U.S., European TV Networks Fight Piracy

In Europe, American television shows are big crowd pleasers. But they don't come out until at least six months after they're released here. That's plenty of time for video piracy to thrive. Now TV networks in Europe and the U.S. are joining together to fight back — via the Internet.

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Now to Europe, where American TV shows are big crowd-pleasers. But they don't come out until at least six months after they're released here in the U.S. And that's plenty of time for video pirates to get to work. Now TV networks in Europe and the U.S. are joining together to fight back, via the Internet.

Susan Stone reports.

SUSAN STONE: Last summer, French TV station TF1 started airing the NBC hit series "Heroes." They even created a special theme song for the show about regular people with superpowers.

(Soundbite of "Heroes" theme song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (French spoken)

STONE: But while the response from viewers was good, something was missing, says TF1's Pascal Lechevallier.

Mr. PASCAL LECHEVALLIER (Vision Director, TF1): At this time, we saw that we lose probably one million viewers on TF1 because of piracy.

STONE: Tech savvy TV fans were using France's high-speed broadband Internet connections to illegally download episodes of "Heroes," subtitle them, and put them back on the Web. Visit any peer-to-peer downloading site and you'll quickly find "Heroes" and other popular American shows subtitled in languages from Swedish to Spanish, just hours or days after they've been on American TV but months before they'll be seen on the small screen in Europe - a delay largely caused by the time needed for language dubbing. So European broadcasters like TF1 are starting to take action by making deals with U.S. networks for online video-on-demand.

Mr. LECHEVALLIER: The NBC team worked two days before broadcast on NBC to include subtitles in the episode, and we receive it Sunday afternoon and we push the content in the night just after the broadcasting in USA.

STONE: For a couple of Euros, viewers in France can watch "Heroes" only 24 hours after it airs in the United States. TF1 will show "Heroes" dubbed into French on their broadcast service in about nine months.

Arash Amel, senior analyst at the media research company Screen Digest in London, says that in light of competition from illegal downloading and legal services like YouTube and iTunes, the television industry has a lot of catching up to do.

Mr. ARASH AMEL (Senior Analyst, Screen Digest): Television is only coming to this now. Music industry was here with Napster seven years ago, and they are paying the price for having moved very late. And as we can see, their revenues are dropping off the cliff.

STONE: The potential for revenue loss is even higher in a country like Finland, which gets 50 percent of its broadcast schedule from the U.S.

Pirjo Airaksinen, programming director for Channel Four Finland, spearheaded an online video-on-demand deal with Disney/ABC to stream top shows "Desperate Housewives," "Ugly Betty," "Grey's Anatomy," and "Lost."

Ms. PIRJO AIRAKSINEN (Programming Director, Channel Four Finland): I think it's important to be on every technical platform. Also, it's important to fight against piracy. If there's a legal means of acquiring and watching shows that are also delivered with good quality, I think that prevents piracy.

STONE: But these new approaches still require payment from consumers, and that can be a problem. After all, European TV watchers can find their American favorites online for free. Why should they pay to watch them on the Web? Analyst Arash Amel doesn't think they will.

Mr. AMEL: Where you see huge usage, it's where content is available for free. Now, the key is how do you monetize free, and the answer always comes back to advertising.

STONE: Both French and Finnish online video-on-demand projects started well. But TF1 has already lowered prices. More deals are in the works.

The Polish branch of the mobile and Internet company Orange has just signed its own Disney/ABC contract, so viewers can catch new American TV shows subtitled in Polish for free.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone.

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