New twist in internet piracy as Britons rush to download TV

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The Independent Online

Impatient fans of popular American television shows from 24 to Desperate Housewives are increasingly turning to illegal internet downloads to watch programmes hours after they have been broadcast in the US.

Impatient fans of popular American television shows from 24 to Desperate Housewives are increasingly turning to illegal internet downloads to watch programmes hours after they have been broadcast in the US.

Britain is the worst offender in this explosion of online television piracy that has seen illegal downloads of some programmes increase by more than 150 per cent in the past year, research shows.

24, the hit thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland, is the most popular pirate television programme worldwide. In the past 12 months, illegal downloads of the show have risen from 35,000 per episode for the third series to 95,000 for the fourth.

Downloads of Desperate Housewives, showing on Channel 4, rose from 40,000 for the first episode to more than 60,000 for the most recent, although this is a tiny fraction of the four million viewers who regularly tune in. About 18 per cent of online television piracy is in Britain, closely followed by Australia - countries with a growing demand for early access to American television shows.

The rise in broadband internet access is the main driver of the piracy, allowing a programme to be downloaded in two hours. The UK had more than six million broadband connections at the end of 2004, Ofcom said.

Another factor is the new file-sharing technology known as BitTorrent, specifically designed to download films and television programmes.

Television piracy is gaining the notoriety enjoyed by Napster in its previous incarnation as the home of illegal music downloads.

The cost to the television industry is difficult to quantify because most people pay a general subscription fee rather than for individual programmes. But advertising revenues are at particular risk because illegal downloads do not include adverts.

David Price of Envisional, the internet monitoring company that performed the study, said: "It's a double whammy for advertisers. First, they are losing eyeballs. Second, the people whose eyeballs they are losing are the demographic they want, young and technologically savvy with high disposable incomes. TV companies must take a leaf out of the record industry's book, set up legal download sites and bring lawsuits against the worst offenders. The companies are pursuing a television equivalent of iTunes, which would offer high-quality downloads and maybe added content."

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