Australia's Fairfax Media has a unique method of selecting and acquiring content for its video site, smh.tv. Ricky Sutton, the media giant's head of video, explained at a government conference in Sydney last week:
"One of our major ways to get content is going to... BitTorrent sites, and find[ing] what people are illegally downloading to then go to the content owner and say, 'hey, I watched this last night it's going awesome on BitTorrent' and then say 'how about giving it to us?"'
As any virtual Captain Hook will tell you, BitTorrent is a protocol used to share large amounts of data (such as video files) across the Internet. It is often used by peer-to-peer networks that facilitate Internet piracy. For example, Swedish file sharing site The Pirate Bay refers to itself as "The galaxy's most resilient BitTorrent site."
Fairfax Media's decision to harness this practice, which is oft-bemoaned by media companies tired of seeing their content pilfered, is strategic on several counts:
- It helps them find out what people want to watch (essentially, market research). BitTorrent sites are extremely popular in Australia; indeed, the country was ranked the world's worst for illegal music downloads per capita in September. As such, it is logical that an intelligent media company should want to channel the zeitgeist by following users into their murky underworld. Fairfax is not the first to pursue such a strategy.
- It saves money. According to paidContent, exorbitant licensing fees were a motivating factor in Fairfax TV's decision to seek more affordable content on BitTorrent sites. Two years ago, following the launch of smh.tv, Sutton reportedly said that Fairfax had "some of the most expensive streaming costs in the country," and predicted that if it went unchecked, licensing would cost the company $16 million per month in three years, which he called "unsustainable."
- It allows them to make money, and share it. By carrying content from the land of the pillaged and free to the land of the legitimately-purchased but ad-supported, and then by advertising on BitTorrent sites that the content is now legally available elsewhere, Fairfax generates ad revenue "from converted pirates." It then shares this revenue with producers, which Sutton says has worked "quite effectively."
In Short, the BitTorrent strategy appears to be a pragmatic, cost-efficient application of the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy, with an important twist-- by carrying both content and pirates across the threshhold, Fairfax is also trying to reform 'em.