuts (this was before we learned the politically correct phrase "early adopters") had big dishes in their backyards, and found all sorts of interesting things in the sky, like free HBO (in those days, still known as Home Box Office). When dish owners numbered 1.7 million, the pay-TV services got bothered began encrypting their services to force dish owners to pay cable rates.

The upshot: one of the great moments of satellite television: "Captain Midnight" hijacked HBO's output for four and a half minutes in protest. Captain Midnight was later identified as John MacDougall, a satellite TV salesman, and he was eventually fined $5,000.

Things are likely to be less kindly in the Internet era. For one thing, the companies that own the biggest broadcast networks are bigger, meaner, and have more laws. The first Internet TV casualty was probably the Canadian-targeted iCraveTv, which for a few months in 2000 had 17 American and Canadian channels online,. The service got squashed like a bug, despite offering to pay broadcasters. Bear in mind that the first cable companies operated much the way iCraveTV did: they put up a repeater and ran a bunch of wires.

Well, we know how the Internet works. Take out one guy and in return you get a lot more guys that are harder to deal with.

I've lost count now of the players and sites: TVUPlayer, TVAnts, PPLive, Sopcast. All are Asian, all stream live TV, and all use peer-to-peer networking technologies to spread the load. Which means, in turn, that the single biggest expense in streaming – bandwidth – is shared among the users. Most of whom, as far as I can tell, are sports nuts, which is only logical. The picture you get from these players is, while good enough to watch, still relatively small and low-resolution. For scripted television, you can get a better experience by waiting the day and downloading a torrent or a legal copy from the pay services that are beginning to open up.

But the whole experience of sports is the fact that it is live, and no one really knows how it's going to come out. Within some limits, a bad, live picture is often preferable to a perfect, delayed one. Even if you can't really see what Federer is doing when he hits the ball, you want the emotional rush of being there with him. You can always watch the full-size version later for artistic appreciation.

Theoretically, the fact that the pictures are small ought to give broadcasters the same kind of confidence that publishers have when it comes to file-sharing. People will pay for big-screen viewing just as they'll pay for books. Nonetheless, we're standing on the brink of the WIPO broadcast treaty that net.wars wrote about in February, 2005.

James Love has a lengthy critique of the current proposals (PDF). But one thing he leaves out is that as far as I can make out, today's streaming players "rebroadcast" their signals by pointing at an IP address where the broadcaster itself is streaming its own output. Are we talking about making it illegal to access or publish IP addresses based on the content that's available at them? TEOTIAWKI (The End of the Internet as we know it).

I can't believe these streams are really legal, despite this argument regarding law enforcement actions in Italy. Even if they include ads, someone in London is not in the target demographic for the USTA. Presumably, eventually everybody will encrypt their streams and we'll all have to have protected players and subscriptions in order to view them.

In the meantime, enjoy your giant satellite dish.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).